For Mark Bowles, authoring a book on the history of the polymer science program at the University of Akron hit much closer to home than his other writing projects.
Bowles had authored or co-authored seven books, first as co-founder of History Enterprises Inc. and now under his own company, Belle History LLC. But he did not have much of a personal stake in those previous projects.
All that changed with Chains of Opportunity: The University of Akron and the Emergence of the Polymer Age, 1909-2007, just published by the University of Akron Press.
Bowles' father, Donald, was an administrator at the university for more than 30 years, retiring in 1990 as the first associate dean of the school's College of Polymer Science and Polymer Engineering. Bowles also received bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Akron.
``The university was like a second home to me,'' he said.
Frank Kelley, now dean emeritus for the College of Polymer Science, contacted Bowles five years ago as the program approached its 50th anniversary. Bowles, in fact, was working in the rubber industry at the time as vice president of administration at Tech Pro Inc., a firm founded by his uncle John Putnam that was sold earlier this year to Alpha Technologies Services LLC.
Bowles said there wasn't time to produce a book for the 2006 celebration, but he helped create a multimedia DVD for the event, with much of that research helping toward writing the book.
Putting it together
Kelley was fairly hands-off for the most part, though he did review each chapter, Bowles said. ``I had a tremendous amount of academic freedom to tell the story as I saw fit.''
Bowles did much of his research at the University of Akron archives, starting at the beginning and proceeding chronologically. He'd do all the research for one chapter, then write it and present it to Kelley, following that procedure for each of the book's seven chapters.
And while the polymer college has been an official program only since 1956, the history actually started in 1909 when Charles Knight taught the first complete course in rubber chemistry at the school. Bowles called it the ``birth of a new academic discipline.''
In writing the book, he was careful not to tell the story of the polymer college in a vacuum, instead linking it to the larger story of polymer science. That meant putting the school in context against significant events like the synthetic rubber project in World War II, the demise of tire manufacturing in Akron and the role the school played in helping the city rework its image as a center for polymers. ``You can't tell the story without telling it against the larger story,'' Bowles said.
He also came across a variety of interesting personalities during the course of his research.
Among them was Maurice Morton, the first director of the school's Institute of Rubber Research, which was later named in his honor. Morton was an aggressive, ``in your face'' leader who would tell you what you should be doing, according to those interviewed by Bowles.
Morton also worked well with University President Norman Auburn in creating a model for how to get things done at the university level, Bowles said.
Kelley, by contrast, was the opposite of Morton, choosing to be a quieter, forceful leader. ``He wouldn't yell and scream,'' Bowles said. ``He was more of a gentle, intellectual persuader. He was different, but he accomplished great things for the university.''
Hezzleton Simmons first arrived at the university on horseback along with his father. He was a student who eventually came back and served as university president from 1933-51.
``He had a great scientific mind and took a leading role nationally in the synthetic rubber crisis in World War II,'' Bowles said. ``It's a very interesting story. I would have liked to have met him.''
Future of the program
The college has been ranked as the No. 2 polymer program in the country by U.S. News & World Report, a ranking that is at the same time subjective yet important, Bowles said.
``It shows a lot of ability to adapt over time and make the transition from rubber to polymers,'' he said.
Bowles believes the program is in good hands under the current dean, Stephen Z.D. Cheng. The new dean has performed a ``SWOT'' analysis of the college identifying its strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.
On the positive side, Cheng ranked the school high in history and its external influence in the Akron-area community. Potential problems include fundraising and stagnation. Cheng wants to get more government support and endowed chairs, and wants to explore other opportunities in nano sciences and technology, according to Bowles.
The experience of the faculty can be seen as both a strength and opportunity. Of the roughly 34 faculty members, nine are at least 65 years old and there are five open spots. ``There will be some turnover, and Cheng wants to go after some of the leading lights in the field to create the next generation of research and teaching,'' Bowles said. ``Dr. Cheng wants to be No. 1. The other schools are all getting stronger, and the University of Akron needs to strengthen itself to keep up with the competition.''
Bowles said he hopes the book has a built-in audience from the program's 1,000 doctorate and master's graduates who are dispersed throughout the world; from those within the Akron community who have an interest in the rubber industry; and from rubber industry people who want to learn more about the history of polymer science.