Alan Kennedy: The Purdue Engineer Who Became a Patent Attorney for NASA
Those years contain many twists, turns, and inspiring stories. It all started in Kokomo, Indiana, where Alan was born and raised. “Everyone always told me I would become a great physician,” he says. “But I can’t stand the sight of blood! I even took biological sciences at IU-Kokomo after high school, before realizing this wasn’t for me.”
Returning home, he got a job at the Chrysler factory in Kokomo, which die cast parts for engines. But it wasn’t quite what he expected. “I went in with my clean powder-blue overalls,” he remembers. “And they gave me this nasty job, mopping up oil around a die-cast machine. I went home that night and looked at my brand-new pants, and they were ruined. And I cried! This wasn’t me either.”
Alan decided that his love of the hard sciences would fit well with engineering, and Purdue was the closest school that offered it. “This was the summer of 1963,” Alan remembers. “Martin Luther King had just led the March on Washington. People asked me, ‘You want to be an engineer? We don’t even know any black engineers!’ But I still wanted to do it. I applied, I got in, and did pretty well my first semester.”
But he only had enough money for one semester. “I was flat broke,” he says. “My back was to the wall. Am I going to go back to Kokomo and be a janitor or a laborer?”
That’s when Alan discovered Purdue’s Cooperative Engineering Education Program. Founded in 1954 by Mechanical Engineering professor Frederick Morse, the co-op system allowed Purdue Engineering students to alternate semesters between taking classes, and working in industry -- providing them with both an educational experience, and a paid full-time work position.
But in the decade since its founding, no black student had ever undertaken a co-op. That was about to change. “I put on my best sportcoat and pants,” Alan recalls, “found the co-op office, and the guy was nice as can be. He asked my grade point average, and I told him I had a 3.6. And he told me, ‘I want you to be the Jackie Robinson of the Purdue Engineering Co-Op Program!’”
They placed Alan with Haynes Stellite, a manufacturer of metal alloys based in his hometown of Kokomo. He worked for a semester, earned enough money to continue his studies in the classroom, and then returned to Stellite for another semester of work. For the hometown kid, it was a far different experience than mopping up oil at the die-cast plant down the road. “When I came into Chrysler, I was a black laborer,” says Alan. “When I came into Stellite, I was a Purdue Engineering student. They weren’t about to mess with me!”
Forks in the road
Just like in his childhood, Alan’s time at Purdue had its own twists and turns. Initially he wanted to become a pilot, but was precluded by poor eyesight. Still, he pursued classes in jet propulsion. As his co-op at Stellite involved casting blades for turbines, he could immediately put his classroom theory to work in the real world.
Alan also had a unique vantage point of the environment for black students in the 1960s. Many of Purdue’s black students came from the Chicago area, and had to overcome the challenges of living in small-town Indiana; Alan, growing up in Kokomo, had an easier time adapting to the campus. Many had to face the possibility of being drafted into service in Vietnam; Alan, as an engineering student, had a deferment.
It came to a head in 1968, when black students organized a protest to march on the Administration Building. Alan wanted to support his friends, but being just one semester away from graduating, he was conflicted. “I never found them in the ME school to be prejudiced,” he says. “Purdue Engineering is hard no matter what. They put everyone through the ringer! Law school was nothing compared to what I got here.” Alan ended up skipping his commencement ceremony, and never returned to campus until 2015, when his fraternity (Kappa Alpha Psi) honored him with a lifetime achievement award. “It was like Rip Van Winkle,” he laughs. “I went to sleep, and when I woke up, everything changed! They have this beautiful Black Cultural Center. They have a Minority Engineering Program. Back then I was the minority engineering program!”
After graduating, Alan’s contacts at Stellite led him to a design engineer job at GE’s Appliance Park in Louisville, Kentucky. “One day, the company’s patent attorneys came around to show us how to keep our lab notebooks,” says Alan. After discovering the work of patent law, Alan became hooked. “They make good money. You can go to work in a suit and a tie. Hey, that’s me! So like a laser beam, I became focused on getting a job in patent law.”
Alan was transferred to GE’s facility in Columbia, Maryland, and began attending night law school courses at the University of Maryland. “Let me tell you the difference between law school and engineering,” says Alan. “In engineering, there is always a right answer. What you work on has to function correctly. Law school is different. The ‘right’ answer is whatever you are required to do on behalf of your client.”
And patent law is a different entity beyond that. Patent lawyers specialize in working on behalf of inventors on the very specific and rigorous process of filing claims with the US Patent and Trademark Office. “To be a patent lawyer, you need a technical background -- engineering, physics, chemistry -- in addition to the law background,” says Alan. “So it was perfect for me.”
How did you get here?
After finishing his law degree, Alan stayed in the Washington area, working as a patent attorney for Xerox and for the US Army. Then he discovered NASA. “Goddard Space Flight Center had an opening for a patent attorney, and I thought that would be a great place to work,” Alan says. “I stayed there two years, and then got promoted to senior patent attorney at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC.”
As a senior patent attorney, Alan adopted a more administrative role, working with all of NASA’s facilities across the country. “I was director of the infringement division,” says Alan. “If somebody sued NASA or one of their contractors for infringement, I would coordinate discovery -- the gathering of evidence -- for the case. These were multi-million, and sometimes billion, dollar lawsuits. That’s a pretty big deal, and these are some of the smartest people in the world.”
Some cases involved people who weren’t so smart. In the early days of the Internet, many famous domain names were purchased by “cybersquatters,” who attempted to capitalize on the famous domains with unrelated content. “In 1997, they purchased ‘nasa.com’ and put up a pornographic website,” says Alan. “They did the same thing with whitehouse.com, too. But I had the nasa.com site shut down in just seven days. The whitehouse.com site is still up there!”
Defending NASA’s logo and trademark was an unenviable task. “NASA’s name and logo are priceless,” says Alan, “and that’s why they don’t endorse products or services. The next time you see a space movie or TV show, you’ll notice the NASA logos are always slightly tweaked from the original. That’s because we don’t allow people to freely use the NASA logo for their own promotional purposes. This was a big deal in the ‘90s, when they were making movies like Armageddon, Deep Impact, and Apollo 13. As director of the infringement division, I worked on all those movies, to make sure everything they produced was in compliance.”
As a result of his work on Apollo 13, Alan was invited to a private screening of the film at the White House. “Walter Cronkite was there,” remembers Alan. “I got a chance to meet Buzz Aldrin. I was introduced to Hillary Clinton, and she said, ‘we’ve got to find the President!’ I did eventually meet the President, but he had this look on his face: ‘how did you get here?’”
Alan credits his Purdue education with getting him there. “Yes, I have an engineering degree,” he says. “Yes, I have a law degree. But what I really ended up doing in life? I’m a problem solver. That’s what Purdue taught me. It gave me the ability to look at a situation, gather the data, and work with people to solve their problems. You can go into law with a degree in engineering; you can go into medicine with a degree in engineering. It just opens up so many avenues.”
He continues: “I used to sit in my office on the top floor of NASA Headquarters, and from my window I could see the Capitol dome. I would pinch myself and say, ‘why me?’ For a little black kid from Kokomo, Indiana, that came here to Purdue, that they took a flyer on, it panned out! I put my work in, for sure. God provided the opportunity. But Purdue molded me.”
Writer: Jared Pike, 765-496-0374, firstname.lastname@example.org