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Mentor: WW II veteran guided by dean of Engineering

Published November 2015

What a difference a mentor can make.

Laurence Melanson remembers the role Robert Dolve, NDSU’s dean of the College of Engineering from 1928 to 1954, played in his life.

Melanson fought in the U.S. Army under General George S. Patton in the Invasion of North Africa and the Invasion of Sicily. Onward to England, Melanson took part in the Invasion of Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge. After the army, he decided to study engineering at the University of Minnesota upon his return to the U.S. in 1945. He and thousands of returning servicemen and women qualified for assistance with tuition and living expenses through the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, commonly called the G.I. Bill.

He stood in line for hours to register, that December day in 1945, but it turned out he was in the wrong line. By the time he discovered his mistake, the office was closing for the holiday.

Melanson took the train home to North Dakota and stopped at the Veterans Benefits Administration office, which at that time was located in Festival Hall at NDSU, to get a certificate of entitlement. He told the clerk about his trouble enrolling at the University of Minnesota.

The clerk encouraged him to talk with Dolve, who was in his office. “We’ve got a helluva good school of Engineering here,” the clerk said. “No need to go to Minnesota.”

Melanson made his way to the old South Engineering Building. The dean noticed the expensive gold cap pen the soldier had. Melanson explained it was his last purchase at the PX, the store on the base. He told Dolve that he had purchased the $80 pen for $20 and felt it was a solid investment because a student needed a good pen.

“Before I got out of his office, he signed me up, had my credits I had taken in 1936 from Valley City Teachers College transferred and got me a room in the dorm,” Melanson said. His fees and tuition bill of $30 were covered by the G.I. Bill.

Dolve sold Melanson with the promise he would receive a lot more personal attention at NDSU than at a larger university.

Melanson completed his bachelor’s degree in electrical and electronic engineering in 1949, and become the first person to earn a master’s degree in 1956 in the department of Electrical Engineering’s graduate program.

Melanson, now 95, is glad he stopped into Dolve’s office and listened to the dean’s advice.

“It was a tremendous education I got at NDSU,” Melanson said.

The following are some of Melanson’s memories of Dolve and his time at NDSU:

Nickel Cokes
Engineering students at NDSU in Melanson’s day worked hard. But they still managed to get into trouble every now and then.

One time, Dolve heard a commotion in the hallway. A group of students had jimmied the Coca-Cola vending machine so it would not stop dispensing five-cent sodas. Dolve was furious and called down damnation to anyone who would drink a nickel Coke without paying for it.

Clandestine student picnic
Times have changed since the late 1940s and early 1950s, when the engineering students would organize a secret picnic off campus in which alcohol was served. The students used cash only and left no trail of their dealings to purchase two kegs of beer. Then they “kidnapped” the staff and secretaries. They served wieners, baked beans and beer. One time, they even kidnapped Dolve.

The picnic was winding down and the beer truck driver came to collect the empty kegs. A couple of students lifted two cases of beer from the truck when the driver wasn’t looking. The driver had been paid in cash for the kegs and did not know who to bill for the two cases, so he sent the bill to Dolve. Outraged, the dean called one of the honor students to his office to discuss the matter. The student took care of the bill.

Scars from the Corliss steam engine
Engineering students also worked on the steam engines in the South Engineering Building. The Corliss rotary valve steam engine was regarded as the pinnacle of man’s achievement, Melanson said.

The hot steam valves were used to run instruments that made diagrams.

“We had permanent scars on our index fingers and thumbs from closing and opening the valves,” he said.

The long-distance phone call
Melanson said that he was only chewed out once by the dean.

In the early 1940s, the National Bureau of Standards worked to prepare the country for the impending war by creating technology and weapons. It ensured the materials and the manufacturing processes were of the highest quality and performed as expected. 

When the war ended, the National Bureau of Standards continued to work on defense projects.

“We worked for the National Bureau of Standards on a big transmitter north of Fargo for one-and-a-half years to test a new form of communication – forward scatter. It was top secret in its day. We needed a meter installed to go into operational phase,” Melanson said.

Melanson made a long-distance call to Kindred, North Dakota, where the rural electric cooperative had its headquarters, to request the meter. When the dean found the telephone bill for the 35-cent call, he chewed Melanson out because only deans and department heads were allowed to use long distance. The dean relented when Melanson explained it was costing the department $100 a day if it didn’t get the contract switched to the operational phase.

From Lawrence Welk to radio expert
As a teenager growing up near Marion, North Dakota, Melanson tinkered with radios so he could get the Lawrence Welk show. His fame spread and people from a 50-mile radius brought their radios to him.

Years later, Harry Dixon, department head, appointed Melanson to be the department’s radio expert to the Bureau of Standards. Melanson worked on projects in the Electrical Engineering Department Experiment Station.

After completing his master’s degree, Melanson worked as an associate professor. The younger students respectfully addressed him as professor Melanson, but for some reason, the seniors and graduate students called him “Uncle Mel.” That name would follow him to his next position, where several NDSU graduates already worked.

Melanson had truly wanted to continue as a professor at NDSU, but he could not afford to feed his family of six on a salary of $7,100 in 1963. So that year, he accepted a higher paying position as an electrical engineer with the Bureau of Standards office in Boulder, Colorado. He worked there until 1978, when he took early retirement.

Student Focused. Land Grant. Research University.

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North Dakota State University
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