For Richard Higgins, graduating from the University of Maine’s College of Engineering proved a double blessing. Not only did his UMaine diploma help the 1979 alumnus land a great job with the prestigious Boeing Company, but it also allowed him to feel comfortable working with top-notch professionals at the world’s premier manufacturer of commercial jetliners and military aircraft.
“The training I received at UMaine was so spot-on that within six months at Boeing I had been accepted as a member of the engineering team and was being recognized as a promising engineer,” Richard says. “There I was, working on the most advanced projects at the greatest aviation company in the world. UMaine helped me land this dream job.”
Recently retired from Boeing after a successful career that spanned nearly three decades and included three vice-presidential assignments, Richard has moved from Seattle to Santa Fe where he lives with his wife, Jean, who graduated from UMaine in 1976. She retired after 12 years at Costco Wholesale, first as the executive assistant for chairman of the company, and then for the executive vice president who headed up both Costco’s International Division and the ancillary businesses.
Neither Richard nor Jean has forgotten their Black Bear roots. Grateful for the outstanding engineering background Richard received at UMaine thanks to caring, knowledgeable professors, the couple provided a generous endowment gift so civil engineering students could get hands-on learning opportunities.
At the Richard and Jean Higgins Materials Testing Laboratory, undergrads test materials like shear plates, concrete cylinders and wooden trusses to determine their strength.
“That’s how you learn about the properties of different materials and why they’re well suited for certain types of engineering design,” says Richard, recalling the many hours he spent at the Boardman Hall facility when he was a student.
“We loved breaking things to test the materials and see how strong they were. It was fun stuff. At the same time it provided dramatic hands-on learning to reinforce the classroom learning.”
Knowing they are helping to ensure that the highest level of standards is maintained in the lab is gratifying to both him and Jean, says Richard. The decision to support the facility had been a family affair, with daughter, Colleen, also an engineer, weighing in as well.
“We wanted to give back to the University in a way that was measurable – to do something visible and effective. This was a place where we knew we could have a serious impact on the education students receive,” Richard says.
A native of New Jersey, Richard had a political science degree and a stint in the U.S. Coast Guard under his belt when he enrolled at UMaine and found “the greatest teachers I ever met.
“My professors were extraordinary,” he says. “Jean remembers me coming home from school and talking about these guys whom I respected so much. They were great engineers who took me under their wing and got me out of there in three years. Every time they saw me they stopped what they were doing and asked if I was sticking to my academic plan, how I was doing in class and if they could do anything to help.”
Under his professors’ tutelage, Richard earned stellar grades which became a constant source of pride. “Every time I succeeded at UMaine, I thought, ‘wow, I’m measuring up to what these professors see as good.’ It gave me confidence.”
That self assurance would prove to be a boon at Boeing where employees are hired based on their college performance. The company also places great importance on the ability to stand up for one’s beliefs.
“We’d have discussions with senior engineering experts with whom you’d have to argue your points about design,” says Richard, who had learned from his UMaine professors “not to be shy and not to hang back, but to push forward new ideas.’’ These discussions could be both animated and demanding of highly sophisticated engineering judgment. Safety is always first at Boeing. UMaine gave me both the technical skills and self-confidence to be a full participant in these discussions.”
Jean says her UMaine degree in psychology helped her launch a successful career as the Controller of a real estate development company, and then as an executive assistant at Costco where she performed a host of duties including organizing schedules and trips, planning meetings and developing presentations, doing financial analysis and working with the senior management teams and employees from all over the globe.
“The people skills that were required were pretty sophisticated. And the knowledge I gained at UMaine made all the difference.”
A firm believer in lifelong learning, Richard subsequently earned an MBA from Seattle University and now is working on a master’s degree in military history from Norwich University in Vermont through a rigorous, on-line program.
Passionate about military history – especially the Civil War — since he was a child, Richard says that, for him, the battlefield represents “the other side of the coin.” Aviation brings people together to solve problems while war drives them apart.
“It’s very important to understand why humans resort to conflict to solve problems,” he says.
His love of military history became “an important part of my career” when, as an executive, he would travel the globe, discussing with world aviation leaders how Boeing could facilitate aviation in their particular country.
“But we couldn’t talk about airlines all day and so this would give us common ground,” he recalls. “I’d ask, ‘didn’t such and such a battle happen close by here?’ It would open up a whole new discussion. They’d take me on tours of battlefields and everybody would go away feeling honored that I’d taken time to learn about their country. For myself, I gained great insight into their history and culture.”
Nowadays, in addition to working on his master’s degree and serving on a number of organizations, Richard keeps busy as a member of the Dean’s External Advisory Committee for the College of Engineering which meets several times a year to determine the overall direction for the College; provide input from the perspective of major employers; identify trends in the engineering industry; and advocate for the College and the University.
Richard says he is particularly proud of the group’s work helping to develop a new minor in Engineering Leadership and Management. The curriculum, which includes courses on professional communication, environmental and business ethics, critical thinking and decision making, aims to provide undergraduate engineering and engineering technology majors with an understanding of how to inspire others to want to achieve the vision and goals of an organization.
“Today, you need engineers who are more than engineers,” he says. “The most critical need in the industry is to be not just a good engineer, but someone who has the capabilities to lead a team of people from around the world to achieve a solution to a challenging problem.”
The new curriculum can help Maine engineering graduates be at the top of their game and enjoy a career as rich as his was, he says.
December 6, 2007
Image Description: Interim Chair and Professor of Civil Engineering Eric Landis; Jean Higgins; Richard Higgins; College of Engineering Dean Dana Humphrey