A Remarkable Life

A Remarkable Life

Lewis Thigpen (M.S. MECH ’67, Ph.D. ’70)

Lewis Thigpen (M.S. MECH ’67, Ph.D. ’70)
Photo: Courtesy of Lewis Thigpen


ewis Thigpen (M.S. MECH ’67, Ph.D. ’70), who hails from Sawdust, a dot on the Florida map about 30 miles west of Tallahassee, says that one of his most-loved poems is “If” by Rudyard Kipling, because it imparts valuable lessons. Fond of southern food, Thigpen also enjoys New Mexican cuisine, soft shell blue crabs sautéed in butter, and fried quail. And while he jokingly admits that he doesn’t follow the adage too well nowadays in retirement—“Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today” is a Thigpen family favorite.

As a Black man born in the segregated United States in 1938, Thigpen can relate other bits of information about himself that comprise the fabric of his life. During the 1960 presidential election, Thigpen had to rescue his brother Amos from bullies who accosted him outside the polling place for having the audacity to vote. Thigpen was not served in many clubs and restaurants, and was sometimes turned down for apartments, all while he was employed at Sandia National Laboratories and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and did contract work for Texas A&M University. And Thigpen has a special place in his heart for blues music, noting that the song “Black, Brown, and White” by Big Bill Broonzy was a kind of anthem to Thigpen’s life in what he had “observed and experienced in racial relationships—not only in the Jim Crow South but throughout my journey around the world.”

Keeping another family adage in mind—“Any job worth doing is a job worth doing well to the best of your ability”—Thigpen focused on educating himself and rose above circumstances to excel as an industry engineer and scientist at national laboratories for nearly 20 years. Among his many accomplishments was performing the first computations showing that earth materials could be modeled with simple constitutive equations to simulate projectile penetration into rock, which led to proposals for updating coal mining techniques and obtaining a patent for an Air-Deliverable, Ice-Penetrating Sonobuoy. In 1988 Thigpen transitioned into academia, becoming chair and professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Howard University, where he remained until his retirement in 2008. In 2007 Thigpen was one of a five-member faculty team from institutions around the world that received the XCaliber Award from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University for Excellence in Technology-Assisted Teaching and Learning for a Global Team. Among Thigpen’s other honors was an Illinois Tech’s Professional Achievement Award (2006) and the 2019 Albert Nelson Marquis Lifetime Achievement Award.

Thigpen’s former Sawdust barber, the late Franklin Jones, gave Thigpen the idea to pen his autobiography, which was published in 2019. Born and Raised in Sawdust: My Journey Around the World in Eighty Years is a story of family, race, and achievement.

You begin your preface with “I have had a life filled with challenges, which I had to overcome to become successful.” What were your greatest challenges?
Systemic racism and limited resources were my greatest challenges to overcome to be successful. I grew up in a poor family on a farm in the Jim Crow South faced with racism, few opportunities, and limited resources, and for most of my early teen years, I didn’t even have an idea what to do with my life or how to figure it out. Yet, through respect for others, honesty, resourcefulness, respect for hard work, courage to fight racism head on, encouragement from family and friends, a belief in what’s possible, a stint in the army, and plenty of travel, I made my mark in science and education.
What did you gain most from your Illinois Tech years?
I saw the results of the 1968 Chicago riots in April 1968 that were partially sparked by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. And I witnessed the protests at the August 1968 Democratic National Convention; thousands of Vietnam War protesters battled in the streets while the Democratic Party fell apart over an internal disagreement concerning its stance on Vietnam. All of that happened during my years at IIT. It was an educational experience that was more than technical work on campus. The streets and the International Amphitheatre where the convention took place were research laboratories to get a unique learning experiment on the state of the nation and its aspirations. As one of my colleagues from IIT during those years stated recently, “the alumni whom I have met over the years seem to have a deeper understanding of a foundational world that only being in Chicago in those years could give.”
Throughout the duration of your career, what was the one highlight that stood out the most?
The highlight of my career was serving as a member of the American Society of Mechanical Engineering (ASME) Center for Education Board of Directors over a period of more than 10 years (1999–2010). I was the first and probably still the only African American to chair the ASME National Department Heads Committee and serve two terms as chair of the Committee on Engineering Accreditation.
Based on your life experiences as well as what you see happening in the world today, what message would you have for readers regarding inclusion, equality, and diversity?
I ask each of us to find our voices so that all of us will rise. And our communities will be transformed from sawdust into giant, solid oak trees.

—Marcia Faye