From canvas to CAD

Posted on 10. Dec, 2012 by in Academic Departments, Alumni, Biomedical Engineering, Engineering Physics, Gift Report, Issues, People, Students

Memorial gift encourages students to solve problems creatively across disciplines

Leonardo Da Vinci had his flying machine. George Dergalis had his spaceship sculpture–a sphere 40 feet tall and 30 feet around, adorned with a domed glass skylight and filled with murals dedicated to the potential impact that space travel and biotechnology could have on human civilization.

Spaceship art monument

George and Margaret Dergalis' back yard spaceship monument to science and technology. Photo: Adam Riemer.

By his side, helping George build this back yard monument to science and technology, stood Margaret Dergalis, his wife of 33 years. “I  may not be great cook,” says Margaret. “But I’m great at mixing cement.”

Margaret and George spent their lives together, supporting each other’s dreams. George died in February 2012, and Margaret is honoring his memory through an endowed gift that will foster creative student work in the departments of Engineering Physics and Biomedical Engineering.

A 1971 UW-Madison alumna and first-generation college student, Margaret says that, had it not been for help finding financial aid and student work to fund her college education, she would not have graduated with her degree in French. “My parents had to drop out of high school during the Depression, so the fact that I could get a college education was a big deal,” she says.

Despite her educational background, she felt it was important to honor George’s passion for medical research and space travel, interests he took up after an amazing journey from his native country of Greece to his home with Margaret in Wayland, Massachusetts. Born in 1928 to Russian expatriates, George escaped a Nazi prison camp as a teenager and went on to learn to paint in Rome, studying under surrealist painter Giorgio de Chirico and still-life artist Giorgio Morandi. He ultimately earned a master’s degree from the Academy of Fine Arts in Rome, and resolved to emigrate to the United States.

He arrived in New York City with $7 in his pocket, working as a window washer and janitor before being drafted into the U.S. Air Force for combat during the Korean War in 1952. His high aptitude scores outweighed his inability to speak fluent English, so George became a helicopter pilot tasked with medical evacuations from war zones, a mission that gave him a lifelong appreciation for both the aeronautical engineering and the medical technology that enabled him to save soldiers. “By being a pilot, he knew about mechanics coupled with design and a creative vision. He always talked about cars that would eventually fly, and that sort of thing,” recalls Margaret. “And on the medical side, he had a lot of ideas about how understanding the nervous system would be the key to helping people.”

After the war, the GI Bill enabled George to study at the Museum School of Fine Arts in Boston. He eventually settled there to live out his two-part dream: to paint, and to teach. “He loved teaching. I think when you’re a teacher, you’re a giver,” says Margaret. “Part of your joy is to make other people grow.”

Not only did George help young artists to grow at his position at the Museum School of Fine Arts in Boston and DeCordova in Lincoln, he met his wife, who came to one of his art courses as a student. “What can I say? I fell in love with my teacher,” says Margaret.

They married in 1979.

George taught until his health began to decline, but he celebrated the impact that both art and engineering had had throughout his 83 years of life. The bold, sharp lines of one of his and Margaret’s crowning achievements—the Wayland Veterans Memorial—reflect both creative vision and meticulous design. Margaret says that to her and her husband, creativity is a value that crosses between disciplines, a value shared between engineers and artists. “I think you need to learn to think outside the box,” says Margaret. “That perhaps is the key to really coming up with dynamic innovations.”

Margaret hopes that by supporting students in design courses, encouraging them to apply their creativity to the problems we’ll face in the future, she can make a difference while passing along a bit of George’s wisdom: “If you have an idea, believe in it, run with it, pursue it. Whatever your dream is, go for it.”

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