Kettering University professor celebrates 50 years

 He has taught thousands of students throughout the years, close to 10,000

By Sarah Schuch
The Flint Journal

FLINT, Mich. (AP) — Everyone knows him as Doc K.

His enthusiasm for students and new ideas is felt throughout the Kettering University community, as it should be. Because come July 8, mechanical engineering professor Henry Kowalski will celebrate 50 years at the university.

“If I had to do it all over again I’d do the same thing. It’s been a great ride,” Kowalski, 78, told The Flint Journal. “It’s been a great ride.”

He started at Kettering University in 1964 when it was still known as General Motors Institute. Before that he taught at Wayne State University, where he graduated with a degree in engineering that initially landed him a job at an aircraft manufacturing company.

Teaching was always in his nature, he said. And there’s something special about Kettering and its students. That’s what has kept him at the university for so long.

He’s taught thousands of students throughout the years, maybe close to 10,000. And he’s been at the university through five different university presidents.

Kowalski was recently honored for his time at the university during Kettering’s Homecoming events. He joins a small group of professors that were honored for such a long term at the university. Professor Reg Bell was honored last year for teaching 200 consecutive terms.

Kowalski still remembers his first class when a student raised his hand during the lesson and told him, “Sir, we don’t do it that way at Chevrolet.”

“I knew (Kettering students) were different right then and there,” said Kowalski, adding that they were focused, pragmatic and respectful. “I figured this is a place I want to be. ... It’s been all about the students.”

Outside of his time in the classroom, Kowalski is the faculty adviser for Kettering’s FIRST robotics team. In fact, he helped start the team Metal Muscle roughly a decade ago. And then a few years late he sought out scholarship funds to allow more high schools to get involved.

He is also a faculty adviser for the Alpha Sigma Alpha sorority.

Mackenzie Stratton, a junior at Kettering, has gotten to know Kowalski during her time in Alpha Sigma Alpha and as a FIRST mentor, as well as one of his students.

“Doc K is just a great person in general. He is always there for his students no matter what,” said Stratton, 21, of Burton. “He thinks that Kettering students are the best students in the world. He is just selfless.”

Whether it’s through extra tutoring or just mentoring students, Stratton said Kowalski is willing to go the extra step to help student succeed.

In class he helps students understand how information will be applied outside of class and he knows how to keep students engaged, Stratton said.

“He can make anything interesting. I think that’s really important to him and important to the students,” she said, adding that he has a great character. “He’s funny. I like to call him sassy. He’s very funny. He’s very sarcastic.”

He’s a great mentor for the high school students on the robotics team, Stratton said. He makes them feel welcome because what they are doing is important, she said.

But the biggest thing she’s learned from Kowalski is that it doesn’t matter if a student is the smartest or the most academically inclined person. That doesn’t make the best engineer, Stratton said.

“He’s taught me that as long as you try and you’re thinking, you’re willing to learn then you’re going to get somewhere,” Stratton said. “Doc K treats all of his students, especially those who show him they care about their education or they care about where they’re going in life, he treats us like his own children.”

When asked what his favorite part about being a mentor to the FIRST robotics team or about teaching Kettering students, the answer was simple — the students and their talent.

Kowalski has an enthusiasm for students’ curiosity and new ideas. Some experiments over the years may have gotten him in some trouble, he admitted.

But it was fun, he quickly added.

“The kids (at Kettering) are fun. They aren’t afraid to challenge you,” Kowalski said.

One experiment asked if it was possible to shoot an arrow faster than 500 feet per second. Another asked which mailbox is least resistant to a mail bomb.

Kowalski’s focus has always been the students and what will help them learn and succeed, said Bob Nichols, director of alumni engagement at Kettering University. Nichols has been at the university for 31 years but started working closely with Kowalski about 10 to 12 years ago.

“He’s a great teacher and, quite frankly, what’s great about him is his interest in the students,” Nichols said. “He has a personal interest in each of his students’ lives. That’s the difference.”

When it comes to FIRST, Kowalski wants to help each high school student succeed, as well. His goal is to have every student attend college after graduation, and so far that’s been a success.

A few years ago, Kowalski started an ACT program with the FIRST robotics program at Kettering, which set time aside to help the team prepare for the ACT.

And a few years ago when Nichols started an on-campus employment program to help students who had a hard time find co-op opportunities, he would send them to Kowalski to prepare them for jobs. He would do mock interviews and work with them to be ready for a job, Nichols said.

“By the time he was done with them, they were ready to interview. Those kids didn’t have any trouble getting a job at that point,” Nichols said. “He would prepare them. That’s the kind of guy he is.”

But one thing that has Kowalski’s name all over it is the FIRST Community Center being built now in one of Kettering’s old gymnasiums, Nichols said.

The FIRST Community Center, which will house eight high school robotics teams, is the first of its kind in the country.

There, the teams can build their robots, have practice space, collaborate with other teams and have college professors and students nearby to help mentor them.

“I think the FIRST center really is going to be his legacy. That was his idea from the get-go,” Nichols said.

Kowalski said he will probably stay at Kettering for another three to five years. He joked that he tried to announce his retirement already, but no one would accept it.

“I’m having fun,” he said.