Mitro Reflects on Life Lessons


Joe Mitro '73 and Nariman Farvardin

When Joe Mitro arrived at Stevens in 1969, he had a scholarship from the state of New Jersey. And he needed it.

His father, Andrew, who had survived World War II and returned home as a decorated hero, was killed in an accident on a factory dock, leaving behind his wife Elizabeth and two young children, Joe and his brother Andy.

“Mom pulled everything together,” Joe said. “She worked as a seamstress, a hairdresser and a radio-tube assembler. She received her high school diploma the same year I did, and ended up as a librarian at Merck.”

The two boys were the first in their family to attend college— Joe received his bachelor’s degree in 1973 and his master’s in 1980. Andy went to Clarkson in Pottsdam, NY.

When he arrived at Stevens from his hometown of Carteret, Exit 12 off the New Jersey Turnpike, Joe said he considered himself a pretty smart guy, but he was unprepared for the high standards at Stevens. He almost failed his first semester, but then “I learned how to study and managed to get grades good enough to tutor freshmen in chemistry.”

In the first year at Stevens, everyone took the same courses, Joe recalled. He wasn’t quite sure what he would major in until he spoke to his basketball coach. “The only things you need to know to become a chemical engineer,” said the coach, who was one, “is that water is H2O and it boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit.”

Two of the professors whose courses he enjoyed were the late Harry Silla, professor emeritus and former chair of the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, and George DeLancey, a chemical engineer specializing in reactor design, who is now retired. Dr. DeLancey gave Joe a work-study job, for which he is eternally grateful.

Women were admitted to Stevens in 1971, when Joe was a junior, but there was no major impact on him or his class. “They were two years behind us and there were only 12 or 15 in the first class,” he said. “We didn’t have much interaction. I thought maybe eventually Stevens would admit up to 20 or 30 women—but now the student body is 30 percent female. It was one of many changes that began during that era.”

His extracurricular activities included membership in the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, the Inter-Dormitory Council—which basically set up sports competitions in basketball, volleyball or bowling—and, most important, being a section representative of the Honor Board. Section reps facilitated exams; there were no professors or teachers in the room. When people were caught cheating, which was infrequent, the Honor Board would have a trial. “When I got to the outside world, it was a shock to me that some educated people in responsible positions did not view honor the way we did at Stevens,” he commented.

Joe’s career in the design, engineering and production of plastics and other petrochemical products, as well as in developing clean energy, took him to Holland, England, Mexico and, twenty-some years later, back stateside. He admits to speaking Dutch, German and Spanish—“with a little bit of Hungarian thrown in from my grandparents.”

Once he was settled in Houston, Joe began to think about investing in good causes. And that is when he became involved with Stevens once again. “I had received some significant bonuses so I decided to become involved in philanthropy,” he said. He and his fellow class officers made calls to the 250 members of his class, and he became a major force behind starting the Class of 1973 Endowed Scholarship, which is growing. “I even solicit my friends in Texas to give,” he commented. As vice president of his class, he has committed to helping raise $2 million for the fund by the 50th reunion of the class in 2023.

His other charities include the Houston Food Bank; Making it Better, which supports urban literacy; Bel Inizio, which helps women who are down on their luck make a fresh start; and the Red Cross. “Texas is a low tax state and sometimes people miss the safety net,” he observed. “It needs charities that take care of people.”

Life lessons have been on Joe’s mind since he retired. “I learned a lot of theory at Stevens,” he said. “And then I learned that theory doesn’t often apply in the working world. Theory is a good way of piquing a student’s interest; it gets the curiosity going, rather than supplying practical solutions.”

The other life lesson is that life is not linear.

“We would all like to believe that our lives would increase in a linear and very predictable manner,” Joe said at the April 2019 Scholarship Luncheon on campus. If life were linear:

  • Every year we would become 4% smarter
  • Every year we would become 6% more wealthy
  • Every year we would be 5% happier

But life doesn’t work that way. “Usually our parents pay taxes and we go to public school. Usually we don’t even see the money. Then we graduate from high school and go away to college. Then we fall off the cliff. For many people, it’s life’s first great nonlinearity. Our parents still have to pay the taxes, but we as a family unit also have to pay a tuition bill that can reach $50,000 per year. Life is totally disrupted.”

One solution to this nonlinearity is scholarships.

“I couldn’t have attended such an excellent institution of higher education as Stevens without financial aid,” he continued. “So when I retired, I had a little time to put my feet up and count my blessings (and my money). I decided our class needed to endow a scholarship. Many of us have gotten a boost up. Now it is time for us to give back.”

Joe’s feet are no longer up. He is working to make sure that present and future Stevens students will have the support they need to learn and succeed.



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