Montana Tech


Homework for life

By Gerard O'Brien - 10/13/2008

Environmental engineering was almost unheard of ... now it's a common thread in the curriculum, thanks to Lee Saperstein's foresight and hard work.

Lee Saperstein, 65, is learning to sail off Nantucket Island on the Atlantic Coast. It's a long way from the high and dry mountains of Butte in the summertime, but it was his college career in Butte that got him sailing toward a fascinating life as a Rhodes Scholar, a leader in the environ- mental engineering movement and now a deserving retiree.

"We watch the weather really closely here," he told The Montana Standard recently after his morning sail. Just like Montana farmers and ranchers do.

Being an East Coast boy who grew up on West 215th St. in New York City, one would think that Montana would be too far a leap to attend college.

But at the time, when he was about 16, an article in the New York Times caught his eye. The story was about the resurgence of mining and mineral exploration in the West, and Butte was on an economic upswing in the late 1950s and early '60s after being down a few years.

As luck would have it, all the large mining firms had headquarters in downtown Manhattan.

Not to be put off by foreboding sky-scrapers, Saperstein strode into the impressive lobbies of the Anaconda Co., Kennecott Mining and Asarco on Broadway and asked to see the CEO of the company — or at least some second-in-command engineer.

"I went to every mining house I could. They usually had a pretty receptionist as well," he noted. "I got to talk to the president of Anaconda, and he told me to look at the Montana School of Mines (Tech) as a possibility." Saperstein looked at attending Columbia University in New York, which also had a natural resources program.

But when he realized he was going to be on the subway commuting, he balked.

In the end, he applied to Tech and was accepted, with a full scholarship.

Preparation is the key Saperstein's academic career started early at Bronx High School of Science. The college prep classes gave him a leg up when he hit the doors at Tech.

"It is a very competitive school, and you were expected to do well. It opened a lot of doors for students seeking higher education. I was in about the top third of my class.

"I have to admit, I watched a lot of TV that freshman year. But I had taken many of the courses in prep school, so they were familiar to me," he said.

"The point is, I would advise high school students to take as many advanced prep classes as they can prior to college. You get the most stimulating teachers and they will find that the transition to Tech, which can be horrendous if you're not prepared, will be easier for them to do well." "If the students find they are flunking their first year," he said, "It's tough to get your confidence back." Saperstein earned a scholarship to Tech which covered his tuition as long as he stayed on the dean's list, which he did all four years at Tech.

Q. When did you attend Tech?

A. I have a bachelor's of science in Mining Engineering from Montana School of Mines (1964), now Montana Tech of The University of Montana.

Q. Why did you choose Montana Tech over other schools?

A. "My mother was the English major and into great books. She died young. My father kept asking me what I thought I wanted to do. As I said, the New York Times article piqued my interest. I had always been interested in math and science. I just did my homework on the schools I wanted to attend and chose Tech.

When I boarded a Greyhound bus for Montana, it was my first time West. I just sat and watched the country unfold for three days. I remember I arrived in Butte a day too early to get into the residence hall and Mrs. Tate, the dorm lady, sent me to the Leggat Hotel for a night. I recall there was an African student who arrived at that time as well, and she put him up, (fearing harm might come to a black student in Butte at that time).

I attended Tech from 1960 to 1964. I also worked little part-time jobs on campus, taking care of sheets and towels and mail for the students in the dorm. I worked in the Steward Mine on Saturday nights. The dorm ladies would give us some food, cake and a Thermos of coffee before heading into the mines. I did whatever the shift bosses wanted us to do and learned a lot. I was making $2 and something an hour."

Q. What is your proudest moment in your career?

A. Always graduation. As a former dean of the School of Mines and Metallurgy and professor of mining engineering at the University of Missouri-Rolla, graduates were our product. That was what we were working toward. The client was the student and the product was the graduate. The vocational programs, like Tech has at its south campus, are important, too. Sometimes you have students who have no expectations of a better life. Vo-Techs can turn that around. Some of the most rewarding graduations were from the vocational programs that ran when I was at Penn State.

For me personally, achieving leadership in the ABET, which was a recognition by my peers. ABET is the recognized accreditor for college and university programs in applied science, computing, engineering and technology, a federation of 28 professional and technical societies representing these fields. Among the most respected accreditation organizations in the U.S., ABET has provided leadership and quality assurance in higher education for over 75 years. (Saperstein has published numerous papers on mining and research, which he regards as "little victories").

Q. What goals did you accomplish, or what project you are most proud of?

A. Bringing environmental engineering to the forefront of mining. EE has been a constant thread in my work. It started when I was an assistant professor and I was looking to be productive, but not repeat what others were doing. At the time, Pennsylvania was producing as much surface mined coal as underground coal. Surface miners had far more interaction with licensing, regulators and environmentalists. Designs were done in advance to meld with the environment. This was all new. I wrote graduate papers on it. I can't teach it today as "gee whiz" stuff, all new to students. Now, it is part of the academic culture.

Penn State was on the leading edge of environmental engineering. By 1967 it was "in the book." In 1977, then-President Jimmy Carter had signed the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act. That was the number three bill in the nation that year, it was such a high priority. In Montana, it had a large impact, because the state started switching from a resource-based mining, lumber and agricultural state to a recreational one, with wilderness bills and heightened awareness of the environment. "Not only was it fun, but something new was happening across the country. Today I can walk away and look at all the environmental engineering papers on the shelf. It's something tangible."

Q. Tell us about some memorable college experience, either how it applies to your work today or just something that was fun for you at Tech.

A. There was an esprit de corps, among us who were going to graduate on time. There were not many of us, just about eight students in mining.

Something people should think about when going to college; it is likely that the group of friends you meet is set there.

You'll keep those relationships the rest of your life. Our group always keeps in touch. Rhodes Scholar Personally, it was winning the Rhodes Scholarship. It was a shared win with Professor William Chance who encouraged me to apply. He was disciplined in classic English, Shakespeare. There was a small cadre of liberal arts professors at Tech at that time. What was great was after returning from Portland, Ore., where the scholarship was presented, all my friends met me at the airport gate. The plane almost didn't land, as is often the case in Butte, but they waited for me. It was quite a surprise.

Q. Who is a favorite hero to you, mentor, public, private and why?

A. The clearest person is Professor Chance. I expected to go to work in the Butte mines, working six days a week and every other Sunday in 10-hours days. Professor Chance suggested I try graduate school and also apply for the Rhodes Scholarship. The examination is more of a life examination rather than hard sciences and academics. Another winner that year was Larry Pressler, U.S. Senator from South Dakota; Bill Bradley, the Knicks basketball star and later U.S. Senator from New Jersey came the year after. Only 32 a year are chosen each year.

Q. Was Tech difficult?

A. Yes, very difficult. I graduated in four years with 160 credits, including six credits in summer camp. I even edited the news- paper and took it to the print shop.

For the most part, rural kids from Montana were flummoxed by the college material. There was chemistry, physics, analytical calculus. The upshot was that the admissions office gave feedback to the high schools so they could better engage their students in preparation for Tech.

Q. What is a favorite book, or other inspirational piece?

A. I am a voracious reader. For instance, I plowed through Marcel Proust's "In Search of Lost Time." Currently, I'm reading Charles Darwin's "The Descent of Man." I feel that intuitively Darwin was an excellent scientist, very observational. A lot of it was based on geology, in fact. In those days (1800s), Darwin didn't have the Internet. Footnotes were the means of verifying observations among other scientists.

I also like Salman Rushdie's latest book, "The Enchantress of Florence." Others I like are Agatha Christie, P.D. James and Dick Francis; I just chew them up.

Q. How did Tech serve you in your past, current or even potential, future jobs? Give us some examples.

A. A strong science foundation allows you to continue to learn. It is frequently difficult for an engineering student to persevere in See PROFILE, Page D3 Profile....

Continued from Page D2 their freshman year. Only in retrospect have I found that the foundation you learned in college helps you when you walk into a problem that you've never seen before. The answer is not in the back of the book. Lots of research tools become obsolete, the slide rule, survey markers, transits, protractors. Today we have satellites, GPS systems, CAD programs and the internet.

But the problem-solving ability remains the same.

Q. What advice would you give high school students who are considering entering college?

A. My niece and her son, my grandnephew are about to start the college journey and I just talked to them about the same thing.

I'd advise you to do as well as you can in high school, work as much as you can, so the options are open.

Go visit the colleges to which you intend to apply, take the tour, and walk with the student who is "walking backwards," that is the college tour guides.

Your college interest could include sports, so ask to speak to the coach of your sport. Don't hesitate to call the department heads and get an interview with a faculty member, not just the admissions office. Become familiar with the place, since you're going to spend four years there. The travel may be a substantial cost, but it is worth doing.

Be honest with yourself, look at your credentials, your ACT and SAT scores and your high school ranking. US News and World Report catalogs the universities and includes information about their acceptance rate for the top 10 percent of their incoming high school class. You can see where you would fall and your chances for getting into a college of your choice. Select a school that is a stretch, one that is a sure thing and some safety backups. You'll guarantee you'll get in.

About Lee Saperstein

Age: 65, New York City native

Current address: 20 New Street, Nantucket Island, MA, 02554

Job title: Dean Emeritus of the School of Mines and Metallurgy and Professor Emeritus of Mining Engineering at the University of Missouri-Rolla, (UMR); he served as Dean from July 1, 1993, to June 30, 2004. He retired from UMR at the end of December 2006. He has a B.S. in Mining Engineering from Montana School of Mines (1964), now Montana Tech of the University of Montana, and a D.Phil. in Engineering Science from Oxford University (1967), which he attended as a Rhodes Scholar.

He was a faculty member in mining engineering at Penn State from 1967 to 1987 and for the following six years at the University of Kentucky where he was also Chair of the Department of Mining Engineering. While at Kentucky, he participated in an interim management team for the University of Kentucky Center for Applied Energy Research as Assistant Director for Clean Coal Fuels.

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