He was passionate about his students—yet known as a severe taskmaster. He had a unique teaching style, but had no qualms about flunking students who didn’t pass muster. He was a prolific author. He was unwaveringly ethical. He did not suffer fools. He thought highly of UW-Madison. And he had an excellent relationship with chipmunks—all of which he named Hildegard.
Although Mechanical Engineering Professor Edward Obert retired in 1976 and died in 1993, his dedication to engineering education—and in particular, to engineering undergraduate students—lives on through bequests from his and his late wife’s estate that total approximately $2.2 million.
A child of the Depression, Obert earned his first degree from a two-year college. Ultimately, he earned advanced degrees in mechanical engineering from Northwestern University and the University of Michigan, but not without struggling financially to do so. “It’s my view that those struggles set the stage for him making sure he would do what he could to help students,” says Fred Elder.
Now an adjunct professor of mechanical engineering and engineering physics, Elder earned his PhD under Obert in 1974 and developed a close friendship with Obert and his wife, Helen Whitman-Obert.
The couple’s gifts have facilitated not one, but two, renovations of the Mechanical Engineering Building lobby, a popular student study area and lounge. The bequest also funds such undergraduate student activities as travel to professional conferences and materials for student competitions. Recently, it contributed a $50,000 matching gift to kick off an ongoing initiative to endow the engineering student vehicle teams. “With the exception of the lobby, it’s very clear that the Obert bequest is to be used for undergraduate mechanical engineering students,” says Elder. “We’re trying to stay as close as we can to Professor Obert’s original intent.”
Within the mechanical engineering department, Obert taught the internal combustion engine courses for years. He also was department chair from 1963 to 1967—a position that only reinforced his attitude of financial advocacy for undergraduates. “From his perspective, undergrads got short shrift when it came to financial things,” says Elder.
Since Obert died in 1993, the bequest has provided three annual scholarships which generally are awarded to mechanical engineering undergraduates who have an interest in automotive fields.
Alex Bethke is one of three mechanical engineering undergraduates in 2011 to receive the $2,500 Edward F. Obert Scholarship. He comes from a long line of builders and tinkerers—engineers whose mindset was to understand how things work and endeavor to improve them.
As a result, Bethke says mechanical engineering was a perfect fit. “While in school, I have become interested in the field of emissions regulations, and I hope to design and test new emissions control systems for on-highway vehicles and locomotives in my career,” he says. “Receiving this scholarship has allowed me to focus all of my time and effort this semester on my schoolwork, instead of working during the semester to pay for school.”