A special student
In June 1960, Karl Strick (Special Student ’60-’66) arrived in Canada from Germany to pursue his dream of an engineering career and a better life. “I left Germany believing that Canada was the land of self-made men, where education was secondary to experience and drive,” explains Karl, who had arrived in Canada with the equivalent of a vocational high school diploma in engineering. “However, shortly after I arrived I realized that I would be unable to earn the salary I believed I deserved unless I had professional engineering credentials, so I set my sights on acquiring a professional engineer certificate, a process that would take me more than six years.”
Growing up in Germany during the WWII meant Karl was no stranger to challenge. In fact, his experiences were central in developing the determination to succeed he relied upon to create a foothold in Canada.
Karl was born in Cologne in September 1934, making him just a few days short of five years old when war broke out in 1939. His father was drafted in 1940, leaving Karl’s mother his sole caretaker. Karl had first-hand experience of the divisiveness and tragedy that characterized so many people’s lives during the war; his own close relatives included both an SS trooper and a Jewish lawyer, and he recollects a disabled childhood friend who was forcibly removed from her home and who subsequently disappeared during the time of the Nazis’ eugenics-based euthanasia program.
Many of Karl’s early war memories are of huddling in shelters during air raids, including the infamous RAF-led 1,000-bomber raid in May 1942 that devastated Cologne. Karl and his mother were among the thousands who fled the city after that raid, relocating to the eastern region of Silesia.
It was thanks to his mother’s habit of listening secretly to war news on German-language BBC Radio and a tip-off from a friend that mother and son escaped from Silesia in 1944 on one of the last trains leaving the region ahead of the Russian army’s advance and a spate of vengeance killings of German nationals. Karl was then nine.
Following the war, Karl and his mother continued to struggle, barely surviving on limited rations and the little extra food Karl was able to beg from farmers. it wasn’t until 1948 that their situation began to improve.
In 1959, Karl met J.S. Campbell, a Queen’s professor and president of Free Piston Development Company (FPDC) at Karl’s workplace in Cologne. Since Karl had a patent on a unique part for a diesel engine being developed by FPDC, the Queen’s-based company paid for his travel to Canada and guaranteed him a job for one year. Keen to forge a new path and determined to build a successful life for himself, Karl accepted the offer.
His new job landed him straight on Queen’s campus where, only four weeks after arriving, he met a young nursing student named Fran Wilson (KGH’62), who would turn out to be the love of his life. Fran was instrumental in encouraging Karl to pursue the credentials he needed to qualify as a professional engineer. With Fran’s support and Professor Campbell’s assistance, Karl arranged a meeting with University Registrar Jean Royce in the summer of 1960.
“Initially Miss Royce informed me that my education in Germany, which involved the completion of apprenticeship programs in mechanics and drafting, was not sufficient to admit me to Queen’s as a regular student,” Karl says. “However, since I possessed an interpreter certificate in English and was proficient in French and German, she decided to take a chance on me.”
In 1960, Karl was registered at Queen’s as a Special Student, a designation that, Miss Royce explained, would allow him to take courses and write exams but not allow him to accumulate credits towards a Queen’s degree.
For the next six years, Karl studied calculus and chemistry with Arts and Science students and attended classes with students majoring in civil, electrical and mechanical engineering. He also wrote all 14 exams sponsored by the Association of Professional Engineers of Ontario, sometimes completing as many as four Queen’s classes in preparation for one APEO exam.
“Professor William Rice, who taught mechanical engineering courses, gave me some of his old textbooks to help me out,” recollects Karl. “When he learned that I was planning to write fourteen APEO exams plus a thesis without first getting a degree from Queen’s, he smiled and commented, ‘You do like to do things the hard way, don’t you?’”
Karl studied calculus and chemistry with Arts and Science students and attended classes with students majoring in civil, electrical and mechanical engineering. One of his most memorable mentors was calculus professor Ralph Clench.
“Ralph Clench was a fascinating character: you’d see him on his bicycle in summer and in his buffalo coat in winter, tool pouch strapped to his side,” says Karl. “He simultaneously taught me calculus, algebra, analytic geometry and trigonometry, and I took advantage of tutorials and extra sessions in his apartment overlooking the park, sometimes receiving additional coaching from a couple of graduate students who were too polite to laugh at my questions.”
In addition to Professor Clench, Karl fondly remembers Dr. Wood, an emeritus professor of mathematics, and his original mentor, Professor Campbell, who taught Karl stress analysis, invited him round for dinner, and whose son Jim was the best man at Karl and Fran’s wedding in 1962.
In 1966, Karl was formally awarded the title of professional engineer (P.Eng.) in the province of Ontario. “Graduates of foreign universities usually have to write two or three exams before they are certified by the APEO; my way of acquiring the certification by writing 14 exams plus a thesis is very rare!” says Karl.
This June, Karl and Fran Strick will visit Kingston from their home in Birmingham, Alabama, for the 50th anniversary reunion of Fran’s KGH class, a sentimental journey they are both looking forward to very much.
“Queen’s and Fran were both instrumental in my success,” says Karl. “Without the initial approval I received from Jean Royce, I cannot imagine that I would have had the career I have had.”
Karl’s memoir of his childhood in Germany during the Second World War, Boy with a White Flag, is available from Amazon.com.