Thomas A. Gray, 2017 Interdisciplinary Engineering Outstanding Alumnus

Author: Teresa Walker
Event Date: February 20, 2017
Thomas A. Gray
Thomas A. Gray
It is our great pleasure to present this year’s recipient of the Engineering Education Outstanding Alumni Award to Thomas A. Gray, graduate of the former Division of Interdisciplinary Engineering (now part of the School of Engineering Education). The Engineering Education Outstanding Alumni Award is presented to alumni who have achieved singular accomplishments in their fields, whose successful careers are role models for our students, and whose achievements set an example for all the School’s alumni.

Thomas A. Gray

 BSE IDE, Engineering Management, 1974
Senior Consultant and Fire Protection Engineer
Global Risk Consultants, South Jordan, Utah

Thomas grew up just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati in a small town called Fort Mitchell in Northern Kentucky where the residents are affectionately called the ‘Cake Eaters.’ The summer before high school, young Tom accompanied his father, manager of Cincinnati’s Husman’s potato chip factory, on a potato-buying trip. Mr. Gray had a potato farmer in Pennsylvania named Andy Kuzneski. On the day of their visit, Andy’s son Chuck was driving the tractor. Purdue football fans will remember Chuck Kuzneski as the starting offensive guard blocking for Bob Griese on the 1967 Rose Bowl team. Chuck spent the afternoon talking about Bob Griese and Purdue’s chances at the Rose Bowl someday. Tom recalled that Purdue was a team he rooted against because growing up Catholic in Cincinnati he naturally liked Notre Dame. “This is the team that kept beating us, and later on, I’m glad that we [Purdue] did,” laughed Tom.  

Some would say by fate, Chuck is the reason more than any other that Tom even heard of or thought of Purdue for college. With his high school career at St. Xavier, a college-prep school of Cincinnati proper, engineering and STEM related fields were a natural fit for Tom. He said once he looked into Purdue, there was really no other choice, “even though the University of Cincinnati had a good engineering school, Purdue was as good as it got as far as I was concerned,” remarked Tom. 
It was during a school presentation for his freshman engineering class that Tom was convinced to pursue Industrial Engineering.   “Dr. [Jim] Barany gave a phenomenal presentation. He made Industrial Engineering sound really, really exciting. It turns out I enjoyed studying Industrial Engineering at Purdue, but  “exciting” was a bit of a stretch,” said Tom. He needed something more than what Industrial Engineering had to offer with their plan of study. Interdisciplinary Engineering had just started the same year he enrolled at Purdue (1969), and he heard about it from some of his classmates. With the help of Dr. Dick Grace and his assistant Joan Lord, Tom changed his discipline from Industrial Engineering to Interdisciplinary Engineering to complete his degree in 1974.
When Tom applied for his Professional Engineering Exam, he was denied because he wasn’t in an ABET-accredited program.  At the time, the IDE program did not offer an ABET-accredited program due to the flexible curriculum and individual plans of study.   Tom called on Dr. Grace’s help, “and superman came to my rescue,” exclaimed Tom. Dr. Grace was actively involved in ABET-accreditation and personally interceded on Tom’s behalf to allow Tom to take the exam in the state of Connecticut where he was planning to take the fire protection exam and sit for the PE exam.  “As in a lot of things in life, Dr. Grace is the reason I have a PE license today,” stated Tom.
Why Fire Protection Engineering? Tom said simply it was the first job that came his way during the 1974 recession. “The nation was coming out of the Vietnam War, and things were quite difficult as a nation back then,” recalled Tom. Jobs were hard to find and as Tom learned firsthand, even job interviews were hard to get. With a stroke of luck, he was fortunate enough to earn a few interviews and one was with Factory Mutual Engineering, or FM Global, an insurance company that hired fire protection engineers.  It was the only job offer he received the fall of his senior year, and without knowing exactly the responsibilities of a fire protection engineer, he took the job. He has remained in that career for 43 years. Tom affirmed, “I’ve loved virtually every minute of it. It’s a very interesting profession and a noble profession because it saves lives and saves property and saves people.” In reflection, Tom owes some of his success to his ambitious mom, who was in the minority in the 1950’s and 1960’s to be a working mother and wife. She worked in the insurance business, using their home as an office while raising Tom and his two siblings. His own experience working for an insurance company has continuously offered new opportunities. Each day brings a new problem to solve and an opportunity to learn something new.



In Tom’s first two years at FM Global, he participated in rigorous training that involved specific calculations, applying engineering criteria, and shadowing experienced engineers in the field. He quickly learned through his training and fieldwork that fire protection engineers inspect buildings, test fire sprinkler systems, test fire alarms, and look for flammable liquids and other hazards that might cause a factory fire. A lifelong learner, Tom advanced his career by working as a consultant on high hazards in a wide array of industries such as the grain industry and chemical and nuclear industries.  In his fifties and early sixties, Tom continued to learn about the advancing technologies in his field, including infrared thermography and business continuity planning. “My EE professor would laugh out loud if he knew that I had anything to do with infrared thermography,” laughed Tom. But he mastered just that, and led the program for 10 years for CNA, based out of Chicago.  Is this a hint at some sage advice for the adult learners? “Its always good to refresh your batteries at that age and learn some new stuff,”  said Tom, smiling.
We use the tag line ‘Blaze Your Own Trail’ for our interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary engineering programs. When asked how Tom’s plan fit that tag line, he cleverly replied, “’Blaze Your Own Trail’ is an interesting term for someone who spent 43 years as a Fire Protection Engineer. I’ve spent most my life preventing people from blazing anything.” IDE was a natural fit for that career because fire protection engineering uses a very multidisciplinary skill bank. Tom dealt with all types of engineers, namely civil, structural, chemical, electrical and mechanical. He has had to understand what they do quite well, so IDE really was a perfect fit for his unique plan of study. 
Tom is married to Robyn and they reside in Salt Lake City, Utah, to be near his stepdaughter, professional basketball standout Natalie Williams, and her family.