A Lifelong Love of Learning

In 2020, on the occasion of his 70th reunion, Pete Loucks ’50, Professor Emeritus of the School of Civil & Environmental Engineering at Cornell University, received a lifetime achievement award from George School in recognition of his contribution to science, specifically his research and teaching in the development and application of economics, ecology, and systems analysis methods to the solution of environmental and regional water-resources problems.

Seventy years after graduating from George School, Pete reflects on what enriches his life, and the importance of being resilient, adaptable, and open to opportunities and experiences.

Why did you attend George School and what was the experience like for you?

All I remember is that after a visit to George School (arriving there on a train that stopped at the George School Station) I knew I wanted to go there. I think it was because I could see I would have a much more independent life than if I stayed at home. I entered as a freshman boarder, living with two roommates on the top floor of Orton Hall. The three of us specialized in playing practical jokes on everyone else in Orton. I never had any regrets about being at George School and was fortunate to be able to have that opportunity.

George School was academically, athletically, and socially challenging and enjoyable. My life there was full of fun work opportunities such as learning how to drive tractors to harvest crops, spread manure, and plow snow. I also kept the campus store accounts and showed overheads that had the words and music everyone needed to see when we sang at morning assemblies. I was petrified of showing the wrong overhead during the middle of a song. And, if my memory serves me accurately, we boys had to wear ties much of the time.

At one point someone at George School told you that you were not ‘university material’—how did that impact you?

That’s true, I remember one of the School’s career advisors telling me that. George School placed me in an academic track designed for those not going to college. I do not recall it bothering me much. I knew I was not the best student, especially when trying to learn a foreign language, but I was having fun. I was accepted at Pennsylvania State University, so my academic program was still rigorous enough to allow that option. This is an example of how it is important to challenge people’s ideas about what you can and cannot do.

Tell me about your educational journey after George School and how you came to your field of systems engineering at Cornell University?

My educational journey, just like my life, is an example of a random walk. Certainly, what I have been doing while at Cornell is not the result of any advanced planning. Obviously getting a good education at George School gave me a great start on my way to ending up at Cornell. But my tenure at George School nearly ended before I graduated. I, along with about six others, was told that we would be dismissed after getting caught on top of Drayton’s roof during a scheduled Sunday meeting for worship. The way we got up to, and down from, the roof was clearly dangerous, so it was a good thing we got caught. A dean named Mr. Short caught us swinging into our room from the roof through the open upper half of the room’s window. This athletic demonstration apparently impressed Stan Sutton, the director of athletics, as his arguments for keeping us at George School saved the day, as I recall. So, both Mr. Sutton and Shorty, as we called the dean, are both etched in my memory among other memorable teachers. I also recall five of us boys asking George School to allow us to take cooking in place of either shop or choir. They created a separate class just for us. Boys taking cooking was so unusual at the time that we, wearing our chef hats, were featured in an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer. I remember at the beginning of our first class the teacher gave us some rules, one of which was that we had to eat what we cooked. And it was at the end of that first class on making biscuits that we broke that rule, rather than our teeth.

At Penn State, I completed a degree in forestry. That subject did not require a foreign language. Those were the days when everyone had to serve at least two years in the military if physically able, so while at Penn State I decided to enter the Air Force Reserve Officer Training program thinking I would get a commission and then spend my two military years after Penn State as a pilot. Two weeks before graduating and getting my commission, having passed all the flight physicals and with orders to go to flight training, the Air Force decided I was medically unqualified to be even an enlisted airman, based on having had a skull fracture in my freshman year. Once again, I was being told I could not do something I wanted to do.

So, I ended up going to Yale that next year to get a master’s degree. At Yale I applied to and was accepted at the Navy Officer Candidate School. While there I applied for Naval Flight Training because I still thought it would be more fun to fly as a naval aviator rather than serve my time on a ship. Making a long story short, for the next twenty-six years I flew various aircraft for the Navy.

Once my full-time active duty with the Navy ended and after a few years of trying out different jobs, I decided to return to Yale to get a Ph.D. But to do that I had to pass Yale’s French and German reading exams. With the help from courses at Columbia and New York Universities, I somehow succeeded and entered Yale again. After a year into my Ph.D. program at Yale I met a friend who had just obtained his Ph.D. in systems engineering and was beginning a new job as an assistant professor at Cornell University. He convinced me that I should join him there and study this new subject called ‘environmental systems engineering.’ So, I transferred from Yale to Cornell and once again had to pass French and German exams. To make another long story short, here I am at Cornell, still, some sixty years later. This brief random encounter with a friend changed my life, and certainly my career. Any success I’ve had since then is due to all of the teachers, colleagues, and graduate students I’ve worked with, not only at Cornell but elsewhere in the world.

Why is education important to you?

I believe education, vocational or academic, helps all of us better understand and function within this world we inhabit. It opens doors that give us opportunities for a healthier, more satisfying and productive life. It gives us perspectives we might otherwise not have or appreciate. Taking advantage of educational opportunities allows us not only to live a fuller more challenging life but also one that increases the contributions we can make to society and to the quality of our environment.

You have spent your career at Cornell. What do you like about Cornell—academically and culturally?

Cornell is located in a relatively small town that I personally prefer to a large urban area, and at least during one season of the year, this area including our campus is absolutely beautiful. Just on our campus, for example, they tell us we have over fifty waterfalls. But more important is the fact that I work with a very diverse and talented student body and faculty who are among the leaders in their respective disciplines. I’m lucky to be here. It is like being a full-time student, always being challenged to learn and produce new knowledge. Furthermore, I can walk to work from where I live, and I can even walk to our ‘international’ airport in less than an hour if I want or need to. And, importantly, Cornell’s squash courts are only a five-minute walk from my office building. All this has kept me at Cornell. But not all the time.

One feature of the academic life that I’ve benefited from is the ability to take leaves of absence to work elsewhere for a while. Generally, I have managed to get another job related to my profession at least once every four years on average. Not only has it been satisfying to see if I’m worth something to other organizations, but such experiences have enriched my knowledge and what I teach. These experiences have given me a bunch of stories I can tell in my classes, adding another dimension to what students can read in the textbooks that we academics write. They have also helped me identify problems I and my students can address as research topics. Yes, we in this academic profession are all students, constantly learning. As such, my career has never been boring. It has given me the opportunity to see, work, and get to know people in much of the world. It has had its social benefits as well. One of my leaves from Cornell involved working in Austria for a year. We put our two young daughters into Austrian schools, and within four months they were speaking German to each other. Since then, each has learned five foreign languages. I am more than envious.

As an international expert—tell me about some of your projects. What are the challenges of working in different parts of the world? Which project(s) stand out as being the most ‘satisfying’?

Just about everything I have been able to do as a consultant or employee of, for example, the World Bank, various UN organizations, NATO, research institutes, government agencies, or universities has been satisfying–sometimes surprising, but always a learning experience. The experiences I have had in countries east of the Iron Curtain, when that barrier existed, such as in Poland, Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, and the USSR, taught me that the similarities between capitalist and centrally planned economies were much greater than the differences. My work in Libya reinforced the fact that one needs to gain trust before expecting to obtain any cooperation from others, even from government agencies who were telling me what they expected me to do with the data they had but at the same time did not want to share that data. And my ten years of working together with the Portuguese helping them convert their government’s dam-building civil engineering mentality to a more integrated multi-disciplinary approach to water management had its successes as well as its setbacks depending on the political climate.

COVID-19 has changed many things for many people. Can you tell me about your experience having to adapt to online teaching and a new way of interacting with people? How has this affected your professional speaking engagements/international work?

Like all of us, I have had to learn how to work with programs such as Zoom to reach and teach students living in different places. Cornell has managed to provide both online as well as in-person instruction this past year. I am now finishing up a course I have offered to about forty students scattered all over the world, including here on our campus. I suspect it has not been as effective as having everyone in a classroom where more discussions are more likely to take place, but we all survived. This pandemic has indeed cut down my travel. I had to renew my passport January of last year, and so far, over a year later, it has zero stamps in it. That is a significant change for me, but it has not prevented me from participating at conferences and doing a little remote international work. I think the attendance at conferences has increased during this pandemic because everyone can attend without having to pay travel and hotel costs. Normally I also do some teaching in Delft, The Netherlands, and in Vienna, Austria, each summer but that didn’t happen last summer, and it probably won’t happen this coming summer either.

Before COVID-19, you played squash every day. Tell me about your love of squash.

I learned about squash when I went to Yale to get my master’s degree. It is a great sport: all you need is one opponent—not whole teams. It keeps the blood flowing whether you are young or old. I consider it among the more valuable outcomes of my first year at Yale, as I have been able to play the game ever since—even while I was stationed in some isolated places in the Navy. At one such place I regularly played against an Admiral, even though I was a very junior officer. That did not do any harm to my Navy career. And it is how I gained the trust of those who I needed to work with, and obtain data from, in Libya. I think I am still a member of the Benghazi squash club.

In May, you celebrated your 70th reunion at George School via Zoom rather than being in person. What was that like? Were you surprised that others in your class were willing to Zoom?

It was great, but of course I would rather see everyone in person. But would all of us have traveled to George School? Perhaps this “zooming” gives more of us less costly ways of participating and connecting with each other in events such as these.

Pete, you are a generous donor to George School, contributing annually and you have also provided for the School through your estate. Can you tell me why you selected George School and why you are making gifts through your 403(b)?

It seems to me the answer is obvious. George School gave me a good start on my random walk. Among all the organizations asking for money these days, what I can give to George School, I believe, will be well spent and give others the opportunity I had. Using some economics jargon, I think the marginal benefits derived from what I am able to give to the School are probably greater than those that would result from similar gifts to other academic institutions that I have attended.

You support scholarship at George School and have started a term chair endowment for faculty which will grow to fours chairs (two ‘senior’ chairs, a visiting scholar, and a junior faculty chair). Can you tell me about your decision to support these areas? Why are they important to you personally?

I prefer investing in people over concrete, although obviously both are needed to successfully run a boarding school for students of any age. Since my ability to give is not sufficient to provide much concrete, this is a reason why I have not considered doing both. I will leave that to others including my extremely generous classmate Barbara Dodd Anderson. If my gifts supporting faculty provide added value to George School courses or extracurricular offerings (like cooking?) as well as allow one or more students to attend who otherwise could not, what more can one ask for?

Clearly the future of any educational institution such as George School depends on its ability to attract quality students. I believe the reputation that George School holds and that attracts quality students depends in large part on the quality of its faculty. It therefore seems to me that George School’s continued success depends on its ability to attract and maintain knowledgeable, talented, and dedicated teachers—teachers like those who gave me a start on my education. As a small way of thanking George School for that, I am happy to contribute what I can to help create these new faculty chairs that further the School’s goal of remaining the outstanding academic institution that it is.