Like Son—Like Father

By Marcia Faye
James Maly
James Maly

Timeless advice from a father to a son set in motion events that would benefit both of their lives in more ways than either could have initially imagined.

After a successful career as a computer engineer, John Maly entered law school to specialize in patent work and intellectual property law but was contemplating leaving the program. He approached his father, James, for advice.

“I told him not to because I felt that he would regret his decision then and also in the future,” says Maly Sr.

John Maly did go on to become a successful attorney and took his father’s words to heart in an even deeper way. Last fall he sent a letter to IIT administrators inquiring about the possibility of the university awarding his father an honorary degree in mechanical engineering based on Maly’s career contributions in the field of food science. A panel composed of Christopher White, vice provost of academic affairs and professor of physics along with three other academic leaders, did one better. Noting that Maly was only four credit-hours short of attaining his undergraduate degree, the team developed a plan that allowed him to complete the final requirements for a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering, and welcomed him as a member of the IIT Class of 2014–15.

“My dad finishing his degree at the age of 83 is testament to the power of his own advice: Never give up on your dreams, no matter how long it takes you!" his son said via an email message.

Unable to attend Commencement ceremony on May 16 because of health restrictions, James Maly recalled his life and career path by phone from his home in Oro Valley, Arizona.

A Chicago native and United States Army veteran, Maly was drafted before he was able to complete his final four credit-hours at IIT. What Maly lacked in degree requirements, however, he made up for in experience, working as a mechanical engineer for more than four decades. After being employed for a short time at U.S. Steel Corporation and Koppers Company, Maly broke into the food industry. He picked up experience at Campbell Soup Company then went up the corporate ladder in engineering management at Beech-Nut Food Corporation, H. J. Heinz Company, and General Foods Corporation/Kraft before retiring in 1992. Along the way he worked to develop two technologies still in use today—a method for processing and packaging aseptically processed, all-natural dairy-based sauces and what came to be known as Kool Burst packaging for drink-bottle design.

“While I was more interested in making things better, the Kool Burst packaging was a new technology for that type of product,” Maly explains.

To determine if Maly could be given academic credit for his experience, White requested that he prepare papers on his two inventions/developments, summarizing the significance of the patents he received as well as his role in and contributions to each project.

“I asked Robert Brackett [director of the IIT Institute for Food Safety and Health] and Keith Bowman [chair of the Department of Mechanical, Materials, and Aerospace Engineering] to review the papers to tell me if the work described was worthy of course credit in the form of independent study,” says White, noting that both readily agreed that Maly’s technical skills alone deserved merit. “So Mr. Maly was awarded credit for two (two-hour) independent study courses.

That James Maly received his degree more than 60 years after he attended IIT adds a uniquely special quality to a momentous occasion in the life of a college student. It also provides a touching object lesson.

“In class, I remind my students that there are many solutions to any problem and while there may be one primary solution, others do exist,” explains White. “The same is true for completing a degree program.”