R.M. (Bob) Speck did not set out out with the goal of being a beloved teacher and mentor to thousands of students. Yet this nearly 80-year-old self-taught electrical engineer, inventor, and business owner has also educated corrosion technicians all across the country.
At Seward County Community College campus Tuesday afternoon, more than 50 industry professionals gathered to honor Speck for what he’s contributed to their work, and his continual efforts to educate the next generation of corrosion techs.
SCCC said “thank you” with a surprise for Speck: Official dedication of a corrosion classroom/lab named in his honor, and a reception that brought old-timers back to campus to congratulate the man of the day.
“Seward County Community College is naming our corrosion lab in honor of Bob’s life work,” said SCCC President, Dr. Ken Trzaska. “His commitment to lifelong learning, and changing the lives of so many is an inspiration to all of us. The people in this room are a testament to the positive relationships he’s created.”
Speck, a longstanding member of the National Association of Corrosion Engineers (NACE), has been working in the rectifier business for more than 49 years, 12 as general manager in charge of Research and Development in the Solid State and Solar Power Divisions of his former company. Speck’s present company, Universal Rectifiers, is recognized as the largest producer of cathodic rectifiers in the nation. He has been instrumental in the production of more than 250,000 rectifiers and continues to devote time to innovations for the industry.
Speck taught the fall and spring Gas Capitol Rectifier School at Seward County Community College for 25 years.
“He does not charge an instructor fee because of his relationship with the college and our local NACE chapter partner,” said director of Business & Industry, Norma Jean Dodge. “His donation of instructional services totaled approximately $200,000.”
Speck served on the Corrosion Advisory Committee that helped bring the Corrosion Technology Program to SCCC. He was instrumental in the design of the corrosion pipeline field lab recognized as the best corrosion field lab in the nation. He also designed and manufactured the master control panel for the corrosion pipeline lab at a substantial discount to the college. Speck donated many hours of time to the college installing and testing the control panel. He also built and contributed nine teaching rectifiers, each one with a unique built-in fault. These “complete rectifiers” have a value of approximately $12,600. He also donated an oil immersed rectifier with a value of $2500 and had it mounted on wheels to make it easier to maneuver and display in a classroom setting. Bob has donated approximately $10,000 in teaching aids to the college. Some of these are functioning components and others are failed components used for practicing visual inspection.
The effect went far beyond dollar value to global impact, Dodge noted: a representative from the International NACE organization attended the rectifier school at SCCC to determine how to model the successful training in Houston, where corrosion engineers from around the world come to hone their skills.
Because of Speck’s generosity, SCCC students have received the same world-class instruction.
“Since the spring of 2011, Mr. Speck recommended the local NACE chapter waive the training fee for the SCCC corrosion technology students. We have had a total of 112 students receive training as a result,” noted Trzaska in his remarks. “He believes our corrosion technology students should have as much high-quality training as possible before they enter the workforce as graduates of SCCC.
In addition, since Mr. Speck donates his instructional services, the local NACE chapter receives increased funds from its training fees that are then donated to the SCCC Foundation for student scholarships.”
Throughout the industry, Speck is known as the guru of the corrosion field. He described himself as a “jack of all trades,” holding his master electrician’s accreditation since the 1960s, and learning the rest of a daunting roster of skills on the job: mechanical, electronic, welding, painting, truck-driving, and the ever-changing factor of technology.
“I remember using my first cell phone in 1984,” he said. “It was called ‘a transportable,’ and it had a 45-minute operation window before you had to plug it back into the car to charge it.” Today, Speck said wryly, “they go out in the field, and do the work with a smartphone and a laptop computer.”
Back in 1958, when Speck started out with the fledgling field of corrosion, he found he was at the forefront.
“I didn’t start out planning to teach anyone, but I did a lot of work in the field, and I was knowledgeable,” Speck recalled. “I saw I could help people, and then it turned out there were more people who could benefit, and it grew from there.”
Speck made a point of presenting material in a way that connected with his audience, whether they were engineers with degrees or pipeliners working to expand their skill set. He understood the frustrations of being a bit bewildered by conditions on the field, “where something works on one side of the road, and you go across, and it’s not going to work over here,” he said. “This is a hands-on trade that is not an exact science.”
In time, Speck instructed at training sessions from Pomona, Calif., to Purdue University, OU, New Orleans, Corpus Christi, Texas, and Liberty Bell, Phil. As he encountered health issues, he reluctantly gave up many of the sessions, turning them over to his second-in-command, Mike Llamas. He also transferred responsibility for the family company to his son, also named Mike. But he held on to the SCCC rectifier school.
“It’s the people here that bring me back,” he said, noting the little details that make the difference: the B&I office’s responsiveness to scheduling issues, the college cafeteria making sure to keep tapioca pudding on the menu when Mr. Speck is in town, the delicious food at Billy’s. “This is family for me. They help set up and tear down the equipment, they’re appreciative of what I’ve done, and that keeps me coming back. I enjoy it.”
“On behalf of the local NACE chapter, I just want to say thank you for everything you’ve taught us,” said colleague Don Olson, “Through your years of dedication and service, your name has gone far and wide. And this is the kind of man Bob is … I worked for his competitor but it’s only because of Bob that I am where I am today. We can’t say enough good about him.”
Industry friends and former students shared similar memories, SCCC served cake and punch, and Speck’s wife, Mary, joined in the spirit of the day.
“I always wanted to be married to a famous guy,” she joked, then added, “thank you for being part of my husband’s work, and for always appreciating him. Over the years, he traveled a lot, and I didn’t know why he held on to the rectifier school at Seward County Community College for so long. Now I see why.”
Speck, in typical form, turned the praise back to the others in the room.
“I’ve done this class for years and have thoroughly enjoyed it,” he said. “Everybody here has helped so much, the committee, the friends up here, and the college. The success is because of you people. It’s been my pleasure.”