March 11, 2016
ALUMNA HAS WORN MANY HATS
Engineer, lawyer, journalist and swimmer. All those titles have applied to Laurie Landgraf at one point or another in her life.
The Columbia native, who now serves as senior counsel at The Boeing Co. in St. Louis, recalls her time as an engineering student at SIU as a time of extremes, both in terms of weather and her schedule. She took the required classes, naturally, but also worked part-time jobs at local newspapers and spent a good amount of time sopping wet, trying to make it as a walk-on for the Saluki swim team.
And during those busy years in the early 1980s she managed to earn not just one, but two bachelor’s degrees at SIU – journalism in 1982 and electrical engineering in 1985. Later, she would pursue a master’s degree in electrical engineering only to stop a few credits short when another passion – the law – would come front and center in her life. She would earn her law degree in 1995 by attending classes at night while working days as an engineer at what was then McDonnell Douglas (now Boeing).
“Eventually I seized an opportunity to work in the legal department at my company,” said Landgraf, who now lives in St. Louis and works as an intellectual property attorney for Boeing.
Landgraf said she remembers her days at SIU being filled with fun, but also a lot of hard work, from trying to make the swim team to working as a journalist.
“I remember trying to join the swim team as a walk-on when I was a freshman. I thought if I was good enough, I might get a scholarship to help pay for school,” she said. “I had a suede coat with no lining – fashionable but not very warm. I walked shivering to the Rec Center every morning to practice with the team, then walked shivering back to the dorm to find the cafeteria closed. I lost quite a bit of weight my freshman year.
“Later on, I remember riding my bike to work at my part-time job at the Southern Illinoisan in the freezing rain wearing a dress – girls were supposed to wear dresses or skirts to work back then – and having to break the ice off of my eyelashes when I got to work,” she recalled. “I remember working at the Daily Egyptian for a while, too. Every morning our faculty advisor Mr. (Bill) Harmon would sit in his office and critique that day’s paper. We could hear verbal explosions coming from his office. One of the reporters called him ‘Mount St. Harmon.’ We giggled about it but we hid from him like Munchkins. No one wanted to be caught in his line of sight. Then he would post the paper on a bulletin board, marked with circles and exclamations, and stalk away to have some coffee and cool off. We would creep out of hiding to look at the comments. I can’t believe how much I learned from those circles and exclamations.”
But Landgraf, who today serves on the College of Engineering’s Industrial Advisory Board, never forgot her roots. Like her father before her, Landgraf was endowed with grit and determination, working her way through college with a variety of jobs, and even living out of her car for a short time.
“My dad hitchhiked back and forth from Columbia to SIU in the 50s. He had to get back home to work his job on weekends at the Dairy Bar in Columbia. Like me, he made enough money from his various jobs to pay for much of his tuition,” Landgraf said. She related how her father lived in Carbondale in a run-down house with “a huge hole in the middle of the living room” that he and his roommates avoided, but that almost swallowed his mother up during a visit.
“My dad eventually went on to a career as an engineer. So there is some family history at SIU,” she said.
Despite earning a degree in journalism and lacking some important math courses, Landgraf said SIU engineering welcomed her efforts to earn an additional degree. The new pursuit changed her life in a many ways.
“Studying engineering at SIU taught me a disciplined way of solving problems,” said Landgraf adding that by nature she was instead more a creative type. “An engineering education teaches you that you can parse a problem into portions and work on the portions until you can visualize a solution to the entire problem.”
Landgraf said her education at SIU helped her manage her job at a company largely run by engineers. Communications were, and remain today, a key part of success, even in a technical environment.
“I would ask other engineers to help me understand how something worked, and they would try to wave their hands and say, ‘It’s kind of complicated,’ and I had gained the confidence to respond, ‘Try me.’ Often they would give me a stream-of-consciousness kind of description, using lots of acronyms, and then once I would get the acronyms straightened out, I would summarize their statements back to them and ask them to confirm whether I was correct. Usually I would also write down the summary and send it to them. The technology, and its theory of operation, is often complicated, but every engineer should be able to master the skill of describing it in layman’s terms. My training gives me the confidence to show others how to develop this skill.”
She believes many students at SIU today have the same determination to improve themselves.
“I was impressed with the way SIU allowed me as a journalism graduate to attempt the study of engineering, after I had coasted through high school without taking some of the requisite math and science courses. I would guess that at many other colleges I would have been laughed out of the department,” she said. “The people at SIU seemed to believe that I could succeed, so I believed it too. I like to think there are kids like me and my dad at SIU today – kids who are eager to improve their future prospects with an education and who just need a little boost.”
For this journalist-come-engineer-come-lawyer, communication skills remain a key part of a successful engineering education, as well as maintaining a playful, entrepreneurial spirit.
“Companies, universities and governments are run by people who have to look at the big picture, who in the interest of time have to get information in succinct snapshots. Students need to master the creation of those succinct snapshots. Engineers are no exception,” she said. “Look at all the SIU students who have gone on to start their own companies. I think every SIU engineering student is a potential entrepreneur.”