The House(s) that Dernlan Built - Scholarships provide foundation for future engineers

Dean Leah Jamieson, Gary and Susie Dernlan
It has been a while since valves and pistons littered Gary and Susie Dernlan’s apartment floor — a good long time since Gary rebuilt engines in the living room. He had degree in hand at the time, a BS in construction engineering and management from Purdue, and he had a solid job in utility construction at Hall Contracting Corporation in Louisville, Kentucky. But he also had a hunger.

“I would work every waking hour not because I had to but because I love working — love meeting whatever challenges the day brings,” Dernlan said.

In the 30 years since his graduation from Purdue, Dernlan has worked on wastewater construction projects and nuclear warhead projects for DuPont; he has worked as the city engineer for North Augusta, South Carolina (while earning his MBA) and for Palm Beach County, Florida, as the director of water utilities; he has built houses and sold them; he has built over a dozen residential developments; he has built a family. 

His career started earlier than the apartment period — maybe back at Purdue, or maybe further back in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, where he grew up — but the home-mechanic stage of his life laid the groundwork for all the bigger things to come. He had gotten an automobile wholesaler’s license right out of college so that he could buy cars that needed attention and then repair and resell them for a profit. With few assets and a student loan to pay off, he was looking for any way to supplement his engineering income. 

“I would try to buy one car a week,” Dernlan recalled. “On nights and weekends, I would rebuild engines in the living room of our apartment. Susie was the apartment manager and I was the number-one rule breaker in the apartment complex. She would have had to evict us if she was not the manager. But that is how we got the capital to build our first house.”

“I’ve worked with engineers from nearly every university in the country. Without a doubt, the engineers that Purdue produces are the best.”

– Gary Dernlan

“I would always wondered, ‘How does a house get built?’” Dernlan said. “Well, I learned from the start.”

Gary designed and built the place with Susie, who wired the house. 

“We lived in it for a year and then sold it, which freaked out our whole family,” Dernlan said. “The rule of thumb in construction is that about half the cost is labor and half the cost is materials. Our house was about half paid for because of sweat equity. 

“We built another one, and when I was 30, our house was fully paid for. That helped us get on firm financial footing.” 

The Dernlans had two children, and when parenting made house-building a little too much to handle, Gary started designing residential subdivisions. 

“Developers might sell the first lot for $30K, but I knew what their costs were,” Dernlan said. “They were clearing $20K on that first lot. My goal became moving on to the next phase. I still had my engineering career; development takes a lot of capital. We saved every penny and eventually bought our first tract of land on a lake in Georgia and built — and sold — a 12-unit subdivision.”

In 1997, Dernlan saw opportunity in Maine, where the shutdown of Loring Air Force Base had crushed the local economy. 

“I could not compete in the Florida market because I did not want to borrow money or bring in investors,” he said. “I thought that Maine was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get into development in a big way. I would fly up there four or five times a year, buy a few thousand acres — sometimes for as little as $85 per acre.

 “I had a vision that the market would turn around, which it always does.” 

When it did turn around, Dernlan financed buyers himself. He points to owner financing as a key part of his development success. Another? The Internet.

“Back when I started using  it to sell properties, eBay didn’t have a real estate category,” he recalled. “I still use eBay. Before I started using the Internet, I could get maybe 10 sales a year. With the Internet, I get 50.” 

By 2005, Dernlan’s development business was booming to such an extent that he finally left his position as utility director.

“It was the best decision I could have made,” he said. “Even though it was scary at the time. I could really focus on the business, and it has grown a lot.”

He and Susie have established the Dernlan Family Scholarship for future Purdue engineering students, one that reflects their own work ethic and worldview.

“There seems to be a gap for students who excel academically but do not meet the standard financial criteria for a scholarship, ” Susie said. “You can work really hard and still not get an opportunity.”

The Dernlans’ scholarship, therefore, makes no distinction beyond academic excellence. Any engineering student can qualify as long as he or she has proved to be of good character and is strong academically. 

“I feel forever indebted to Purdue, not only for my education — which was outstanding — but other aspects of my life, like meeting my wife and renewing my faith in God,” Dernlan said. “When I left this place, I had total confidence that I could take on any problem. I find in my career that is very important, but even more important are business values and ethics. I saw a lot of people who were very talented but were taken down by their character. The ethics instilled here and applied to my career allowed me to excel.”

Dernlan’s career also proved to him that a Purdue engineer stands out from the crowd. 

“I have worked with engineers from nearly every university in the country,” he said. “Without a doubt, the engineers that Purdue produces are the best. I have never met a Purdue engineer who was not extremely talented. That convinced me to want to contribute to the legacy here, to keep that education tradition going.”