November 10, 2016

Service to Country, Service to Caltech

The United States Navy decided where Howard Jessen would go to college. Because he was well qualified, they enrolled him at Caltech along with roughly 500 other naval students. “They said, ‘Do you want to join the Navy’s V-12 college training program? Sign here,” Jessen remembers. “There was no college visit, just off you went.”

From that fortuitous beginning began a 70-year connection with Caltech. Jessen (BS ’46) has been an active Caltech volunteer in the Chicago area and a donor who is enriching humanities instruction at Caltech.

“I want to repay Caltech for all that it did for me in the way of learning, culture, and friendships—quite a package of good things,” he says.

Jessen’s first class on his first day at Caltech was calculus—an experience he calls his academic epiphany. “The teacher, the subject, and my mindset all converged, and I was transported into another world as soon as I began to understand the math,” Jessen remembers. “It changed my world, not in a quantitative way, but it was something new and marvelous that I couldn’t believe.”

RELATED STORY: Read more about Caltech during World War II.

Three years later, he graduated from Caltech with honors after serving as a class officer and president of Tau Beta Pi, the engineering honor society. Jessen’s Caltech training served him well: He went on to a 39-year career at Ceco Industries, Inc., starting as a draftsman and rising to vice president of corporate planning and development.

Howard Jessen, 1946 yearbook
Howard Jessen, 1946 yearbook

A Hunger for the Humanities

While Jessen was inspired by his science and engineering classes at Caltech, he has come to believe that his coursework might have been even more meaningful had it included more exposure to the humanities.

“Because of the urgency of the V-12 program, I suppose the Navy was light on the humanities,” Jessen says. “I always felt, after I finished studying at several other institutions, that I’d missed out a bit on undergraduate humanities.”

Since its founding, Caltech has been committed to integrating the humanities into undergraduate education, with humanities classes comprising 25 percent of the curriculum. Today, that 25 percent includes both the humanities and social sciences. During World War II, however, V-12 engineering students across the country were taught a focused course of study in the areas most needed by the Navy. For Jessen, that meant fewer humanities electives.

Among those who have supported Caltech’s robust humanities education is the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which has funded a postdoctoral instructorship at Caltech with annual support since 1987.

When the Mellon Foundation established a matching program to permanently endow the instructorship, it created the perfect opportunity for Jessen to contribute to Caltech in a way that was personal and meaningful. In 2015, his donation, along with the match, endowed the Howard E. and Susanne C. Jessen Postdoctoral Instructorship in the Humanities. His gift, named for himself and his late wife, will help to create a rich experience for future generations of students and teachers and open doors of opportunity for early-career PhDs in perpetuity.

“The humanities let us step outside problems and confront them in new contexts, informed by history and artistic expression.”
- Caltech President Thomas F. Rosenbaum

Beyond their philanthropy, the Jessens created a legacy of giving back to Caltech by hosting incoming and prospective students in their home and participating in their local alumni community. Howard Jessen has been a life member of the Caltech Alumni Association since 1958, and the couple joined the Caltech Associates in 2001.

“My wife, Susie, loved Caltech,” Jessen says. “She loved going to the campus for reunions, hearing the lectures, meeting the prospective students we would entertain at our house. She wasn’t a scientist—she just liked people, and she was very much a part of my Caltech relationship.”

The Jessen Instructorship takes advantage of Caltech’s strong partnership with The Huntington Library, which houses a world-class collection of rare books and manuscripts and serves a community of resident and visiting scholars. Jessen Instructors receive funding to attend conferences and to focus on writing and publishing independent research. And they receive the freedom to design their own courses from scratch—gaining invaluable teaching experiences and developing unique curricula for Caltech students.

“The humanities let us step outside problems and confront them in new contexts, informed by history and artistic expression,” says President Thomas F. Rosenbaum, holder of the Sonja and William Davidow Presidential Chair and professor of physics. “Howard, his family, and the Mellon Foundation are generously helping to ensure that this essential component of a Caltech education thrives as we prepare our students to become the next generation of intellectual leaders. The Jessen Instructorship has deep and special meaning given the Jessen family’s close connections to Caltech and the relationships they have formed with incoming and prospective students.”

A Shared Affinity for Nature

It is a happy coincidence that Caltech’s Division of the Humanities and Social Sciences named environmental historian Keith Pluymers as the first holder of the instructorship that bears the name of Jessen and his late wife. For many years, the Jessens have been passionate advocates for the environment and for preservation.

RELATED STORY: Read more about Jessen Instructor Keith Pluymers.

“From a little boy on, I had a natural affection for nature,” Jessen says. “I was a bird-watcher as a kid and loved going to camp in northern Minnesota in the summertime before the war.” Susie Jessen shared this affection and devoted her time to local conservation groups.

Pluymers can attest that Caltech students—especially those studying geology, environmental science and engineering, and environmental chemistry—appreciate learning more about their environment and its history. Last semester, Pluymers won the annual teaching award from the Associated Students of Caltech (ASCIT). At the ceremony, his students spoke about why they had nominated him. “It was humbling to hear them talk about the impact I’d had on them,” Pluymers says. “I was blown away by the time they took to nominate me and the thoughtfulness they put into it.”

Says Jessen, “I would say that’s a good sign that our contribution has been well used.”