University Communications

The Newsletter for Marshall University        July 7, 2010

Profile: Eldon Larsen

When Eldon Larsen was a junior in high school he took an engineering aptitude test, but when the results came back, a counselor solemnly advised him he might want to consider going into another field of study. Now after three engineering degrees, a distinguished career as a practicing chemical engineer, and a second career as an award- winning engineering professor, Larsen can have a hearty laugh at that earlier advice.

A whiz at math (it was like a game to him, he says) and good in science, Larsen, who is professor of engineering and a Certified Project Management Professional, had decided to be an electrical engineer. Luckily, a high school chemistry teacher realized his potential and at his own expense took him to a Saturday open house at Brigham Young University, 100 miles away from his home, the farming town of Willard, Utah. Engineers were indeed making presentations, but they were chemical engineers. Chemical engineering was not a field to which he’d given much thought, but he attended the sessions and listened intently anyway. Much to his surprise, a week later he received a letter from BYU offering him a $100 chemical engineering scholarship. Back then tuition was $400 a semester, so he took the university up on its offer. “I changed my whole career for $100.” he says, laughing.
Larsen completed both a B.S. and M.S. at BYU and later received a Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley, all in chemical engineering. While at BYU, as part of his Mormon faith, he took two years off to do mission work in Belgium and France. And it was at BYU that the most important event of his life happened—he met his future wife, Susan. “We were soulmates from the start,” he says. Married now for 36 years, the couple has nine children ranging in age from 13 to 35.

Education and faith are paramount in the Larsen family, just as they were for Larsen as he was growing up in a close-knit family. He comes from a rich educational background. His father was a chemist and his mother taught fourth grade for more than 20 years. Several aunts and uncles were teachers as well. Perhaps the best-known member of his family was his grandfather, B.F. Larsen, an artist who had studied in Paris and was an art professor and department chair at BYU.

“My parents were always teaching us,” he says. “In summer they would take us on tours, nature trips, and hikes and they were always teaching us about trees, insects, flowers, animals, rocks, and bird-watching. They made us aware of things around us and they found learning opportunities everywhere.”

Eldon and Susan have passed that legacy on to their own children. “For the last 17 years we’ve had students in college and most of the time there were multiples.” Now with two teenagers at home, 13-year-old Sharon and 15-year-old Ann, the educational chain apparently won’t be broken any time soon. The sheer number of degrees the Larsen children have accumulated is staggering. Right now he can tick off the siblings' ongoing work. There’s a son who’s working on a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature; another son just finished a second M.A.—the first in Anglo-Irish literature in Ireland, the second in creative writing—with plans to begin work on a Ph.D. in creative writing; a daughter, working on an exercise science degree who has temporarily taken a two-year leave to do a mission trip; and another daughter who is starting a M.A. in education. Another daughter has a B.S. in elementary education and two sons have degrees in computer science—one with a B.S. works for Microsoft, and the other with a Ph.D. works for Google. And ever committed to family life, there are now 18 grandchildren, ranging in age from two months to 12 years.

Larsen credits his wife with imbuing the children with their lifelong love of learning. All the children are voracious readers, he says. When each child was three or four years old, visits to public libraries began. Usually with several youngsters in tow, Susan regularly took the whole family to the library where each child was allowed to select and check out all the books he or she wanted up to the library's limit, which was usually 15. Laden with their stash of books, the Larsen kids happily headed for home and marathon reading sessions. Two weeks later the books went back to the library and the exchange began all over again. They still make those trips to the library every two weeks.
In fact, one of the rare acts of noncompliance in the Larsen household involved reading. “Our children loved to read so much that after we called lights out invariably we would catch a glimmer of light under a blanket as one or more of the kids would be reading by flashlight.” It was a minor infraction which the parents viewed with amused tolerance.

The Larsen children are now scattered all over the country from Seattle to New York City, with locations in between including Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Utah, California and Washington. There’s to be a big family reunion in August at a campground in Iowa with seven of the siblings attending, including all five of the married ones and their children. Only their daughter who is doing a mission trip and another daughter who has academic obligations won’t be able to attend this much anticipated event.

The Larsens and their then five children relocated to the Charleston area from Berkeley when Eldon accepted a position with Union Carbide Corp., where he spent the next 16-and-a half years. Susan’s library skills, coupled with determined sleuthing, made the transition from California to West Virginia much easier. “As soon as we learned we would be locating to this area she went to the library—there were no computer searches available back then—and looked up everything she could find on West Virginia. She checked out books and immediately started teaching the family about West Virginia,” he recalls. “She even learned the song ‘Country Roads,’ taught it to the children and we sang it at a church social in Berkeley.”

After serving as an adjunct faculty member at what was then the West Virginia College of Graduate Studies, in 1999 he was offered a full time faculty position as coordinator of the Engineering Management program at Marshall. The transition didn’t come easy.

He was torn by the size of the change he was about to make. Going from being a successful corporate engineer to a teaching career meant taking a big financial hit. His career with his company had been long and profitable and he was only two years away from being able to take early retirement with a generous package of perks. Staying on the corporate path and life could remain comfortable for the Larsen family. But the pull to teach was so strong it felt like a calling, he remembers. Still, signing the actual contract was both mentally and physically daunting.

“I literally couldn’t make myself sign my name,” he says. “I tried three times and I just couldn’t do it.” Finally he went into the dining room where the family was gathered and asked them frankly if he was doing the right thing. His choice, after all, would ultimately affect them as well. If he had doubts, the family certainly didn’t. Their response came back loud, clear and instantaneously. “Do it!” they chorused with one voice. “So I did it but it still wasn’t easy. I signed the contract but I actually had to grab my right hand with my left hand and I literally had to force myself to put my signature on the line. But the minute I signed it, I felt free. I’ve never regretted making the choice for a minute.”

And with that fateful decision finally made, he has seen his decision reaffirmed many times over as academic accolades have continued to accumulate. He was the 2009-2010 Drinko Fellow and was named a Distinguished Artists and Scholars award winner in 2009. In 2004 he was honored as the Ashland Outstanding Graduate Advisor of the Year. He has served as the chair of the Graduate Council for the past nine years and has made contributions to many academic committees. His student evaluations through the years have been glowing. He’s been a prolific contributor to journals in his field with numerous publications credited to him, and he’s been an active participant at conferences, presenting papers and chairing panels and sessions, all in addition to his teaching and advising duties. It makes for an extremely busy professional life, but “I want things to go right for the university, that’s the reason I’ve done all of this. I want good things to happen for Marshall and the students,” he explains.

He stays busy outside of work as well. He loves to garden, saying that the physical exercise of it and being out in the sun give him time to meditate. His garden space, though, is far from ideal as it’s all hillside, he says. But if it’s one thing engineers love, it’s a challenge and, to no one’s surprise, he has turned a problem garden spot into a flourishing patch that will provide the family with plentiful produce well into the fall.

The Larsen home itself is a beehive of activity. The two youngest daughters are being home schooled following the path blazed by two older sisters. It’s a choice these four Larsen daughters made for themselves and the one proviso is that they can return to traditional schooling at any time they choose. Both of the current two homeschoolers are excelling academically. Fifteen-year-old Ann has made straight A’s in the high school advanced courses and lab classes she is taking as a supplement to her home schooling. Thirteen-year-old Sharon is a promising writer who has already produced a prodigious amount of work. “She writes constantly, and she’s really quite good. In fact, she’s currently writing a fantasy novel and we have great hopes that it will be published at some point,” her proud father says.

And finally there may be another engineer in the family one day. So far none of the Larsens has chosen to follow in their father’s footsteps but Ann excels at math and has already won several regional and state math awards. She’s thinking about engineering as a field which would delight her father, but her career choice is strictly up to her, he says emphatically.

School days begin early in the Larsen household as Susan voluntarily teaches a church seminary class in their home for 7 or 8 students from nearby George Washington High School who arrive at 6:15 a.m. daily for a 50-minute scripture study before they head off to high school classes.

And for all the accolades and awards this accomplished family has accrued, none is more treasured than the honor that was bestowed in May upon Susan, when the state chapter of the American Mothers Inc. named her the 2010 West Virginia Mother of the Year, which involved a trip to New York City for the Mother of the Year national convention. Eldon nominated her in an eloquent letter and he says, quite simply, “Susan deserves all the credit for our family. She is unique; she completely supports me in whatever I want to do. From the beginning she was willing to go with me wherever I went. No one deserves being honored as a mother more than she. Our children and I are all so proud.” Actually, the Larsens’ parenting skills have been recognized before, as he and Susan were named the 2003 Outstanding Parents of the Year for West Virginia by the Parents Day Coalition of West Virginia.

Deeply committed to their faith, the Larsens give much time to their church. So far six of the Larsen children have gone on mission trips of 18 to 24 months each, and it will be up to the two teenagers to decide if they want go down that path as well. Eldon served as a branch president for the Mormon Church in Spencer for three years, and as bishop he has been the ecclesiastical leader for his local church for the past two years, serving a congregation of 550 people in the Kanawha Valley.

So now, years removed from that fateful day when he had to physically force himself to sign that first faculty contract, his work goes on  and he has no regrets. “On paper it looked like I was making a really bad decision. I’ll always be glad I listened to my family and did what I knew to be right in my heart! I am glad to be at Marshall University.”

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