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Gambaros' transformational gift endows, names AAE's graduate program

Ernest Gambaro (BSAE '60, MSAE '61) and wife Monica were honored Feb. 16 in Naples, Fla., for their deep commitment and strong support of AAE. The Gambaro Graduate Program of Aeronautics and Astronautics was approved by Purdue's Board of Trustees on Dec. 7, 2018.
Ernest Gambaro was honored at the President's Council event in February in Naples, Fla.

A transformational gift to Purdue University’s School of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AAE) was made by alumnus Ernest Gambaro and his wife Monica to endow and name the school’s graduate program. The name — Gambaro Graduate Program of Aeronautics and Astronautics — was approved by Purdue’s Board of Trustees on Dec. 7, 2018.

Gambaro (BSAE ’60, MSAE ’61) and his wife were honored on Feb. 16, 2019, in Naples, Fla., for their deep commitment and strong support of AAE and for the huge impact their gift will enable.

“My adult life has been so influenced by what happened to me at Purdue that I wanted to devote as much as we can because I want that experience to be shared by other people,” Gambaro says. “It struck me that it was an appropriate thing to do, and I wanted to channel it into the subject matter that I studied because I could see the influence it had on me. I also recognized it’s a very challenging area to be in because, even when I was going to school there, the aero school was regarded as the toughest school in the entire university. You didn’t go there if you wanted to sleep. It requires a lot of intellect and it requires a lot of work. Because of that, I think the alumni of the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics have a particular responsibility to keep this thing afloat.”

Purdue has the only named aero graduate program among the top-10 ranked schools by U.S. News and World Report and has the only named aero graduate program among Big Ten institutions.

“Purdue’s School of Aeronautics and Astronautics is extremely grateful to Ernest and Monica Gambaro for their gift,” says Tom Shih, J. William Uhrig and Anastasia Vournas Head and Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics. “This gift will propel our graduate program — already one of the nation’s and the world’s finest — to even higher levels of excellence. It will enable us to recruit highly deserving students and to further enhance the diversity of our program in all of its forms, including opportunities to work on disruptive and impactful research not yet recognized by the world.”

Ernest Gambaro (BSAE ’60, MSAE ’61) and wife Monica were presented with the Crystal Train Award by Purdue President Mitch Daniels (right). 

The endowment will allow the graduate program to improve the capability to attract top students by enhancing national visibility and providing financial resources, says Weinong Chen, AAE’s Associate Head for Graduate Education and the Reilly Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics & Materials Engineering.

“Both are critical to the continuing success of a top aerospace graduate program in the nation,” Chen says.

During the past decade, enrollment in AAE’s graduate program markedly increased, and the number of Ph.D. students doubled.

In 2009-10, AAE had 341 students of which 105 were Ph.D. During Fall 2018, AAE had a total of 522 graduate students of which 210 were in the Ph.D. program.

The number of master’s and doctorate degrees also greatly increased. In 09-10, AAE awarded 73 master’s and 18 doctorate degrees compared to 130 master’s and 27 doctorates in the 2017-2018 academic year.

“Graduate students are central to both research and teaching at Purdue Engineering. We are truly grateful for this transformational gift, bearing the name of an inspiring Boilermaker engineer,” says Mung Chiang, John A. Edwardson Dean of the College of Engineering. “It will tremendously boost AAE’s ability to attract and support the best graduate students, who are essential to our attaining the Pinnacle of Excellence at Scale.” 

Gambaro was born in a three-room apartment in Niagara Falls, N.Y., in 1938. Son of Ralph and Teresa, Italian immigrants who never spent a day in school, Gambaro experienced the devotion and work ethic daily of his parents to support the family during the hardships of the Great Depression. His parents’ work through struggle left an indelible mark. Gambaro says he learned at a young age “if you don’t work, you don’t survive.”

That’s the approach he brought to Purdue in 1956, and it spurred him to many achievements during his time on campus. He was a member of Tau Beta Pi, for excellence in engineering, and Sigma Gamma Tau, for excellence in aeronautical and astronautical engineering. He was founder and first president of the Purdue chapter of Omicron Delta Kappa, the national society that recognizes student leadership.

When he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1960 and a master’s in 1961, he did so with honors. In 1961, he was named a Fulbright Scholar by the Institute for International Education and the United States Government.

“If I can sum up my background and how it affected my career and my future is that you were in charge of your own destiny, by and large, and there was no substitute for work,” Gambaro says. “The story of my life is availing yourself of the opportunities that were presented and, most importantly, working hard. Because I grew up in an environment where nothing was guaranteed.”

In 1962, Gambaro joined The Aerospace Corporation conceptual design group and oversaw creation and implementation of most Air Force experiments aboard the Gemini spacecraft, and he also was part of the payload and mission design for the Manned Orbital Laboratory program for the Air Force. Later, he was assigned to the special projects group where he and a team crafted initial designs for the country’s premier orbital reconnaissance system.

While at The Aerospace Corporation, Gambaro enrolled at Loyola University in Los Angeles to become a lawyer and, ultimately, transferred to the company’s corporate law department. In 1980, he became the Assistant General Counsel of Computer Sciences Corporation (CSC), one of the nation’s leading telecommunications companies. In 1988, he and a partner formed Infonet Services Corporation, which became the largest provider of secure data network services to large and mid-size multinationals. Gambaro retired in 2000. 

In 2016, he was honored by AAE as an Outstanding Aerospace Engineer, an award given to alumni who have distinguished themselves by demonstrating excellence in industry, academia, government service or other endeavors that reflect the value of a Purdue aerospace engineering degree. That banquet was a special one for Gambaro, not necessarily because he was honored but because he made a special connection with AAE student Robert “Bo” Ilgenfritz.

Gambaro’s encouragement and inspirational story so moved Ilgenfritz, Ilgenfritz drew on comments from Gambaro and incorporated them in his senior speech to fellow members of Purdue’s swimming and diving team at the banquet the next night.

I was astounded by his story,” says Ilgenfritz (BSAAE ’16), who attended the Naples event. “When he arrived at Purdue, he was also just a student, and one of much more humble beginnings than I had. By working hard, he was able to elevate himself from just a student to someone who had an incredible career. After hearing his story, I realized what a truly amazing place Purdue was. I had loved my time there, but I never really understood the caliber of institution that Purdue was and the amazing things it was responsible for. By sharing his story with my teammates, I hoped to show them that when their four years of swimming was over, they would have a degree that would unlock doors for them they never thought possible.”

Gambaro says the moment was very touching, and, in a sense, it kindled in him the idea for the transformational gift years later.

“The one thing I’ve always believed is that you have an obligation to pass the torch forward,” Gambaro says. “This is our way of trying to give back.”

Gambaro calls Purdue a great institution and credits the aero school for helping him build a foundation for what he’s achieved in life. And he expects the university and the school to continue to offer that transformational opportunity to more students.

“One of the reasons I’m so impressed with Purdue is because I think they stayed true to their Indiana roots,” Gambaro says. “I think Purdue still is one of the few universities that I’ve had modern day experience with, either directly or indirectly, that has maintained that attitude where the university does try to impart a sense of purpose in the students that go there and give them a foundation they can build on in later life.”

AAE graduate students in front of recently added lettering on Neil Armstrong Hall of Engineering. Pictured: (Front row, left to right) Emily Zimovan Spreen, Julio Hernandez, Kenza Boudad, Nadia Numa; (middle, from left) Stephen Scheuerle, Robert Pritchett, McClain Goggin; (back, from left) Paul Witsberger, Varun Sudarsanan. (Photo: Purdue/Gerry Robinos)