John G. Olin (ME ’61)

‘Sparking’ Success at Illinois Tech

John G. Olin (ME ’61) Wants to Provide a Chance
for Everyone to Live the American Dream

At a time when talking about the American dream can seem old-fashioned, Olin’s life and point of view make a compelling case that the dream is alive and well. Even better, Olin is committed to making the dream available to everyone, starting with the students at Illinois Institute of Technology.

Because for Olin, Illinois Tech is where it all started. As forward for the Scarlet Hawks men’s basketball team, Olin was only the second Scarlet Hawk to ever score more than 1,000 points over four years, with 1,290 points scored in 66 games from 1957–1961. In that time, Olin also set a new single-game scoring record of 41 points for Illinois Tech. He served as team captain during his second year and earned the nickname “Spark Plug” for his ability to ignite the enthusiasm of his teammates and get the crowd on its feet.

Even more than his physical ability, skillful playing, and talent for leadership, it is this quality—the ability to siphon off his own excess energy to empower the people he cares about—that has defined Olin’s life, career, and philanthropy.

Olin founded Sierra Instruments in 1973 with the pioneering purpose of offering industrial-grade thermal dispersion mass flowmeters to solve the industry’s need for rugged, reliable flowmeters based on the thermal principle. Sierra Instruments was such a success that several of its employees left to start their own companies, competing directly with Sierra and Olin. But Olin wished his former colleagues well and welcomed a little friendly competition. 

During this time, he also met and married his wife, Jane, with whom he raised two children, Matt and Erica. Family is more important to Olin than anything else. Sierra was a true family business, where Olin worked side by side with both of his children as co-owners until his retirement in 2019, when Sierra was acquired by TASI Group.

Another place where Olin has lent his considerable talent and energy is Illinois Tech, where Olin is a trustee, a member of the Armour College of Engineering Board of Advisors, and a boisterous booster of the Scarlet Hawks. He received the Alumni Association Professional Achievement Award in 1981 and the Honor I Alumni Award in 1987, and he served as the elected director of the Illinois Tech Alumni Association from 1988–1991.

Olin continues to reinforce his reputation as a “Spark Plug,” energizing others and sharing the spotlight. It was his idea (and his philanthropy) to rename Joe Hakes Court in Keating Sports Center. He has also established the Joe Hakes Student Leadership Endowed Scholarship, the John & Jane Olin Scholarship, and the John G. and Jane E. Olin Endowed Department Chair in Mechanical, Materials, and Aerospace Engineering. In other words, Olin did what he has always done for Illinois Tech, giving everything he can for the good of the team.

In many ways, Olin’s approach to his career, family, and the alma mater that he considers family represents the best that Armour College has to offer. His entrepreneurial mindset and inclusivity echo the founding principles of Illinois Tech. It is because of benefactors like Olin that Illinois Tech is able to double down on its founding mission, driving inclusive innovation for the next generation of Armour College and Illinois Tech students and alumni.

By: Joe Giovannetti