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They set the standard at work & at home

January 17, 2011

Evelyn and Don Heim

PLYMOUTH — The list of accomplished Plymouth alums is a long one. Don and Evelyn Heim, members of the class of 1958 could likely take accolades for two different careers.
Both had acclaimed careers in the aerospace industry, and even with the high pressure demands of their jobs also raised three daughters. For the era in which they achieved both, they were a non-traditional family indeed.
“During the 1950s and early 1960s women were expected to marry, have babies, stay home and live happily ever after. The usual professions for women were teaching, nursing and secretarial work – all with relatively low pay since the husband was expected to be the breadwinner and should therefore earn more money,” said Evelyn of the changes she’s seen in society since she began her career as an analytical chemist.
She quit her first job to raise her daughters but when their oldest entered high school she went back to work at Hughes Missile Systems in 1979. It was a daunting task.
“Not only was I the only woman in the product design discipline, I was totally ‘green’ and pushing 40 with three daughters at home,” she said. “Understand this was a huge challenge. I didn’t want to fail and thereby make things difficult for future women.
“During the 1960s and 1970s I worked actively within the American Association of University Women (AAUW) to further the status of women and to raise the awareness of young girls that education is important because life doesn’t always work out in the then expected way – and that girls can do math.”
Meanwhile Don was making a name for himself in his career in the fledgling rocket industry. Working for Rocketdyne he received numerous awards from NASA for contributions to the space shuttle program, various high energy laser programs and was considered and expert in precision measurement of temperature, high vacuum measurements and dynamic measurements which include very high frequency vibration and pressure.
“I was always interested in science, electronics and the like,” he said. “Mr. Schaffer in seventh grade and Louisa Davis in high school especially encouraged me. After vascillating over chemistry and electrical engineering I finally decided to major in physics at Purdue. It was a marriage of all that was interesting to me.”
Well maybe not all that was interesting to him. As closely as either of them can recall, Don and Evelyn remember getting to know each other in the Science Club at PHS. They began dating their senior year. The next fall Evelyn left for I.U. in Bloomington and Don for Purdue in West Lafayette.
“We missed each other — a lot — and decided one of us would switch schools for the sophomore year,” they said. “It turned out to be Evelyn. With the blessings and support of our parents we married during the summer before our senior year and graduated the following spring of 1962.”
Time growing up in Plymouth did more than just fuel a love of science for the couple. It gave them the foundation they would use as they built both their careers and their family life.
“My strongest memories are of school friends, my parents’ friends, teachers,” said Evelyn adding, “And the secure feeling that comes from knowing so many people in our town.”
“My strongest memories of Plymouth had to include growing up and working our family farm, hunting and fishing and the friends and atmosphere of our small town,” said Don. “My years in the PHS band were memorable and led to further musical interests at Purdue and later. Also memorable were my high school and junior high teachers who encouraged my pursuit of the educational background leading to my lifelong career.”
That upbringing helped the couple as they found a way to meet the challenges of a demanding career and raising three daughters far from home in California.
“Both of us worked close to home (no long Los Angeles commutes) and our work hours were slightly different,” said Evelyn. “Our youngest daughter attended Lutheran schools which offered after-school activities until 9th grade. The main challenges were summer vacations, sick days and transportation – all managed with the help of summer camps, friends, and occasional baby sitters.”
It was tough, but they admit that their daughters have it a little tougher now.
“Having two careers without much outside help was not as easy as having one parent at home, but it was something we could manage at this stage,” said Evelyn. “As travel requirements of our jobs increased, our daughters were growing up and we never were required to travel at the same time. We were busy, but we didn’t have to struggle with supporting the heavy homework loads and demanding outside activities that our grandchildren have now or the commutes of their parents.”
Both have seen many changes during their long, illustrious careers and both have been a big part of those changes.
“Life didn’t always work out the way it was supposed to for many women and the standard life wasn’t a good choice for others. During the 1960s, 1970s and beyond, women sought to change the status quo. As with all change, it was a turbulent time,” said Evelyn. “At the start of my career in 1979 I was one of a small handful of professional women and the only one in product design engineering at Hughes Missile Systems. My work ethic was to learn as much as I could, do the best job I could and not make an issue of being a woman except that I did play an instrumental role in forming a professional women’s network within the company. My greatest satisfaction is that this all worked not just to my benefit, but hopefully to ease the way for other women after me to be routinely accepted as valued members of the technical staff.”
“There have been so many changes it is hard to single out any one major change in my field of rocket engine development instrumentation, but if I did, I think it would relate to doing more with less,” said Don. “This has come from all of our technical advances, many driven by the arrival of the computer age. In the early 60’s we were still using slide rules and mechanical calculators for most of our engineering work. Now almost everything we do uses a computer and computer programs. Back then if we wrote a technical report it was hand written, then typed by a secretary on “ditto master” paper, returned to the engineer to be proof read, corrected, then sent back to the secretary for retyping, reproduction and distribution. Today, engineers create their own documents on a linked PC, check spelling and grammar automatically and distribute by an email list.
“Rocket engine test data which was to a large extent captured by banks of mechanical inking recorders and interpreted by groups of ‘data reduction’ personnel is now done instantaneously by sophisticated computerized equipment. Technicians who watched inking recorders for signs of a problem with an ‘engine cut’ button in their hand have been replaced with computerized monitoring equipment which can act in thousandths of a second. Even the testing effort is reduced. Analysis techniques have become so improved that much of the effort that had to be expended in the early days of rocketry (blow it up and rebuild it) is no longer necessary because of the improved ability to build reliable engines from the beginning.”
This story is courtesy of the Plymouth Alumni Association. Become a member of the Association or read more stories about Plymouth High School grads at www.ply mouthalumni. blogspot.com/.

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