Edgar A. Starke, Jr.
Class of 1960, BS
When Edgar Starke, Jr., was growing up, he was the youngest child with seven siblings – all sisters. Reflecting on his adolescence in this female-dominated household, he laughs as he says, “At least, I couldn’t wear the hand-me-down clothes.”
However, the economics of such a large household did produce other drawbacks for him. When Starke finished Richmond’s John Marshall High School, the future member of the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) – the highest honor in the engineering profession – began his first full-time job in 1954 with an entry level position with the Virginia Highway Department. After 10 months, he knew the only way he could afford college would be through the GI Bill so he enlisted in the U.S. Army and spent 22 months at Fort Knox.
As he considered his academic choices, he was intrigued by the career of one of his brother-in-law’s who was a metallurgical engineer. “George Robinson went to Virginia Tech and he was intelligent and successful. He became a mentor to me,” Starke recalls. So the veteran and future academician enrolled at VPI where his roommate was Tom Digges, a current member of Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering Advisory Committee. Starke says he spent most of his college life studying.
But he did manage to combine his technical discipline with one most engineers are notoriously berated for not doing well in – communication skills. Starke served as the civilian editor of the university’s yearbook, The Bugle. He further defied the perceived “norms” of the engineering academic culture by joining the Glee Club, and his well-rounded choice of activities would come to suit him well when his career would later take him to one of the top-ranked public institutions in the country, the University of Virginia.
In order to pursue his goal of becoming an academic, he again sought the advice of Robinson, who suggested he pursue his master’s degree at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne. “After I started taking classes there, I knew that I had received an outstanding background in the fundamentals of engineering at Virginia Tech,” Starke says. Within 10 months he earned his master’s degree, again in metallurgical engineering, in 1961.
In Illinois, he also met Donna, the woman he married 47 years ago. He briefly curtailed his goals, becoming a research engineer at Savannah River Laboratory in order to support his new family that would soon include his son John. But his thirst for his doctorate prevailed, and in 1962 he was off to the University of Florida, and again made record academic speed, earning his Ph.D. in metallurgical engineering in two years.
“I liked the flexibility of the academician. I wanted to do research, and I love to interact with people. With students, I would get older but they would stay the same,” he grins. On a more serious note, he adds, “All of us in academia can understand how much we accomplish depends on the quality of our students. Chip Blankenship is an excellent example.” (Blankenship is another Virginia Tech engineering graduate who went on to earn his doctorate at U.Va., with Starke and is now a GE executive.)
In 1968, Starke accepted his first academic position at Georgia Tech as an assistant professor, becoming a full professor in an amazingly short four years. In 1978, Starke assumed the directorship of the University’s Fracture and Fatigue Research Laboratory, a position he held until he moved to U.Va., in 1983. Thomas Jefferson’s University recruited him as its Earnest Oglesby Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and a member of its Center for Advanced Studies. This center essentially provided him a three-year appointment to pursue whatever interests he wanted.
However, after a year with the center he was asked to be Dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science. He recalls he had recommended several candidates to the search committee, but it decided to punt on those applicants and offer the job to him instead. Although he first tried to refuse the honor, he says his wife influenced him. “She said to me that I should take it since it would give me the opportunity to make some needed changes in the school.” So, he spent the next decade perfecting his time management skills between running a premier engineering school and continuing a scholarly research program. “I would meet early in the morning with my students and then do the dean’s job. The research part was the fun part,” he admits. But his management skills did not go unnoticed.
One of his first tasks as dean was to appoint an Advisory Committee from industry and government. Charlie Blankenship, a member of Virginia Tech’s Academy of Engineering Excellence and a former classmate, was a member of this committee. During his tenure as dean, Starke expanded the Virginia Engineering Foundation, with a goal of raising money specifically for the engineering program, an effort that was slightly ahead of its time in the Commonwealth. Most of the fundraising that was done in the 1980s was at the university level.
Starke’s vision allowed him to renovate all of U.Va.’s engineering buildings and add two new ones, a major accomplishment for a public sector school in the short span of ten years. “Fund raising was then a poor step child of the engineering school but I knew it was a necessity,” Starke says. “I had to go out and get private funds.”
His fundraising prowess also allowed him to start a program for minorities, providing financial aid and tutoring. “I think one of my greatest accomplishments as dean was increasing our recruitment, retention, and graduation rates of minorities. I had one large donor who gave $250,000 annually to this effort almost the entire time I was dean,” Starke says.
Another achievement that remains intact today, benefiting all engineering schools in the Commonwealth is the Higher Education Equipment Trust Fund. In the 1980s, “the deans of engineering, including Virginia Tech’s Paul Torgersen, worked together to get this funding, and it had a significant impact at U.Va.,” Starke says. Established in 1986 by the Virginia General Assembly, the fund has provided some of the money necessary to upgrade equipment needed for instruction and research. Since a large infusion of equipment was needed in a short period of time, and the state could not afford to pay for it directly from operating appropriations, it concurred with the engineering deans that revenue bonds dedicated for reducing the amount of obsolete technology and equipment was necessary.
While Starke served as dean, U.Va. had a 150 percent increase in its sponsored engineering research and a 50 percent increase in its graduate enrollment. And despite spending more than a fourth of his career in administration, he advised 30 students to completion of their Ph.D.s, and 26 students earned their master’s degrees with Starke as their advisor.
“Throughout my professorial life, I primarily worked with the aerospace industry concentrating on aluminum and titanium alloys. I learned good, fundamental science in this research. My sponsors were primarily the Air Force, Navy, Department of Defense, NASA, and Lockheed. I became interested in the problems they had, and my research became geared toward industry, focusing on real life problems,” Starke explains.
Starke also served on NASA’s Aeronautics Advisory Committee and was a member of NATO’s Advisory Group for Aerospace Research and Development where he interacted with scientists and engineers from all NATO countries. He also chaired the National Materials Advisory Board.
Many of the processing procedures Starke developed in his research were adopted by the aluminum and aerospace industry for alloys used in aircraft. Specifically, his work on aluminum-lithium (Al-Li) aided NASA in its use of the alloy for the super lightweight tanks for the space shuttle. As a result of the impact of his work on the actual use of real materials in the aerospace industry, Starke received the International Union of Materials’ Innovations in Real Materials Award in 1998. The year before, he was inducted in the NAE for his contributions to materials research.
Other honors he has received include: West German Alexander von Humbolt Award in 1978, NASA’s Public Service Medal in 1996, the 2006 Distinguished Materials Scientist/Engineer Award, and the Structural Materials Award from the Materials Society of the American Institute of Materials Engineers (AIME). He is a Fellow of the Materials Society of AIME (limited to only 100 living members worldwide) and a Fellow of ASM International.
Starke is retiring in May of 2008, but he will retain an office and continue to serve on a number of Ph.D. committees. He is in the midst of writing a book on aluminum alloys, and will continue to consult. Starke says he is looking forward to spending more time with Donna, his wife of 47 years, and his children and grandchildren.
If he is not found in his office, you might catch a glimpse of him riding his thoroughbred, Prince, an ex-race horse. His 10-acre farm adjoins several large farms and he is able to ride for hours without ever crossing a road. His passion for riding started when he moved to the Charlottesville area six months ahead of his wife and daughter, and spent time with his sister who kept a number of horses at her Goochland home.
When he is looking for slower transportation, he also rides an old John Deere 755 tractor, to keep the home front looking good, and he knows Donna has a “big long Honey Do list” waiting for him.
Class of: 1960
Year Inducted into Academy: 2008