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Rensselaer Alumni Magazine Spring 2006
Feature Articles President's View At Rensselaer Class Notes Features Making a Difference Rensselaer Milestones Staying Connected In Memoriam
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The year was 1939. Early that spring semester, Jack, a 19-year-old sophomore metallurgical engineering student, bought a battered 1930 Harley VL Big Twin for $40 from Eustace Hetzel ’39, then president of the Rensselaer Student Union. With a decade’s worth of mileage, the bike required major attention before it would be ready for the open road. The Harley’s first stop: the Ricketts Laboratory.

The bike was in need of serious metal repair. When the welding was finished, Jack stuck a 4-inch decal of the RPI surveyor’s logo on the bike’s gas tank to show his appreciation for the use of Rensselaer’s welding tools (and to cover up a large dent that he couldn’t pound out). He called the bike the “Raspberry” — not for its red color, but for the sputtering sound it made when it ran.

Swerving up and down Burdett Avenue, Jack learned to ride the newly renovated Raspberry; as his confidence behind the handlebars grew, so too did his craving for the open road and wide horizons.

The possibility of seeing two World’s Fairs in one summer was just the adventure Jack had been looking for. To jump-start the economy after the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt called for two World’s Fairs, one in Flushing Meadows, N.Y., and one on Treasure Island in San Francisco. Jack was convinced that the Raspberry was up to the task of taking him to both.

“I’ve often asked myself why I wanted to make that trip,” Jack says from his home in Evergreen, Colo. At 85, he’s energetic as he talks about the cross-country trip he took 67 years ago. “Just the lure of adventure for a 19-year-old with the two World’s Fairs as an excuse, I guess. It’s still a wonder to me that my Dad [Burt Newkirk, who was a professor of aeronautical engineering at Rensselaer] let me go.”

Leaving from the Rensselaer campus, Jack easily made it to “The World of Tomorrow” at the New York fair, where he saw a display of newfangled inventions, including the world’s first microwave oven, computer, and photocopier. As crowds of fairgoers gathered to see President Roosevelt’s image being transmitted on the world’s first television, Jack was already heading for the Raspberry. The fair was exciting, but miles of open road lay before him. Pointing his bike west he waved goodbye to the World of Tomorrow.

Squeezing every penny out of the $45 his parents lent him for the trip, Jack bought 15-cent meals for himself and 50-cent meals for the Raspberry. At night he slept in fields or under trees. During the day he bathed in rivers and streams. As he made his way to San Francisco, he stopped and spoke with passersby who were always fascinated to hear stories of his excursion.

In mid-July he reached the Golden Gate International Exhibition and enjoyed just one day at the site in San Francisco, celebrating Treasure Island — the world’s first man-made island.

That summer Jack traveled 10,371 miles over the course of 51 days. The Raspberry, which shuddered violently while in operation, broke down every day of the trip but four. Jack credits the engineering and problem-solving training he received at Rensselaer with saving the day on more than one occasion. Even when the Raspberry was running, the bike leaked oil, bolts and wires loosened and fell out of the machine’s body, and the Raspberry shook nearly out of control at speeds higher than 43 miles per hour.

By September 1939 Jack was back in New York, and he returned to Rensselaer with a summer vacation story that couldn’t be matched.

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“When I got back it was still summer and it didn’t register to me that I did anything out of the ordinary [by taking this trip], I was just happy to have made it back unharmed,” Jack says. “But when I got back to RPI, I was elated to tell people that I had pulled the trip off — I was full of stories, and boring people with the details of my trip.”

In 1941 Jack received a bachelor’s degree in metallurgical engineering. As America entered World War II, he paid close attention to the adventures of John “Scarsdale Jack” Newkirk ’36, a cousin who also attended Rensselaer.

Scarsdale Jack graduated from Rensselaer with an aeronautical engineering degree in 1936, and later resigned a Navy commission to serve as squadron leader for the American Volunteer Group’s “Flying Tigers.” When he was 28 his plane was gunned down during combat. The Jack Newkirk AAS branch of Rensselaer’s Air Force ROTC detachment is named in his honor.

Shortly after Scarsdale’s death, Jack Newkirk also joined the Navy. By that time motorcycles had become favorable means of transportation since resources like gasoline and rubber were scarce, and Jack was able to sell the irritable Raspberry for $125. Turning the profit into a plane ticket, Jack headed back to San Francisco where he reported for duty.

By 1946, after three years of service in the South Pacific, Jack was relieved of his military duties, and five years later he married his wife, Carolyn.

In 1965, Jack became chair of the physical metallurgy department at the University of Denver in Colorado. He and Carolyn raised four children in Colorado, and occasionally Jack shared stories of his cross-country trip with them.

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