We Just Worked Hard

Former IIT president John Rettaliata reflects on the golden age of IIT.

By Richard Duncan (AE '05)
We Just Worked Hard
Photo: J.B. Spector

He led IIT for more than 20 years, oversaw the construction of a new campus center, and helped bring IIT to national prominence through an innovative approach to education. Many laud his administration as one of the high points for the university, and his fundraising efforts solidified a school otherwise struggling under its own financial weight.

Today, the study in his home looks just as one might expect: numerous achievements and degrees decorate the wall, with mementos of students, faculty, trustees, and friends placed throughout, and files storing annual reports and newspaper clippings chronicle his time in office.

One thing stands out, though—there is no computer. A pioneer from a technical university, and he doesn’t even own a computer. But for John Theodore Rettaliata, not needing a computer to keep track of life is somehow fitting.

Rettaliata became president of IIT in 1952 at age 40—the youngest IIT president to date and, at the time, the youngest chief executive of a scientific school in the United States. Chosen from a field of 75 candidates, Rettaliata succeeded Henry Heald and held the position for 21 years. During his tenure, he saw Main Campus built, Chicago-Kent College of Law added, Stuart Graduate School of Business founded, and IIT grow to be the biggest engineering school in the United States. IIT historians call this a ‘golden age’ for the university, and for good reason. Between the innovative cooperative education program—one of the first in the nation—and Rettaliata’s national influence as he testified before Congress on numerous occasions, Illinois Tech (the common nickname back then) held a high position in the ranks of the nation’s technological universities. While it was Mies van der Rohe’s design that made Main Campus the historical landmark it is today, Rettaliata’s vision made the university a leader in education.

Most current IIT students, staff, and faculty have never met Rettaliata, and some may have never heard his name. In fact, Rettaliata hasn’t been back to IIT since his resignation in 1973. Why has such an influential figure in IIT history stayed away for so long?

“I visited other schools while on accreditation boards, and some of them would have the former president there on campus in an office. The faculty would call and tell the former president what the new guy wasn’t doing right,” Rettaliata says. “I wanted to let the new guy do his job.”

Now 94, Rettaliata reflects on the accomplishments of his professional career, whether as an engineer, educator, or executive. Before coming to IIT, he worked for Allis-Chalmers, a leading manufacturing company in the Midwest. During World War II, he embarked on the first of many roles for the United States government, taking part in the tour of British aeronautical research facilities that enabled America to develop a better jet aircraft. As such, in 1943, he became one of the first people to fly in a jet aircraft. When Nazi Germany fell, the Navy Bureau of Ships sent him to Germany to investigate an innovative hydrogen-peroxide submarine—a project he completed alone and filed a confidential report on. He continued to consult for the Navy after the war, helping with the development of gas turbine applications and, according to a 1953 article in Popular Science, other projects for the Air Force that were at the time ‘still secret.’

While president at IIT, Rettaliata held a seat on the National Advisory Council on Aeronautics, and then was appointed to the National Aeronautics and Space Council, the planning body of the newly formed National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Attending bi-monthly meetings in the White House, Rettaliata says he was most impressed with President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who, despite popular opinion to the contrary, had a good grasp of the highly technical topics being discussed. After leaving the university in 1973, he became chair of the board of Banca di Roma in Chicago and later served on the boards of Admiral, Amsted Industries, Brunswick, DeSoto Chemical, First Federal Savings, Harris Bank, International Harvester, SC Johnson, Kemper Insurance, Peabody Energy, Santa Fe Railway, and Western Electric.

Still, if you heard it from him, you’d think his successes were no big deal. Rettaliata’s primary accomplishment at IIT, the construction of Main Campus, was one of necessity, but not for the reasons many believe today, he says. When it came to bringing in faculty, Rettaliata certainly had the connections, but no amount of praise over the phone could keep them here once they arrived for a tour. The problem was IIT’s neighborhood, with run-down apartment buildings lining the ‘L’ between State and Wabash. With the help of Mayor Richard J. Daley and the Chicago Land Clearance Commission, things began to change. By the time Rettaliata left IIT, Main Campus was an almost continuous stretch from LaSalle to Michigan between 30th and 35th, and would remain untouched until 1998. The building of Main Campus and his relationship with Mies, the architect of Main Campus, provided many interesting moments.

“One day,” he says, “Mies came into my office and said he wanted to build a building that had never been built before, or at least that he had never built before. The building would be supported all by its roof, and there would be I-beams across the roof to support the weight.” Rettaliata went out, as he put it, “to ring some doorbells,” and soon had the necessary $700,000 to begin work. Henry Crown’s doorbell was one that he rang, and Crown agreed to pay for a substantial amount of the building’s construction. As the building was being constructed, Mies said he needed more money to finish the project. Rettaliata says he responded with language he wouldn’t repeat, but after he rang a few more doorbells, S. R. Crown Hall opened in 1956. In one of the more tender moments in the Rettaliata/Mies relationship, at the dedication of Crown Hall, Mies gave Rettaliata a Gold Key to Crown Hall. The key, which now sits in a case hanging over his desk at home, was a sign of gratitude Rettaliata received from Mies, a man he describes as “a good man, a modest man,” who was quiet and private and hated giving speeches.

Rettaliata’s rapport with IIT’s student community also defined his time. From the Black Knights, a secret group of students he formed to serve as conduits regarding student needs (many of whom now visit the campus twice a year as trustees), to a two-hour question and answer session with protesting students shortly after the Kent State riots, Rettaliata knew to keep his ear toward the students. When told that a great deal of the university’s success today is the result of his work back then—with alumni and estate gifts from his time as president providing nearly half of all donations to IIT—he seemed genuinely surprised.

When asked how he became such a successful fundraiser, he quips, “Somebody had to do it.” And the role wasn’t easy, as he describes in the story of how IITRI got its name: “When MIT did something, MIT got the credit. When Armour Research Foundation [ARF] did something, most people did not know of its relationship with IIT. So I thought we should change the name to IIT Research Institute.” At the time, ARF was the second largest independent research firm in the United States. As president of IIT, ARF, and the Institute of Gas Technology, Rettaliata held responsibilities to the university and its two major research affiliates. Lester Armour, chair of the Board of Trustees and grandson of Armour Institute founder Philip D. Armour, was less than enthusiastic about the decision. “Here I was, recommending that we remove the Armour name. I don’t think he ever forgave me for that.”

When asked to comment on the university today, Rettaliata quickly flips open one of his last annual reports as president and stops on a page where the new dean of Chicago-Kent College of Law is pictured. He points to a photo of Lew Collens, now IIT’s president, and says, “I think Lew is doing a fine job.”

It’s obvious that Rettaliata still has a great deal of pride in both IIT and his legacy, but in his own role in the accomplishments of the university, his modesty prevails. “There was no silver bullet,” he says. “We just worked hard.”

Richard Duncan (AE ’05) is currently an admission counselor in IIT’s Office of Undergraduate Admission and is pursuing a Master of Science in Finance at IIT’s Stuart Graduate School of Business. A native of eastern Kentucky, he was editor-in-chief of TechNews and active in the Student Government Association during his undergraduate years at IIT. He also worked for two of IIT’s research groups as an undergraduate and spent a summer working for NASA at Kennedy Space Center.

Rettaliata’s Black Knights

Among former IIT President John Rettaliata’s relationships with IIT students during his tenure, no group held more prestige, respect—or more secrecy—than the Black Knights, a small collective of student leaders chosen each year to serve as the president’s student advisory board. Unbeknownst to the larger student population, the Black Knights never revealed their identities to the public until Integral was published at the end of the school year.

The Black Knights disbanded soon after Rettaliata left IIT in 1973. Some members became CEOs, presidents, and vice presidents of corporations across the country. Others continue to influence the direction of the university today—three current members of IIT’s Board of Trustees are Black Knights alumni. One in particular, Martin C. Jischke (PHYS ’63), took Rettaliata’s example about as far as one can. He became a professor of aerospace engineering, head of his department, dean, and president of three major universities.

After graduating from IIT, Jischke attended MIT, receiving an M.S. and Ph.D. in aeronautics, and taught for nearly two decades at the University of Oklahoma. After being interim president at OU, chancellor at University of Missouri-Rolla, and president at Iowa State University, Jischke became president of Purdue University in 2000. In February, President George Bush named Jischke to a seat on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

Rettaliata’s influence has stayed with Jischke. “I was dazzled by his fundraising. One of the most memorable meetings was shortly after he had returned from a fundraising trip on the West Coast,” he recalls. He says Rettaliata’s efforts to ensure a balanced budget and strong physical plant have greatly influenced his work at Purdue and other schools. A student group called Iron Key has served the Purdue community for many decades in much the same way as the Black Knights provided IIT students a direct line to the president.