A small photograph is perhaps the most telling testament to alumnus Max Ephraim’s legacy. It hangs in a corner of the factory at Modern Process Equipment, put there not by Dan and Phil Ephraim, Max’s sons and operators of the successful company, but by their workers.
It is a tribute to the man whose generous spirit touched so many lives, and whose wisdom and humor are still cherished by his family and all who knew him. After Max retired, he spent every Thursday at the factory. He knew more about our workers and their families than we did, says Phil. When my dad was here, the “factory hum” on the floor would die down because everyone stopped work to talk to him.
The patriarch of three generations of IIT alumni—sons Dan (MBA ’76) and Steve (ME ’78) and granddaughter Laurel (B.Arch. ’94)—Max Ephraim was born on the South Side of Chicago in 1917. His father was Jewish and his mother Irish, and Max experienced the discrimination common to both groups at the time. In spite of his modest beginnings, he attended Armour Tech during the Great Depression and graduated second in his class in just three and a half years with a degree in mechanical engineering all while editing the school newspaper, playing intramural sports, participating in the Rho Delta Rho fraternity, and working two jobs to pay his way through school. After graduation, he took one day off before launching into his career at the Electro-Motive Division (EMD) of General Motors. By the time he retired from EMD in 1983, he had gone from draftsman to chief engineer and had been instrumental in the emergence of the diesel locomotive.
His most famous design, the GP7, successfully solidified the transition from steam to diesel locomotives. “The locomotives built today are all lineal descendants of the GP7,” says Rob McGonigal, associate editor of Trains magazine. “They all have the road switcher and the long hood on the side of the car. The long hood was revolutionary.” Ephraim also engineered such improvements as better fuel economy with the new “710” engine, computerized controls and brakes, and the high-adhesion locomotive, which could more easily go up a steep incline.
Because of Max and wife Audrey’s modesty, when their nine children were growing up they weren’t aware of their father’s importance in his field, including his reputation as the father of the modern locomotive. But they were aware of their father’s affinity for trains. During family road trips, if he saw a train, he would often get out of his car, climb aboard the train, and start chatting with whomever he found.
His son Steve, who is an engineer with John Deere, recalls taking a class trip with IIT’s American Society of Mechanical Engineers chapter to General Motors during his senior year. The EMD representative leading the tour told the group that they had a very rare opportunity to hear from someone of great importance. “They introduced my father,” said Steve, “and the reaction from the professors and students gave me some indication of just how influential he was.”
Max’s technical skills were only part of his success; he was also an incredibly effective manager. “He had an amazing combination of technical, managerial, and interpersonal skills that made him a great leader,” Phil recalls. “He would walk through the shop and greet 50 people, and know all their names.” Once, while escorting GM senior officers on a tour of EMD, Max broke protocol and personally introduced a fork lift operator to GM’s chairman, Roger Smith.
And he was fun to be around. On the job, he often masterminded elaborate practical jokes. Max carpooled with coworkers, including one who was very proud of his chess skills. Max was just a rookie, but one day he set up a game with the more skilled player at the customary meeting place over lunch. Max’s two accomplices, who were expert chess players, began a game directly alongside, mimicking Max’s opponent’s moves and providing Max with countermoves. The trick was successful until someone came by and noted, “Hey, isn’t that something? Both games have the pieces in exactly the same place!”
Max passed down his three priorities to his family: God, family, and career (in that order). He also passed down a great love for IIT. “He knew all the words to the fight song,” recalls granddaughter Laurel. His report card still hangs in his old home office. (He received just one “B”, which was in English, and he always contended it was only because the instructor didn’t care for him.)
Today, the nine Ephraim children are scattered across the country, but still consider themselves close-knit and remember their father’s impact on their lives with respect and fondness. Max tried not to unduly influence his children in their choice of university, but he helped them navigate their careers. James earned an engineering degree and an MBA and is currently director of business development for a California electronics company. Gary graduated in mechanical engineering and is a senior project manager for CITGO Petroleum in the Chicago area. Alicia enrolled in medical school and is now both a nurse practitioner and owner/operator of a homeopathy clinic in the San Francisco area. Lois is creative director for a West Coast advertising and marketing firm that assists many non-proﬁt organizations. Janet pursued teaching before taking up philanthropic causes, most recently as director of an orphanage in Jakarta, Indonesia. Paul followed directly in his father’s footsteps, beginning his career as a draftsman at EMD just five years before Max retired, and continuing his career there as designer.
Steve chose IIT for his undergraduate studies in mechanical engineering, and although he was a commuter student, he has warm memories of his time spent on campus. One of his favorite experiences was creating a wheelchair that could assist quadriplegics in daily tasks. He also remembers the quirky imaginations of his fellow IIT students, including a homemade “tennis ball bazooka” that was used to pitch a ball over 100 meters in a makeshift baseball game. Steve is a project engineer for John Deere in Waterloo, Iowa.
Dan went on to study at Stuart Graduate School of Business soon after its inception. Like his father, he enrolled in an accelerated program and completed his MBA in a year and a half. Just five years after graduating, he and brother Phil purchased Modern Process Equipment, an industrial coffee grinder manufacturer. He credits the rigorous education he received at IIT with developing his business skills, saying, “In any leadership role, the ability to plan strategically is paramount; IIT provided an excellent base in this regard.”
The company holds a dominant market share throughout North America and Indonesia—and has a strong presence in Russia, South America, and many Mideastern countries. They have also expanded their business into food and chemical equipment.
According to Phil’s daughter Laurel, Max’s unwillingness to push his alma mater onto his children did not extend to his grandchildren; he mentioned the value of an IIT education to her at every available opportunity. Max had her pegged as an engineering student, but she chose to study architecture instead. Laurel also remembers her IIT education as challenging but effective. Many times she saw the sun rise over the CTA Green Line after a night of work in Crown Hall. Now regional marketing coordinator at Bloodgood Sharp Buster, her career is still shaped by Max’s influence, and she often hearkens back to “wise words from Grandpa” when faced with a decision on the job.
Max’s professional legacy is matched only by his legacy as a philanthropist, on both a grand and intimate scale. Max taught his children that “you can’t just be a good person on the job; you have to be a good person all of the time.” A devout member of the Assembly of God Church throughout his adulthood, Max helped found Evangel University and Chicago’s religious television station, Channel 38. Audrey became a chaplain’s assistant and regularly visited patients at Cook County Hospital. The Ephraim home was always open to visitors, particularly to fellow members of the church, and the children recall that you never knew who would show up for Sunday dinner. Guests ranged from a young University of Chicago law student named John Ashcroft, to newly-arriving immigrants whom Max would find at the train station. Often homeless and penniless, they were befriended by Max during their transition to their new country. And when Audrey had a stroke, Max became her caregiver for years. She often remarked that she was thankful for her disability, because it proved to her how much her husband loved her.
Max was also a tolerant man. He took a genuine interest in each person he met. And “there was never a simple answer with Max,” Phil recalls. If you asked him a question, he would give you the entire background on every aspect of it—whether you wanted to know or not. Max even hung a blackboard by the kitchen for problem-solving sessions, a practice his kids found mortifying back then, but now recall fondly. Max and Audrey also shared a great love of travel and journeyed throughout the world, including many mission trips to Africa. While Max was hospitalized towards the end of his life, a new Nigerian doctor once walked into his hospital room. When the doctor gave his name, Max astounded him by correctly guessing both his country and tribe of origin.
Collectively, the Ephraim family has been witness to the evolution of IIT from its earliest incarnation as a small technical school to its current manifestation as a multi-campus university of national prominence in design, engineering, and architecture. Throughout this period, the Ephraims have been part of that growth, both as students and benefactors. Following in Max’s tracks, the Ephraim family is carrying on his legacy of giving, and doing so in his name, quite literally. A conference room at The McCormick Tribune Campus Center has been named in Max’s honor, and a new Max Ephraim Endowed Scholarship in Engineering was created in 2003. The family agrees that Max Ephraim’s decision to attend Armour Institute was the start of what has clearly been a mutually beneficial relationship—through three generations, and counting.