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One Last Thing...

The Square Stone

Or, how my college ring saved my job

by John Shahdanian ’64

Class Ring
My decision to attend Rensselaer was made in 1949, at age 7. I was in the park behind our apartment with my father. He was talking to a good friend, asking him about engineering schools. My father’s friend, an engineer himself, said: “Well, Rensselaer, in Troy, is a very good school.” The words “Rensselaer” and “Troy” meant nothing to a 7-year-old. However, they nestled in a place in the back of my cerebral cortex and slept there for the next 10 years.

Fast Forward: Middle of my junior year, high school. Time to start thinking about colleges. Dad still wants me to be an engineer. “Rensselaer.” “Troy.” Oh, yeah. Good engineering school. Let’s apply there. My high school counselor was not thrilled with my top choice. He was pushing for one of those 20,000-student giants, like Michigan. Told me RPI was out of my reach. However, a confluence of coincidences assured my acceptance... The clincher came from the brother of my best friend, who was a sophomore at RPI. When he got his 1960 Transit, he called home to tell them that there was a full-page picture of me in the yearbook, taken when I was touring campus. Then and there, I knew that no college would put a picture of a student they were not going to accept into their yearbook! Two days later, my counselor let me know I had been accepted by RPI.

Fast Forward II. June 1964. I was not cut out to be an engineer. Something about Thermodynamics and Physics IV at the same time. But I had an aptitude for Psychology, and I earned my B.S. in that major. It was then that The Ring entered my life. The Class of 1964 college ring was unique. When we compared rings after graduation, all of my high school buddies had rings that looked like small hills, surmounted by small, colored stones. My ring was massive in comparison. It had a large, square stone (actually, a 3:2 rectangle) over an even larger body. On one side was the RPI logo; on the other, the torch of learning, with a VI and a IV making up either side of the flame. I still wear it with pride today.

Fast Forward III. Fall of 1968. I had completed all my course work for my MBA in Industrial Psychology, with just a thesis left to write. My specialty was self-instructional materials (the forerunner of today’s computer-assisted instruction). I received a job offer from Westinghouse Learning Corporation (WLC), in Pittsburgh. Westinghouse was moving its nuclear pressure vessel manufacturing operation from Philadelphia to Tampa, Fla., and was automating the method of production. They needed self-instructional programs to train arc welders on the use of automatic welding equipment. I was instructed to spend two weeks at the Philadelphia plant to learn all I could about welding and the manufacture of nuclear pressure vessels. I knew absolutely nothing about welding, so I asked for and received two books on welding and a copy of the welding code book. In the week before I left for Philly, I waded through the welding books. The night before I met with the people at the plant, I read the code book from cover to cover.

Monday morning, I arrived at the plant and was escorted to a conference room where I was introduced to five senior welding engineers. As I began to question them about the mechanics of welding nuclear pressure vessels, I sensed an antagonism and a reluctance to answer my questions, other than in cursory terms. I neither knew, nor understood, that their jobs were going to be eliminated by my finished product, that the plant was to be closed, and that all their friends and co-workers would soon be unemployed. To them, I was just a writer whose books threatened their livelihood!

By 11:30, we were still proceeding at a snail’s pace. In response to one question, the senior member of the group gave an answer that, from my reading of the welding code the night before, did not sound correct. I challenged the answer with the comment: “That’s not to code.” The engineer was enraged. “Of course it’s to code!” he responded. Somehow, from the depths of my short-term memory, I quoted the code section which I thought applied. He stormed out of the room to retrieve his copy of the code.

When he returned to the room, he was still angry, but contrite. He acknowledged that his answer was not to code, but that it represented the way they actually did things on the job. One of the other engineers looked me in the eye and asked: “How did you know that the procedure was not to code?” I was about to tell him that I had read the code the night before, but then I looked at his hand and saw a square red stone. Instead of giving my original, somewhat unsatisfactory response, I simply said: “Your ring is the same as mine!”

The change in the group’s attitude was instantaneous. As a Rensselaer graduate, I was accepted into the circle of welding engineers. (Fortunately, they never inquired as to my major!) That afternoon, the round-table became productive, their answers became more complete, and my learning curve expanded exponentially. By the end of the two weeks, I had more than enough information to develop the training programs, and I had established five personal resources.

My employers at WLC in Pittsburgh were amazed at the reception I received in Philadelphia. Knowing the situation, they had expected me to receive no cooperation at all. My initial research on the welding project established my credentials immediately with the WLC staff.

Little did they know that I owed it all to a square red stone.

John Shahdanian ’64 is a real estate attorney in Rochelle Park, N.J.

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