Donald L. Pemberton
Class of 1966, BS
Retirement can often mean an entirely new chapter of life is about to begin, and in Don Pemberton’s new adventure, his 38-year highly successful materials engineering career is returning him to a different kind of artistry, painting landscapes and historic old houses as a member of the Rivah Country Painters, a group of artists who live primarily in Virginia’s Northern Neck and middle peninsula area.
Mr. Pemberton first picked up his skills with watercolors as a young boy of about 12. He never forgot his creative talents, using them instead as a materials scientist throughout his career. He spent almost four decades with the Reynolds Metals Company, retiring in 1992.
While Mr. Pemberton was at the Fortune 500 company, he worked his way up to director of engineering and technical services, supervising 40 engineers nationwide. His group had responsibility for all facets of the aluminum production, including metallurgy, fabrication, welding, structural needs, and surface finishing. At a company like Reynolds Metals, this job description says it all. Mr. Pemberton’s group was the backbone of the engineering needs of Reynolds Metals and its customers.
Retirement has now allowed him to return to his original craft, and he has joined the local artisans group and, as he says, “occasionally sells a few,” including a series of his renderings of older homes. He probably rightfully assumed in the late 1940s that he could never make more than a modest income from his painting, so he elected to study electrical engineering.
Mr. Pemberton’s road to a successful career is a familiar tale to so many of the students who went to Virginia Polytechnic Institute in the 1940s and 50s. An only child, Mr. Pemberton grew up in the Carytown section of Richmond, attending Thomas Jefferson High School. His father who wanted to become a doctor, did not have the financial means to attend college. Instead he selected the professional trade of electrician, fortuitous for his young son, Don. As a boy, Don would often accompany his dad and mentor on jobs, and as he recalls, “picked up the tricks of the trade.”
So, when it was time for him to consider becoming the first college graduate in his family, Mr. Pemberton elected to study electrical engineering at VPI’s extension campus in Richmond. The two-year option had a pre-engineering program, and he was able to save money by living at home. He was also able to secure employment at Virginia Power, now known as Dominion, in its design department sub-station.
By the time he arrived at the Blacksburg campus to start his junior year, he was getting his education in reverse. He had a fair amount of practical knowledge under his belt, and now he was learning the theory behind it. “I felt like I had been there and done that,” Mr. Pemberton smiles. “As a result, I was probably not the best student … and I found myself adopting materials engineering.”
While at Virginia Tech, he was also a member of the Naval Reserve. He had joined the Cadet Corps at his high school, a group he felt he could “bond with.” His father had been in the Navy in World War II, so his choice of the Naval Reserve was a natural progression. However, the Korean War caused a call-up of his unit, and he left his university studies for two years, assigned to the Atlantic fleet.
Returning to Blacksburg in 1954, he knew he was behind in his course work, and catching up was slightly difficult due to the scheduling of classes, as some were offered only once a year. So, with a little bit of time on his hands, he took additional training in industrial and materials engineering, broadening his skill set.
A member of the Class of 1952, Mr. Pemberton was unable to graduate until 1956, similar to so many of the biographies of the World War II and Korean veterans who received their engineering degrees at Virginia Tech. Military service was an accepted part of life, and the delays in education were routine at that time.
After receiving his baccalaureate, Mr. Pemberton’s decision to join Reynolds Metals came after looking at a number of companies. Reynolds Metals “seemed to be progressive in the development of new products, and although it did not have a huge need for electrical engineers, it did have an opening for a maintenance foreman at its plant near Petersburg,” he recalls. His initial job lasted two years. Then, he transferred to the company’s main headquarters in Richmond.
However, he traveled throughout the U.S. to design the electrical components of new manufacturing facilities. “The position gave me a good feel for the entire company,” Mr. Pemberton says.
But after four years, he was within a stone’s throw of leaving the aluminum giant for a position with General Dynamics. However, as he was considering his options, a job opened at Reynolds Metals in sales engineering where he would be able to work with customers to develop products. Recalling his artistic beginnings, he liked the creativity that came with this position, working on new concepts and novel alloys. “I started to realize how much I enjoyed materials and applications,” Mr. Pemberton says.
From 1981 until 1992, he worked with Reynolds Metals research division to test concepts. Among the novel ideas that went through his group was an outer aluminum housing for electric motors that dissipated heat better than the heavy cast iron one that was then in use. Another problem his group tackled was a replacement for copper as an electrical conductor. “There was a definite advantage to aluminum materials in terms of the weight factor and economics,” Mr. Pemberton asserts.
By 1991, as Mr. Pemberton was getting ready to retire from his engineering director position, Reynolds Metals employed 30,800 workers at more than 100 operations in 20 countries, including 64 plants in the United States, and had a total production capacity of more than one million tons of aluminum and aluminum products. “Reynolds Metal was very progressive in its pursuit of the development of new products.” Mr. Pemberton says.
His pending retirement also gave him the time and flexibility to become a founding member of the Virginia Tech Electrical and Computer Engineering Advisory Board. “I served for five years and learned a lot about the problems of financing and space needs for the students. We were able to get a few things going, and negotiate some equipment grants from industry. I thoroughly enjoyed my service, working with Bill Stephenson, who was then the department head,” Mr. Pemberton says.
He has volunteered with several other groups also, serving as the president of his Ruritan Club in 1993 and again in 1996. He was the Ruritan Zone Governor for the Chesapeake District in 1994. He volunteered with the Conservation and Development Division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the Tappahannock area to provide assistance to start-up businesses from 1993 until 1997.
Mr. Pemberton, who was a registered professional engineer throughout his career, holds one patent and is a senior member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, serving as a chapter chairman in Richmond in 1974.
He and his wife Joe Anne have a son, Rick, and two daughters, Susan and Amy. All three are Virginia Tech graduates.
Class of: 1966
Year Inducted into Academy: 2011