A retrospective: Major Albert Sobey and Kettering’s 90th Anniversary
By Lawrence R. Gustin
The founder of Kettering University in Flint, Mich., did not live to see his school named in honor of Dr. Charles F. Kettering. But Major Albert Sobey, the man who launched the school in 1919, would no doubt have been pleased.
“Boss” Kettering’s place in automotive history would be secure if for no other reason than he invented the self-starter, which greatly popularized automobiles. But that was only the beginning. Over the decades, the pioneering scientist and inventor provided General Motors with a huge number of benefits as director of GM Research Laboratories.
When Major Sobey was struggling to build his school – which would become famous as GMI – Kettering was often a source of counsel and support. Over several decades, they often had dinner together in the GM executive dining room and sometimes Kettering dined at Sobey’s home. Indeed, near the very beginning, when the institute started a new teaching program for factory foremen in 1920, Kettering was a speaker at the first meeting.
And when GM took over the institute in 1926 and provided new buildings and a new campus, Kettering may have helped engineer that decision from behind the scenes. The decision was announced July 12, 1926. On that date Sobey’s Flint Institute of Technology became General Motors Institute of Technology, with Sobey as its director. It was not until 1998 that the institute became Kettering University.
“Boss Ket” is a widely recognized name, but who was Major Sobey and how did he get that title? He earned the title in Army intelligence during World War I, but it carried over into civilian life because he lost his clothes.
At least that was his story. Immediately after his discharge from the Army at the end of World War I, Major Sobey sent his personal clothing to Flint – but it took several weeks for the package to find him. Admittedly frugal, he decided that rather than buy new clothes, he would wear his uniform for a few weeks in his new job as first director of a teaching institute just created by Flint’s Industrial Fellowship League. Students, noting the uniform, began calling him Major and it stuck.
Albert was born on or about August 7, 1885, in Keweenaw Peninsula, which juts into Lake Superior in Michigan’s western Upper Peninsula. At the time the Keweenaw was in the middle of its copper mining boom – which preceded the California gold rush as the country’s first big mining frenzy. Pure Michigan copper was prized worldwide. Towns such as Calumet, Houghton and Hancock, built around mineheads, quickly rose as commercial and cultural centers with big stores, fine schools and substantial music halls and theaters.
Albert’s family lived in a lesser settlement, Boston, today a dot on the map halfway between Hancock and Calumet.
When he was four and a half, his father, a shift captain in the mines with a promising future, was killed when a rock fell several hundred feet down a shaft. The tragedy might have doomed Albert to poverty. But his mother was a hard worker, holding the family together by organizing “free enterprise” business activities. These included Albert and his two sisters making and selling artificial flowers. She also took care of a schoolhouse which included, as a benefit, a house free from rent. At 14, Albert became an apprentice in the Boston mines’ machine shop. At 17 he was being groomed to become its master mechanic.
But other forces were at work. Albert’s quick mind had attracted attention. A teacher took an interest and tutored him in high school courses. When his mother remarried, her new husband, who had worked in mining management, loaned Albert money to attend college. And so Albert went to Michigan Agricultural College (now Michigan State University) in East Lansing. Albert, who had missed high school except for the tutoring, tested well enough for acceptance. He earned his bachelor’s degree in Mechanical and Electrical Engineering from MAC in 1909.
For several years after college, he worked as a civil engineer in Lansing and Chicago. When he became seriously ill in 1911, he came home. His stepsister was a nurse and helped in his recuperation. Before he fully recovered, his stepfather died unexpectedly of a heart attack. Realizing the need to help his mother again, he gave up plans to return to Chicago and instead found work teaching mathematics and physics at the Michigan College of Mines (now Michigan Technological University) in Houghton.
As a young teacher, Sobey learned how to handle students who were sometimes belligerent. Usually he was able to change their attitudes and often received their thanks after they left his class for teaching them discipline that helped them succeed. He also noted young single men in the Copper Country had little to do, so he organized baseball, hockey teams and discussion sessions. Sobey was learning he had a knack for teaching and for helping young people develop.
When World War I began, Sobey joined the Army as a captain, assigned as assistant chief of the radio section of the Military Intelligence Division. He was 5-foot-8 ½ and so thin – seven pounds under the military’s minimum weight requirement – that the Army had to get a ruling that he was an expert “of importance to the war effort for which no other suitably qualified person is available.” Sobey could recount many war stories – including capturing German military messages while manning an overseas interception station at Houlton, Maine. By war’s end he was a major and chief of the Radio Military Intelligence Division. The Army wanted him to stay, but Sobey wanted out.
It was 1919 and another boom was taking place – this one in the automotive industry. Thousands of people were moving to Flint to build Buicks in one of the world’s largest industrial complexes and to work in other local plants that produced Chevrolets, Dorts, trucks and auto components. Most were part of the General Motors empire. GM had become a gigantic economic engine and Flint was one of the most prosperous cities in the country.
Local GM leaders began to promote a plan to create a school under Flint’s Industrial Development League. The primary leader was Buick’s general manager, Harry Bassett. Sobey agreed to start the school. The first class of the School of Automotive Trades started at 7 p.m. Oct. 20, 1919. Soon 500 students were taking courses in their spare time and the school developed quickly. Special courses were held for foremen in management and leadership skills. Company leaders including Kettering served as speakers or discussion leaders. In 1923 the school was renamed the Flint Institute of Technology. A program that covered major technical and business fields became the basis of the four-year cooperative engineering program in 1924 and the moment when cooperative education was born.
A critical moment came in 1926. Harry Bassett, who by then had succeeded Walter P. Chrysler as Buick’s president, asked Sobey to attend the GM Executive Committee meeting in Flint in May. Sobey was asked to present his views on the value of cooperative education to GM. Then Bassett, emphasizing that the institute was outgrowing its facilities, unveiled a rendering of a new building.
“We should think of doing something like this in the future,” Bassett told the group.
Responded GM President Alfred P. Sloan Jr.: “Why in the future, Harry? Why not now?”
According to Sobey’s son, Albert J. Sobey, Kettering may have been instrumental in setting the stage for Sloan’s endorsement of the plan. The younger Sobey said he based that opinion “in part in what I overhead in discussion between dad and Boss Kettering.”
With Sloan’s endorsement, the building was approved. GM had taken ownership of the Flint Institute of Technology and it once again had a new name – General Motors Institute of Technology. And both Sloan and Kettering were speakers at the institute’s first graduation ceremony.
The institute’s expansion during the next two decades was dramatic. The number of participating plants expanded to include nearly all of GM’s U.S. facilities and included some non-GM Flint plants that were grandfathered in. By 1947 there were more than 20,000 people enrolled in GMI courses. And in 1948, Major Sobey was promoted from director of GMI to its president.
Sobey was certainly not a one-man show. Besides his colleagues in GM and his assistants and teachers, he also received help from Bess B. Penoyer. Albert and Bess began dating when she was head of the Genesee County Normal School, a teachers’ college. She resigned when they were married Aug. 16, 1923, because it was the custom in that era for teachers to be unmarried.
They were married at age 37. Bess, born Aug. 1, 1885, was one week older than her husband. Their only child, Albert J., was born when they were 40. Young Albert recalled that his parents “were both deeply committed to education of young people – he for engineers, she for teachers. They became what dad called ‘the Sobey team.’ Mother contributed as an unpaid adviser to GMI and supporter of the faculty and their wives – even as a matchmaker. I remember many dinner table and car conversations about teaching styles and people problems.”
In his unpublished autobiography written for his son, Major Sobey said his life was greatly influenced by an ambition to make the most of his abilities and to provide service “that would live on in the lives of others after I had passed on.” He also had a faith in divine guidance which he traced to his mother. That faith, he said, “was supported many, many times. When all other avenues of progress were seemingly closed, the one which divine providence apparently destined me to follow eventually worked out to my advantage.”
Albert J., who was 83 when interviewed in late 2008, noted his father “used to bring work home almost every day. I remember the dining room table covered with paper late into the night. But he always had time to see if I had done my homework and talk about things in general.”
The younger Sobey, who graduated from GMI in 1945 with Mechanical and Industrial Engineering degrees, became an engineer at GM’s Allison Division. He was later the founder and president of Transportation Technology, an outside company, and then returned to GM as director of Energy and Advanced Product Economics. He still actively supports Kettering. His wife Barbara died in 2007 after 59 years of marriage. Their two sons and a daughter are now in their 50s. There are two grandchildren.
In the World War II years, when the younger Sobey attended GMI, he recalled more than half the students were not from the Flint area. There were no dormitories so students lived in rented housing or in fraternity houses. They were serious students, with so much classroom work that there was little leisure time. While the first woman to graduate was Karen (Morman) Stewart in 1970, some women were taking classes at GMI during the war years, Albert J. recalls.
Every now and then GMI and Sobey faced big challenges -- sometimes from GM or the GMI Board of Regents itself. Sobey could usually find a way to defuse an issue. At least once he reworded comments of the school’s critics to incorporate his ideas, and then presented them. The revision was approved.
In the 1930s, the Great Depression became so severe GM seriously considered closing the institute. With so many engineers on the street, GM questioned educating new engineers. Sobey’s successful response emphasized that someday GM would need the young engineers and at the same time he mapped out a drastic reduction in the budget. Salaries, including his own, were cut and students took on the job of cleaning the classroom building and cafeteria. When GM’s financial situation brightened a year or two later, Sobey was able to hand out envelopes at a Christmas party giving each staff member the pay they thought they had forgone.
Another crisis surfaced during World War II. GMI students had difficulty getting military commissions because GMI was not accredited. Sobey used his Washington contacts to get GMI grads accepted by the military. Another issue: Since GMI was not a public school, it did not qualify for advanced officer technical training. So its undergrads, when taken into the military, were sent to such schools as MIT, Yale and Stanford. In general they were well received and helped create a good reputation for GMI.
“Dad hoped GMI graduates would not only be successful in their careers but be role models for succeeding generations,” said Albert J., adding “he sponsored supper meetings for GMI students at which business leaders were invited to describe their personal philosophies. His objective was to show that successful people can have strong ethical convictions.”
GMI decided to seek accreditation in 1945 and was approved largely because of the records of its graduates. Sobey had taken the institute a long way from its one-class beginnings in 1919.
As Sobey neared his 65th birthday and mandatory retirement in 1950, the praise for his work began to roll in. There were honors in 1949 on the 30th anniversary of his arrival in Flint. And on his retirement a year later, there were pages of comments about his leadership skills, his ability to influence students, his concept of service. A tablet was placed at the entrance of GMI that reads:
Great advocate of training in industry and first President and Director of General Motors Institute, whose vision, faith, and leadership have contributed so greatly to the development of this institution and to the advancement of men in industry."
His son recalled: “After he retired, he continued to sponsor dinners at which speakers from GM and other companies could describe how they had solved ethical problems during their careers. He also started a program to help small colleges find senior personnel from GM to talk to their students on similar topics.”
Major Sobey was 75 when he died of cancer in 1960. Bess lived seven more years.
Twenty-two years after Major Sobey’s death, GM made the decision to end its ownership of GMI. Albert J. said that like many graduates he was “incensed” by that 1982 decision. “We felt that the reasons GM gave were all wrong. But in retrospect, considering what has occurred in the U.S. auto industry since then, it may have been the best thing that could have happened.”
When GM and GMI severed their relationship, another name change was required. General Motors Institute became GMI Engineering and Management Institute (GMI/EMI). That remained until 1998, when the name was changed to Kettering University. Major Sobey did not have the name recognition to receive that honor himself. But seeking personal attention was never his style. Naming his creation for his old friend Boss Kettering would bring favorable attention to his school and that would have been fine with the Major.