My father, engineer

Eldred Hough 2This slide rule belonged to my dad, the engineer.

Eldred W. Hough, although he was the oldest son, wasn’t named for his father, Thomas C. Hough. Instead, his younger brother got the name Thomas Hough.

So, why did the younger one get the father’s name? That’s kind of odd.

Dad’s names came from his mother’s genteel family, the Eldreds. I’ve shared already that his mother Jennie came from a wealthy established family in Carrollton, a medium-sized Illinois town, while his father came from the family of a successful immigrant entrepreneur, no doubt lesser in status in that time and place.

Into this mix were born Eldred (born 1916) and his younger brother Tom. Eldred’s strengths were in the geek direction, while Tom’s strengths gave him what he needed to be a successful businessman. Eldred became an engineer and a college professor; Tom took over the leadership of the local bank from his mother’s brother.

Eldred W. Hough 1916-1990

Eldred W. Hough 1916-1990

Where was the key struggle in Eldred’s life? Eldred wanted to be a big fish in a big pond, to become a somebody in the wide world.

He started with a radio repair business in high school, conducted from his bicycle. In those days, the radio was the key link to the outside world for news and information, and he had plenty of customers.

Then he went to the University of Illinois and studied engineering at a time when that wasn’t easy, graduating in 1939. Eldred Hough booksHe had to learn to read German to get the engineering physics and engineering math that he needed. I still have his physics books and dictionary in German.

For his Ph.D. in applied physics, he went to Caltech. His thesis advisor was none other than J. Robert Oppenheimer, “Oppie” as Dad called him. Dad got the Ph.D. in 1943, in the thick of World War II. And guess what Oppenheimer had him working on?

At least some of the time, he worked on the A-bomb at Los Alamos, probably on the key problem that Oppie struggled with for years: how to ignite the thing.

He wasn’t proud of the fact, no doubt sharing Oppie’s moral misgivings about such a weapon. He didn’t tell any family members about his participation except his son Roger, many years later.

After a wartime job testing rocket fuels at Jet Propulsion Lab (yes, my dad really was a rocket scientist), he settled on petroleum engineering as his field and got a job in an oil field in Tulsa. But not before he married Jane Elder in Los Angeles in 1948, whom he met at church.

Dad was ambitious and wanted to climb into college administration, and this took our family on quite a ride. My childhood was spent living about four years in one house and then moving to another, nearly always in another city. (Not a good thing from my point of view, by the way.)

Dad had tenure and left it to move on four times. This is unheard of. But no worries; he always got it again, sometimes instantly I suppose. It helps to be in demand.

And this he was. He was smart and very knowledgeable in a tiny field, petroleum engineering. Many people needed his expertise, including corporations who would have paid him more than academia. But his heart was in the classroom. And in administration.

Finally he maxed out in administration as dean of engineering at the University of Maine. After a political tussle five years in, he found himself a simple professor again. Soon enough he was invited back to one of his previous positions, head of the petroleum engineering department at Mississippi State. He retired from there.

Dad was quite the story teller, too. He was naturally good at it, especially yarns about small-town life in Carrollton.

Eldred Hough 1This “Murphy’s Law” plaque came from his desk. He loved to quote Murphy’s Law. Once I became an engineer, I understood why: the engineer must plan for things to fail, and studies how they fail. That’s how you learn to design a better widget.

A lamp made from oil field piping

A lamp made from oil field piping

One more engineer’s heirloom: a lamp he had made out of some oil well pipe. It was in our house all my childhood.








Thomas Hough, immigrant and entrepreneur

626 Church St., Carrollton

Thomas Hough, an enterprising young man, was born in 1844 into a lower-class family in Yorkshire, England, and didn't like his prospects. His education stopped at the sixth grade, and his dad was a wagon driver. He got a job at the local  cotton mill … [Continue reading]

Granny Jennie’s mother, stuck on the prairie


This is about Granny Jennie's mother Mary Jane, who dominated the Illinois prairie around her in the late 1800s but may have longed for a trip to ... Switzerland? My great-grandmother, Mary Jane Robertson, always wanted to go to Switzerland, or so … [Continue reading]

Granny Jennie, a genteel lady

Phyllis Wheeler's family heirlooms

My Granny Jennie, born in 1885, hand-painted this pitcher in an art class in college. She had a college degree, rare for her generation, especially for women. I remember her the best of all my grandparents, because she traveled south to live with … [Continue reading]

My grandfather, a surveyor


I am sorting stuff from the attic and basement. I ran across my grandfather's precision surveying instrument. Later on I knew his wife Granny Jennie -- she was as mild-mannered as they come. But I never knew Grandpa Tom. He died before I was … [Continue reading]

The tale of Granny’s punch bowl: where next?


When I was a kid, Granny had a punch bowl in the middle of her dining room table. She was an old lady, with feet in the Victorian era. So the punch bowl is flowery and Victorian. It probably had belonged to her  mother, a high-society lady for the … [Continue reading]

Am I a racist?


Racism is a topic that my heart keeps returning to. What is it? What causes it? Why is it so hard to escape? Why do many white people from outlying areas of my city avoid driving in predominantly African-American sections? Answer: They tell each … [Continue reading]

My project: a novel for 11-13-year-olds


I've been up to a lot of things lately, and one of them is finally finishing a book that I am proud of, after working to learn the novel-writing craft since 2006. Working title: Bridge Over Sugar Creek. It's Missouri, 1968. Ollie, a … [Continue reading]

Tag! You’re it!


I agreed to be part of a blog hop, but I've decided to change the rules (because I don't want to talk about myself right now). Let's play tag! Blog tag! I'm tagging these inspirational writers' blogs as places for you to explore and be blessed. … [Continue reading]

Conspiracy by Suzanne Hartmann, a review


Conspiracy by Suzanne Hartmann, Book Two of Fast Track Thrillers Published 2014 by Oak Tara Publishers Genre: Christian thriller with sci-fi elements Joanne Van Der Haas discovers that her beloved boss George is accused of selling big-time … [Continue reading]