Gary Voelker, '66
Gary Voelker graduated from OSU in 1966 with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in EE through the combined program. After graduation, he stayed in Columbus and took a position at Industrial Nucleonics, a local company started by the Choate brothers, both OSU grads.
Within four months Gary had grown disenchanted with his work, “It was my perception that my new adventure was limited for the foreseeable future to calculating RC time constants on a plastic clad bamboo slide rule.”
Even though he had a critical skill deferment from the military draft and no family military background, when Gary was contacted by a Navy recruiter, an aviator, he accepted the offer to try his hand flying the Navy jet that was waiting at the OSU air park. About a month later, this looking-for-adventure Ohio farm boy had volunteered and found himself at Aviation Officer Candidate School in Pensacola, Florida, being told by two Marine drill instructors just how badly the recruiters had messed up this time by bringing them someone who couldn’t possibly become a Navy officer or fly jets. Despite their pronounced misgivings, Gary got his Commission in June 1967; his Navy wings of gold in February 1968; and married Janet, his wife of 44 spectacular years, in March 1968 after a very brief courtship. His eyesight wasn’t good enough to be a pilot thus he flew in the back seat of the F4J Phantom, like “Goose” in the movie "Top Gun."
Near the end of his training in California, Gary volunteered for an early assignment to the USS America which was stationed off the coast of Vietnam. During his time aboard the USS America with the VF102 Diamondbacks, he flew mostly night bombing missions using the F4 as a bomber since at that time very few MIGs were to be seen.
He finished his four-year tour of sea duty aboard the USS Independence with a fun intermediate assignment to the second Top Gun Fighter Weapons Class in Miramar, California. Gary explains that the technical representative was not as good looking as Kelly McGillis in the movie Top Gun but the flying was just as intense as depicted in the movie. After a six month cruise in the Mediterranean, Gary was assigned to non-sea duty, first managing research and development (R&D) of anti-intrusion devices that were deployed in several applications protecting military assets as well as our international borders and then to managing R&D on military satellite payloads.
“At that time I knew my calling was to manage R&D. I love the challenge, learning new things, and the rewards of a job well done,” says Gary.
During his nearly ten years serving in the U.S. Navy, Gary was awarded a Meritorious Service Medal, 2 Air Medals with Combat “V”, Navy Commendation Medal with Combat “V”, Joint Services Commendation Medal, Air Force Commendation Medal, Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces Meritorious Unit Commendation Medal with Gallantry Cross, and a Vietnam Service Medal.
“I must say the highlight of those adventuresome years in the Navy was my first catapult launch and the first landing aboard an aircraft carrier. If I am unfortunate enough to someday be suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s and don’t even know who or where I am, if asked if I remember my first catapult launch I will respond, ‘Oh yes, absolutely, just like it was yesterday.’”
After his time serving in the U.S. Navy, Gary decided to focus his efforts on energy related R&D instead. He resigned his Commission from the Navy and joined the Energy Research and Development Administration in 1974, which in 1979 was folded into the Department of Energy (DOE). His first position in the government was managing the Fuel Cell R&D program. His responsibilities soon expanded to include other conversion systems such as Stirling engines, gas turbines, thermionics, diesels, and thermoelectric conversion. For several years he managed the DOE coal conversion R&D activities which included efforts to make synthetic oil from coal.
“Once I was quoted in USA Today saying that I believed we could soon be making high quality oil from coal for $30 per barrel. At the time crude was in the high $20s. Still today the price of oil from coal is just above the crude market price”.
In 1990, Gary was assigned management responsibilities for a R&D activity to develop new technologies for cleaning up the radioactive and toxic wastes left at the former nuclear weapons production sites throughout the U.S. His last job in DOE before taking early retirement in 1994 was to be the first manager of the DOE Ohio Field Office in Miamisburg. The office managed several hundred federal employees and several thousand contractor personnel and an annual budget of about $800 Million. The office was responsible for the decontamination and decommissioning of U.S. facilities at Fernald, Miamisburg, West Valley, and Battelle. This assignment gave Gary a few opportunities to visit the family farm near Waverly, OH.
After leaving DOE, Gary took a position as the chief operating officer of a company trying to develop a new steam reforming technology to convert various waste materials into hydrogen for use in fuel cells in industrial co-generation applications. Fuel cells fueled by hydrogen from steam reformed waste have not become a reality, but steam reforming technology was demonstrated in the paper industry to recover the energy and the useful chemicals from “black liquor,” a byproduct of papermaking.
Gary then started a successful residential construction company and followed that with a brief try at full retirement.
“Retirement was like calculating those RC time constants, just not enough adventure. Today I am working on a really exciting new project. A chemist, Dr. John Arnold, and I are co-inventors of a concept to use Ultraviolet or Electron Beam curable binders to replace the solvent based binders used today in manufacturing Lithium ion battery electrodes. Instead of tens of minutes of drying time and the capital expense of huge drying ovens, the UV/EB curable binders cure in less than a second with an order of magnitude smaller capital investment. The technology has the potential to dramatically reduce the manufacturing cost of Lithium ion batteries that are used in everything from cell phones and laptops to hybrid and electric cars. The company I now work for, Miltec UV International, has been selected for two Department of Energy cost-shared contracts to develop and demonstrate the technology. “
Gary lives with his wife Janet by Lake Anna, VA. He enjoys playing lots of racquetball (transitioned from handball learned at OSU) and water skiing, tubing, fishing and swimming with their six grandchildren and their friends.
Gary says, “I try golf on occasion but it is one sport that just seems to kick my butt.”
What is your favorite memory from your time at Ohio State?
One of my fondest memories of Ohio State is of a fall evening, walking down the hall from my room in the Stadium Scholarship Dormitory and standing by the big opened windows facing the Olentangy River and hearing and watching the marching band practice Script Ohio. Since those wonderful times I have made a fool of myself more than once raving to disinterested friends about how their life isn’t complete until hearing and seeing Script Ohio. Another vivid memory is facing the howling wind and snow rounding the end of the Stadium on the way to class. Some of my most vivid EE memories include marveling at how electronic calculators and even computers would soon replace slide rules; how the waveforms witnessed in the lab came close to the ones we calculated but the values for current and voltage just seemed to be a bit off; the interest of designing a golf cart in Engineering Application Class; and wondering how did that fellow Maxwell possibly come up with those equations even before he saw any real visual proof of the waves.
What motivates or inspires you?
“I am inspired by learning new and different things and then entering into mental exercises to see if there isn’t something innovative and positive that maybe could come from that new found information. I grew up on a small farm and had many experiences that gave me a broad-based common sense and a desire to always be learning and applying what I learned. My father and mother taught me to work hard, laugh often and always be happy. Life is like landing on that aircraft carrier’s pitching deck at night. The first and foremost rule is to get set up on the proper flight path to the deck, then just keep going! I feel so incredibly blessed to have been a part of that inspiring, learning and growing up place called The Ohio State University. It got me set up on the right flight path.”