Ovid W. Eshbach was dean of Northwestern’s engineering school when the cornerstone was laid for the Technological Institute in 1940, but his legacy extends far beyond one of the Evanston campus’s most iconic buildings.
Eshbach’s son and daughter graduated from Northwestern, as did a granddaughter and two great-granddaughters.
Now, as the University remembers the 75th anniversary of the beginning of Tech’s construction, Eshbach’s family is reflecting on the impact he had on the University he loved.
“People remember my dad because of his personal touch,” says Frances Eshbach Kinney ’48, ’49 MS. “He was a highly organized person, but not rigid. He was a people person, and he related to the students.”
Ovid Eshbach was born in eastern Pennsylvania in 1893. He studied electrical engineering at Lehigh University and then served in the Army’s Signal Corps during World War I, where he taught officer candidates to operate radios.
After the war, Eshbach began teaching at Lehigh, and he and his wife, Clara, became parents to Frances and her older brother, John ’46, ’47 MS. Eshbach worked at Bell Telephone of Pennsylvania and AT&T for more than a decade, until a speech he gave about engineering education caught the attention of several people who were searching for a new dean for Northwestern’s engineering school (now called the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science).
Eshbach was named the school’s dean in 1939, and planning for the construction of Tech soon became one of his top priorities, along with hiring additional faculty for the expanded school, introducing a co-op program, and, later, adjusting the school’s operations after the United States entered World War II. As construction of Tech began, Eshbach’s home was filled with blueprints for the building, and he carried a tape measure with him at all times so he could measure distances in various auditoriums to refine the building’s plans.
Construction of Tech was completed in 1941, and Eshbach continued to lead the engineering school until retiring in 1953. However, Eshbach’s retirement was short — his successor resigned in 1955, so he served as temporary dean in 1955 and 1956, until a new permanent dean was hired.
Eshbach was teaching physics at Northwestern in 1958 when he died unexpectedly in his Tech office of a blood clot. He was 64.
Eshbach’s death rattled the University. An article published two months after his death in Northwestern Engineer magazine described him as a “legend,” “an impressive man with a pipe who personified the wise educator” and “a counselor whose advice we often sought.”
Even before his death, Eshbach’s students and colleagues recognized his remarkable devotion to the University. In 1948, the engineering school’s graduating class established the Ovid W. Eshbach Award, which is still given annually to a student for overall excellence in scholarship and leadership. (In the photo at right, the most recent recipient of the Eshbach Award, Newlin Weatherford '17, is pictured with Frances Kinney, her husband Byron Kinney, and Northwestern President Morton Schapiro at the University's Scholarship Luncheon in April 2015.)
Today, a plaque in Tech’s entrance lobby honors Eshbach as a “scholar, teacher, friend and man of God.”
“My dad was ahead of his time,” says Frances Kinney, who has at her home her father’s handwritten letters to her mother and copies of engineering books he authored. “I never saw him flustered, no matter how busy he was. You couldn’t upset him.”
Frances says one of her favorite memories of her father occurred in 1949, when he agreed to students’ requests that they be dismissed from class so they could celebrate the Wildcats’ victory over Cal in the Rose Bowl.
“He was all for it,” says Frances, who was at the game.
Frances’s husband, Byron Kinney ’49, says Ovid Eshbach was also a key factor in his decision to attend Northwestern’s engineering school.
Byron was trying to decide between the engineering school and a major in general business when he learned of the engineering school’s co-op program, which enabled students to obtain work experience and earn income beginning in their sophomore year. Byron interviewed with Eshbach, who convinced him that the engineering school was the best fit for him. Little did Byron know that he was discussing his decision with the man who would later become his father-in-law.
“I was wondering whether I was in the right place, but he calmed me down, and I’m so glad he did,” says Byron, who met Frances in 1951, after they had both graduated from Northwestern.
Now, decades later, Frances and Byron remain fiercely proud of Northwestern, and of her father’s role in shaping the University.
“All of us got a very good start at Northwestern,” Frances says of herself and her other relatives who graduated from the University. “We love the place.”
To learn more about the history of the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, visit the history page on the school's website.