September 19, 2013
Inventor spawns careers
Ithaca benefactor gives TC3 millions for Pathways Program
Bob Ellis/staff photographer
Arthur Kuckes at his business, Vector Magnetics in Ithaca. Kuckes has donated $10 million to Tompkins Cortland Community College for a scholarship program that aids nontraditional students.
ITHACA — Arthur Kuckes’ office is littered with pieces of steel and sheaves of paper. On one wall hangs an old-fashioned chalkboard, adorned with an array of indecipherable, to a layman at least, diagrams.
On the far arm of the room’s black leather sofa rests a pillow, a possible remnant of a near-sleepless night spent pouring over calculations and differing designs.
Kuckes’ business is Vector Magnetics, which now specializes in oil pipeline installation.
There is perhaps some tendency to write Kuckes off as a real life example of the absent-minded professor. While he did teach at Cornell for a number of years and his office could use a quick once over, there is quite a bit more to him than the stock character that hails from every corner of popular fiction.
Now in his early eighties, Kuckes is the newest member of Tompkins Cortland Community College’s board of trustees. Before 2008, he had no affiliation with the college. He did his undergraduate work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and, after a two-year stretch on a Fulbright Scholarship studying physics in Germany and France, earned his Ph.D. from Harvard.
In 2008, Kuckes decided that he wanted to make a donation to a local college that was in need of funds, and eventually settled on TC3.
“Initially I thought about doing some kind of family foundation for a university,” said Kuckes. “I had a pile of money that I thought I should be doing something with now rather than later.”
The $2 million dollar donation resulted in the inception of the Pathway’s Scholarship Program, which offers up to $7,000 to recipients over four semesters at TC3.
“It’s intended to help nontraditional students to go back to school,” said Alexis Dengel, who along with Patty Tvaroha, heads the Pathway’s Program. “We’ve had people age 24 to 60. We’ve had people who are parents, unemployed, changing their careers or who have been injured on the job. We’re all over the board.”
Kuckes knows what kind of career opportunities a thorough education can lead to. It was one of his chief reasons for establishing the Pathway’s Program in the first place.
He worked on nuclear fusion at Princeton University and with NASA analyzing magnetometer data that helped shape our understanding of the composition of the moon’s interior. When BP’s Macondo well blew out in 2010, sending millions of gallons of oil streaming into the Gulf of Mexico, Kuckes’ team was called in to handle the final sealing of the well.
Kuckes said it took about five days.
Such impressive expertise and technological acumen stems from a childhood interest in math and physics. Indeed, Kuckes credits his father, who lost his job due to the Great Depression on virtually the same day that Kuckes himself was born, with helping nurture an early passion for technology and all things mechanical. Kuckes remembers his father giving him a book that was used to train radar operators during World War II. He marks it as a formative moment in his life.
“There I learned about electromagnetism in a very fundamental way,” said Kuckes, who, using what he had learned in the book, eventually designed and crafted his own oscilloscope around about the time he was entering the eighth grade. “It was quite a nice little oscilloscope. It almost worked.”
Kuckes’ high school years continued in a hail of unconventional interests and accomplishments. As a freshman, he remembers picking up a book on geometry and being immediately interested. Though he hadn’t taken the course, Kuckes asked if he could sit in and take the state’s Regents exam. He “did quite well on it”, and the blueprint for the rest of Kuckes’ high school career was born.
“Subsequently I did all my mathematics and physics that way,” said Kuckes. “I had my own agenda.”
Since Kuckes’ initial gift in 2008, he has made subsequent and substantial donations totaling more than $8.5 million to TC3, ensuring that the Pathway’s Program will be funded for years to come, Dengel said.
When the program started, it helped to fund seven students, but as of 2013’s fall semester, that number was up to 78, she said.
“The success rate has been phenomenal,” said Dengel, who noted that over half of the Pathway’s Program students are members of TC3’s honor society. “These students feel empowered, and they’re paying him (Kuckes) back in full with their performance.”
When asked why he had settled on a scholarship program for nontraditional students as opposed to any other demographic, Kuckes said he just wanted people to be able to have a second chance.
“One of the things that’s going on I think is that the people who screwed up in high school or didn’t make it in high school… maybe it’s a woman who got herself pregnant in high school and now she’s got a couple of kids in tow, this (scholarship) is making it possible for these people to have an education,” said Kuckes.
Investing in the education of others brings Kuckes a return worth more than material satisfaction.
“I could go out and buy myself a nice car and a nice boat and a nice house if I wanted,” said Kuckes, who drives a five-year-old used car. “But I have an underlying sense that all this stuff brings along more trouble than pleasure.”
Those who have benefited from Kuckes generosity will always know him best not as the academic or the inventor, but as the one who enabled them to change their lives.
“He’s such an unassuming man,” said Dengel. “I am so moved by what he’s doing for this community. The positive effect on him and watching the students thank him is great. It’s clear that they (students) are so rewarded by his gift. I feel like his vision is being met here.”
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