Men at Work: Stevens Alumni Continue Careers into Their 80s and 90s

1/22/2013

Stevens alumni continue to inhabit the workforce, including graduates from the 1930s and 1940s. Several of these working alumni agreed to share the story of their careers with Stevens.

70 years of gadgets

At age 93, Kaz Wysocki ’41 has worn a lot of hats in his life. He’s a former three-term mayor of Hackensack, N.J. He’s been the owner for the past 66 years of a successful family business, PMC Industries, in Hackensack. He’s a car enthusiast who at one time owned 30 European cars. But perhaps the best description of Kaz Wysocki is the one he gives himself: a lifelong tinker of gadgets.

As a young teenager, Wysocki liked to work with electronics and enjoyed taking radios apart and putting them back together. He even built a few radios from scratch. “You have to remember,’’ he says, “in those days, in the 1930s, the radios weren’t portable, they were big pieces of furniture that cost a lot of money. So if they broke or stopped working, people panicked. I got a reputation around the neighborhood as someone who could fix them, and I made a little bit of money - $1 or $2 – to fix them. Sometimes it was just a simple fix of a replaced bulb,’’ he says.

On this rainy morning, while sitting in his office at PMC Industries, Wysocki reflects on his career, more than 70 years long and still going strong. It was those “gadgets’’ that interested him early on which led to his career. His father, John, started a machine repair shop, Progressive Machine Co., in 1919, and as a boy, Wysocki worked alongside his father, repairing all kinds of machines that were considered modern for the time. John Wysocki, who emigrated from Poland in 1910, recognized that his son had a gift with technology and repairs and began asking customers about a college where his son could develop that skill. Repeatedly, John Wysocki was told of Stevens, and plans were made for the teenager to attend the small engineering school in Hoboken.

During his time at Stevens, and for a few years after his graduation in 1941, Kaz Wysocki was a junior engineer for Hazeltine Corp., a designer of electronic circuits and innovator in radio and color television. Wysocki’s job was in research in television and ultra-high frequency communications for the company, which was founded by former Stevens professor Dr. Alan Hazeltine. Another area Wysocki was involved in was radar equipment and military projects, such as the “Identification Friend or Foe’’ (IFF) military detection and identification systems, something he enjoyed. But after John Wysocki suffered a heart attack in the mid-1940s, Kaz Wysocki faced a difficult choice: continue his burgeoning career at Hazeltine in Long Island, N.Y., or return to New Jersey to run his father’s business. He chose the family business and turned it into PMC Industries, as he began to direct activities toward the manufacturing of special machinery. Soon, a packaging machinery division was established. One of the first machines he created was a nail polish capper, which allows the nail polish screw cap and a brush inserter on the same frame. Today, the company is known for its specialized field of closure applying machinery and his machines are in companies around the world.

Just listen to Wysocki’s career and life and it’s obvious the man likes to keep busy. When his children were much younger, he complained about the way the school system in Hackensack was being run. So what did he do? He ran for a school board position and won. And when he didn’t like how some things were being handled in Hackensack, he again didn’t just complain, he ran for mayor and, before he knew it, had won a four-year term three times, serving from 1961-1977.

And those European cars? Wysocki explains that he owned DAF cars -- unusual, small cars produced in the Netherlands for a time in the late ’50s. Wysocki began collecting them, and, true to his nature, learned from hands-on training how to restore them, since many repair shops in New Jersey had never seen them, much less knew how to fix them. He has a photo album of the 30 or so DAF cars he once owned before selling many to museums and other collectors.

So it’s easy to see why being busy – and working with his hands – has kept him young at heart. And he has no plans to hang up his proprietor hat anytime soon. He still goes into his office every day, but only stays about four or five hours, as his son, Peter, and grandson, Pete, are involved with the main part of the operation. Wysocki proudly points out that Peter and Pete represent the third and fourth generations in this family company. The longtime tinker, the man who loved gadgets, now walks with a cane, takes a few extra minutes to get from place to place and talks of health ailments in the past few years, but he says he feels strong and enjoys going into the office each day.

Wysocki is confident that working has kept his mind sharp. “What would I do at home?  I’d go crazy,’’ he says. “Working keeps me alive.’’

It’s a sentiment that is echoed among other octogenarian and nonagenarians contacted for this story. The desire to work is not fueled so much by finances, but by a sense of having something to do and feeling like they still have something to contribute.

On the job at 95

C. Basil Dearborn ’39 is semi-retired from Dearborn Construction Company, a custom-made home building business he founded more than 50 years ago and is now based in Old Tappan, N.J. At age 95, Dearborn is personable as he explains how he handles company paper work from his home office while other employees and subcontractors handle the more physical side of a construction company. He still drives a car and just recently, he said he mowed 10 acres of grass with a ride-on lawn mower on his family’s property. “I’m a little slower than I was before, but I can get around,’’ he says, joking that he does drive to job sites “to make sure the guys do it right.’’  

Dearborn says his Stevens education really helped him in the home construction field. “Of course, we took a lot of civil engineering courses at Stevens, and electrical engineering is needed when building a house. It was a very diverse education and it’s definitely helped me,’’ he says.

Another nonagenarian alumnus who works every day is Lou Beffa ’40, a licensed stock and bond broker with VBC Securities, Clifton, N.J. Beffa describes himself as “someone who is in his 95th year,’’ as he’ll turn 95 in April, and he, like Wysocki, works about five or six hours a day in a field that he enjoys. He admits he will probably have to retire completely in the next year or two. “But I’m in good health and I find the work interesting. I love it and it’s worked out pretty good,’’ he says. He credits the courses at Stevens with contributing to his successful career. “Stevens was a great start for me, no doubt about it. I learned so many problem-solving skills.’’

Making embroidery since 1946

It’s hard to believe that Joe Schneider ’46 is 88 years old. During a recent visit, the owner of A. Joseph Schneider Embroidery Co. in Guttenberg, N.J., could be seen climbing up the steps of the embroidery machines in his factory to fix broken threads at the needles or empty bobbins. Bells go off when something is not right with the machine and Schneider has to fix the mistake by hand for the machine to continue the eyelet embroidery or lace work. He laughs as he says the climbing is his workout and what keeps him in shape. It’s an impressive display of athleticism as this octogenarian does this climb up and down repeatedly during a two-hour visit.

Schneider has been the owner of the self-named shop since 1953, when he officially took over the business from his aunt and uncle, but he began working at the company soon after graduation in 1946. He’s in the shop, a small brick building on Bergenline Avenue, every day, for several hours a day, as his schedule varies with each job order he gets. He has one other full-time employee and a part-time “mender,’’ a woman who comes in to correct any mistakes on the fabric the machines may have caused. The factory produces eyelet embroidery and lace which is then sold to other embroidery companies to be put on clothing and textiles. Schneider, who believes in producing quality work, tries to have very few mistakes for her. “I don’t produce cheap work,’’ he says, “and I hate to waste yarn.’’

Guttenberg is located in North Hudson, which was once the “Embroidery Capital of the World,’’ as many embroidery factories were located in this section of New Jersey. But, things have changed, and Schneider’s shop is one of but a few left in North Hudson. Schneider admits that things have slowed down considerably since its heyday, but he still gets orders.

“I have to like this business to stay here all these years,’’ he says. “I work because it gives me something to do.’’ He rhetorically asks what he would do at home. “I’m not a big TV person,’’ he says.

The rewards of work

Charles L. Scott ’41 is a partner with his wife and two sons in Scott & Scott, a family law practice in Elkton, Md. But his interests are not strictly law these days. Scott, 92, serves as a trustee for the Columbus W. Thorn, Jr. Foundation, a non-profit philanthropic group which lends money to Cecil County (Maryland) students to pay for college expenses. He’s held the trustee position since 1982 and the foundation hands out about 160 student loans annually.

“It’s not full-time per se,’’ Scott says, “but it’s as full-time as I want it to be, maybe five or six hours a day. I go over applications. It’s not stressful and that’s what I like. I don’t need the stress at my age.’’

The job has many rewards, he says. “(The foundation) performs a valuable service in the education field in Cecil County and we get thank you letters all the time from the students,’’ he says.

Thurston LeVay ’43 has been with QB Instruments, a scientific glassblowing company in Monrovia, Calif., for more than 65 years, the last 50 or so as president and owner. At almost 91 years of age, he still puts in a full eight-hour day, beginning at 7 a.m. He’s quick to point out that his age “is just what my birth certificate says’’ and it doesn’t reflect what he feels. And just ask him about retirement. “When I get old, I’ll start to think about retirement,’’ he says in his booming voice.

“I’d retire if I wasn’t enjoying what I do, but this keeps me going,’’ he says. “I like to think that I’m making interesting contact with people and that I’m helping.’’ 

One of the embroidery machines in Schneider’s shop dates back to 1912, and was in the shop when his uncle purchased the business in 1917. Occasionally, a needle will need to be replaced, but it still runs consistently. A second embroidery machine was purchased by Schneider about 1958. That, too, also runs. It seems like the motto in this shop, and for these alumni, could be, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’’