Charles and Arlene Richards give back to boost opportunities

Wise advice from a Purdue electrical engineering professor nearly 60 years ago inspired Charles Richards to embark on an unusual path that now has come full circle.
Charles and Arlene Richards

“The professor often told us there are a thousand ways to solve any problem,” says Richards, who received a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 1959. “He was referring to an electrical diagram, but I applied the concept to my education and career. My strategy, which has spanned engineering, sales and marketing, financial planning, real estate investment, and a law degree, has provided a safety net even during economic downturns.”

Richards’ wife of 53 years, Arlene, a longtime educator, calls him “an integrated learner.” She explains, “He has moved from one field to another and combined careers, always open to new possibilities and supplementing his income to stay self-sufficient.”

Gift’s value estimated at $1 million

Through Purdue Day of Giving, the couple are sharing some of their financial rewards with his alma mater. Their real estate gift, with a potential market value of $1 million, will benefit the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Minority Engineering Program (MEP), Global Engineering Programs and Partnerships (GEPP), and the President’s Fund.

“My Purdue experience was my salvation – one of the best things that ever happened to me,” Charles says. “In addition to providing a superlative education, Purdue helped me formulate my impressions of what was out there and where I wanted to go in life.”

As one of a small number of African American students at Purdue at the time, he says, “It was valuable to communicate with and understand students of different lifestyles and cultures – an experience that wouldn’t typically occur in the environment with which I had been associated.”

Charles adds: “Arlene and I are grateful to be in a position today to contribute to Purdue’s growth and help minority students gain a quality education. We also are supporting GEPP, as it provides important learning opportunities and assists underdeveloped countries in addressing critical issues.”

“A combination of a successful entrepreneur and a dedicated educator, Charles and Arlene Richards personify the spirit of Boilermaker Engineering,” says Mung Chiang, the John A. Edwardson Dean of the College of Engineering. “Their commitment to promoting diversity and encouraging global experiences for students throughout the College of Engineering will have long-lasting impact. They are a source of inspiration for many, and we’re grateful for the chance to highlight them and their generosity.”

Strong belief in education

Husband and wife both ardently value education’s transformative power, based on firsthand experiences.

“My mother, who worked for well-to-do families, was an avid learner and shared practical information with me,” says Charles, who grew up in Gary, Indiana. “She and my father knew children need good educations to navigate the challenges of life, so they, as well as several of my teachers, encouraged academic excellence.”

Charles became his family’s second college graduate, after this older brother. Interest in tinkering with battery-operated devices and strength in math and science steered Charles to Purdue’s electrical engineering program.

Family belief in education also paved the way for Arlene. Struggling to pay tuition at Omaha University, she moved to Los Angeles — where the couple still lives – so her older sister could support her as she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Los Angeles State College and California Lutheran College, respectively.

“A college education is a must and my sister helped me, so I want to offer a helping hand to deserving students,” Arlene says.

She has done that already as an educator. During half a century with the Los Angeles Unified School District, Arlene served as a classroom teacher, teacher librarian, Title 1 coordinator, and acting vice principal. Among innovations, she taught kindergarteners to type and devised fun learning experiences using her creative music talents. Currently designing educational computer games for young children as an entrepreneur, she credits her husband’s eclectic example with inspiring her to branch out within her field.

Engineering to real estate to financial planning

Charles began diversifying his career shortly after graduating from Purdue. To supplement his income from aerospace engineering positions with Douglas Aircraft Company, Garrett AiResearch and Engineered Magnetics, he turned to real estate investment – an area in which he remains involved. The first property he purchased, in Los Angeles, is among those in the charitable remainder trust created to benefit Purdue. The portfolio also includes Purdue student housing in West Lafayette.

Following the aerospace engineering phase of his career, Charles shifted to Fortune 500 information technology companies, including IBM, Xerox and Digital Equipment Corporation. Along the way, he earned a JD degree from Southwestern University, Los Angeles, which helped with his real estate work, and a Certificate in Personal Financial Planning from UCLA Extension, which built on Purdue courses and prepared him for his next career stage: brokerage firm positions and financial tutoring. Since his mid-50s, he has focused on maximizing income from real estate investments.

An exception for his generation, Charles comes across today as a trailblazer, in step with current trends of lifelong learning, the gig economy and many careers.

Words of wisdom

Charles offers this guidance for other Boilermakers:

“You can successfully pursue multiple education and business opportunities if you embrace clearly defined goals and make the necessary commitments.

“You may encounter failure, which may be viewed as an opportunity to learn from something that has not proceeded as planned or has gone awry. In educational parlance, a failure may be seen as equivalent to tuition for what you attempted. You pay the tuition, learn, try again, and succeed.

“Share what you know and what you have with others. You can learn by sharing, benefiting others and yourself.”