Wallace T. Russell P.E. [1932 - 2006]:
The Engineer Who’s Still Making a World of Difference
Valerie Shaw, M.PR
Physicist, Michael Batie Ph.D., long knew that his late friend and mentor, Wallace T. Russell, was a special gift to the field of engineering and to the advancement of African Americans in all the sciences, but it was at the funeral - where waves of younger scientists, engineers and public employees came forth to give their fond eulogies for the late Wallace Russell – that Michael Batie vowed to his widow, Jackie, to honor Russell with an inner city academy dedicated to Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) named for her late husband, Wallace T. Russell.
Wallace T. Russell was a visionary. Do a Google search and you won’t find much –
if anything – maybe that he worked as a Supervising Mechanical Engineer for Los
Angeles Department Water & Power for 31 years or that he was a Professional
Engineer registered in the state of
But if you’d dig a little deeper, you might find out that Wallace Russell was a founder of the Los Angeles Black Council of Engineers (LACBPE) in 1969, serving as president two terms; first, in the 70s, again in the 90s, and in between he held a host of other elected and non-elected positions within the organization, nearly up to his time of death.
What made Wallace T. Russell a visionary is partly stated in his 1992 farewell address: “We are seeing a re-entrenchment in industry, which is causing anguish within the country. …We cannot stand on our laurels of our past involvement and community programs, we must continue to forge ahead.”
He was worried, way back in ’92, about the organization being pulled apart by both changes in the business climate and a lack of solidarity brewing among his African American peers within the STEM network.
Forever recognizing and working tirelessly for the LACBPE, in that same address Russell writes unapologetically: “[We] have undergone several transitions in programs…starting with two committees [in their founding in 1969] to a maximum of 17 committees.
At the time of his 1992 writing, LACBPE was only operating four major committees; including the acclaimed EXCELL Program, which still operates today on the campus of Cal State Dominguez Hills.
Recognizing the challenges, Russell says frankly: “We have seen the graying of senior members, myself included. …In order to continue into the 90s we are in need of [future leaders] we are in need of your participation.”
In the early 90s, when Russell wrote that address, Michael Batie was inactive in the LACBPE being deeply engaged in educational, professional, and family interests. But he had been friends with the senior engineer since his university days at Cal State LA when he was tapped by Russell in 1978 to become a tutor for the organization’s science mega-hit program the Engineering Orientation Class Project (EOCP), a program that encouraged 6th grade African American students through a hands-on curriculum designed to whet their interest in STEM courses of study.
“Back in those days,” now says Batie, “young students of color with STEM aptitudes didn’t know where to turn for guidance and Wallace was their yell king.” He pauses, perhaps remembering the challenges of introducing advanced engineering and science concepts to thousands of inner city youth. “He was OUR yell king!”
But that day, five years ago, at Wallace T. Russell’s funeral, was the first time Michael Batie had witnessed the profound influence his friend and mentor had had on these young professionals and hundreds of others who had gathered to pay tribute to a great man.
He learned also that day that Russell was greatly credited with helping African American city employees to both advance, and to resolve conflicts within the City bureaucracy. He learned that his friend and mentor had traveled throughout the country, recruiting the best and the brightest black engineering students into the DWP family.
Says Willie Gibson, P.E., recently retired DWP senior engineer, with 41 years of service, of his longtime friend, Wallace Russell, with whom he made several college recruitment tours: “First Wallace had to convince management that there were such people as black engineers. Then he had to convince them that Black colleges and universities were teaching advanced sciences and then he had to convince them that these graduates were capable of measuring up to industry standards.”
His wife, Jackie Russell, elaborates: “Wallace was always thinking about the futures of these young people. Once they were recruited, he took them under his wings. They could count on him for everything – from housing arrangements to protocol on the job.” [Remember, for many, if not most of these “first timers” many from the South, their DWP job opportunity was their first time away from the nest.]
By every account, Wallace T. Russell went out of his way to recruit fresh new talent from the African American community to work at DWP, and into the ranks of LACBPE. But now, five years, after his passing, Michael Batie wonders: “Where are those young engineers?”
In researching the life of Wallace T. Russell, talking to his widow, Jackie, to whom he was married for 44 years, Batie learned that besides their love of science and hunger to promote careers in science among inner city youth, both men had other life influences in common.
Both had served, in low rank, in the military, albeit during different eras. For Russell, it was the experience of enlisting in the Navy, after dropping out of high school, watching the demeaning work of Colored seamen [as black sailors of low rank were then called], which changed his life.
Making the best of his service, he worked his way up to become a fireman during his four years in the Navy. Following that, he returned to school – getting his high school diploma – and moved on to Tennessee State University, where he earned his degree in Mechanical Engineering under the G.I. Bill, and met his future wife and life’s partner, Jackie King, a beautiful underclassman from McAlester, Oklahoma.
For Batie, his life change occurred when he was drafted into
the Vietnam War, after flunking out of
But after his stint in the Military was completed, Michael
Batie, too, got serious. Moving to
Michael Batie was an enthusiastic recruit.
The Engineering Orientation Class Project (EOCP) was an advanced concept back in 1978; but it met with enthusiasm from the very start. “Not only did it engage thousands of inner city youth,” says Lois Cooper P.E., the first African American licensed Civil Engineer in the state of California, “but it also put the scientists and engineers [LACBPE members and beyond], educators, business and industry leaders on the same page to encourage a fresh new generation of STEM graduates.”
The EOCP, Batie says, also provided him with a salary, a bus pass and fantastic work exposure.
But those were the heady days of
Wallace Russell was one of EXCELL’s guiding lights nearly up to the time of his death in 2006, serving as its Executive Director of the EXCELL Program from 1995.
“It was all voluntary,” says Jackie Russell. “Like clockwork he was up at the crack of dawn every Saturday morning, putting his lesson plans and materials together. It was the day of the week that he truly looked forward to.
“Towards the end, though,” Jackie says, “Wallace expressed an ever-increasing concern. He began to worry about those young people. Many were being raised by over-burdened grandparents and many [of the youth] were lacking in basic skills.
“The education system,” she says, recalling Wallace’s lament “was letting them down.” Jackie Russell, too, should know; she is a career educator, before her retirement in 2000 from the Los Angeles Unified School District (L.A.U.S.D.), where she served as a teacher, coordinator and administrator.
Professional Engineer Lois Cooper, active with EXCELL since the beginning, following Wallace’s lead, also sees the decline of science education in today’s classrooms. “Most teachers studied science, but the hands-on application of concepts and principles is what youngsters really grasp. That’s what excites them.”
Michael Batie, newly installed Vice President of LACBPE, says, “Lois Cooper, the first female president of the LACBPE, Wallace Russell and other black and brown pioneers of science and technology gave us a legacy to protect and build upon.”
Usually wry and effervescent when talking about the miraculous world of science, Batie grows solemn. “WE OWE THEM!”
Today Dr. Michael Batie has his heart set on honoring his predecessors
and his mind set on a revolution in science education in the 21st
Century. “Without a vibrant and exciting
Batie, like his friend and mentor, Wallace T. Russell, is
both a visionary and a realist. Batie has
prepared himself well for the challenges of building the
Like Wallace Russell, Michael Batie is inspired by what has
been achieved and motivated by what is left to be done. Today he is determined to raise Math and
Science achievement for the youth of
“We are losing generations of young people, allowing them to grow up lacking the math and science skills to become employable or to manage life,” says Batie. When he analyzes the 2010 test scores of his local schools, Crenshaw, Dorsey, and Westchester High Schools – schools with over 90% black and brown enrollment – he observes that out of the combined 942 students that took the Algebra I California Standardized Test (CST) only 50 students (5%) tested proficient, only 4% or 34 students tested proficient in Algebra II out of 820 students who took the exam, and only 53 of 652 students tested proficient in Geometry.
Data obtained from California Dept. of Education
“That means,” says Batie, “less than 6% of students at these three predominately minority high schools are adequately prepared to attend and compete at either the UC or the CSUs. And with those abysmal numbers,” he concludes, “we have to admit that we are in the midst of an educational crisis of catastrophic proportions.
“These test scores should be an outrage and a call to action on the part of every parent, educator, community leader and resident alike,” says Batie. “It is clear that unless we are willing to forfeit our future, decisive action has to be taken in order to produce and nurture a new generation of STEM scholars.”
Calling for community action to put a laser focus on Math, and holding all stakeholders accountable, is something Batie, Jackie Russell, Lois Cooper, Willie Gibson and others agree that Wallace Russell would have done. And, like Wallace Russell before him, Dr. Michael Batie feels that his mission is urgent.
His vision of the
“All that’s missing now,” says Batie, “is raising the funds and building the public will to make our community the hub of a 21st Century movement toward building a new generation of scientists, engineers, mathematicians and technologists.
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