Artistic Alum Reflects on Stevens


Walter Mahnken, ’42, an Upper Saddle River resident, lives in the house that he built in the 50s. He says that things are different now and times have changed. “Today, if someone says they built their own house that means they go and buy a set of plans and then turn it over to a contractor,” he said. With gritty determination, he and his wife, his father and his father-in-law worked on the house for six years before moving in.

Things are indeed different now. In fact, when he and his wife first moved to the area, there wasn’t a road to the house. He described it as beautiful wide open country. Vastly different from the rural streets of Union City where he grew up. The drive to build his house was due in part to his education at Stevens. Mahnken said, “Stevens made a man out of him” and convinced people he had talents.

“My degree from Stevens helped me in my business. Stevens has a good name, you know,” he said, adding that he is proud to have graduated from Stevens.

His life trajectory might have been very different. When the war had started he initially wanted to go to West Point as his father was an army man. He went to Stevens because he was informed that he wouldn’t have to take the written exam for West Point if he had one year of college. “As it turned out, I couldn’t get an appointment after the one year at Stevens. And number two, I enjoyed life at Stevens. My course had been set for me,” he said.

That road included serving in the army during WWII. After the war, he returned to work at Curtiss-Wright Corporation in Paterson. Before he was drafted, he worked at Wright Aeronautical Corporation building aircraft engines for the war effort. He had a distinguished and long career at Curtiss-Wright, working at upper level management by the time he retired.

Although he is retired now, one couldn’t say that he is idle. Mahnken described his latest obsession or “hobby” as he calls it. For several years, he has been painting. The output is exceptional. He has hundreds of paintings, stacked in his make-shift studio in the dining room. They are categorized and lined up in every area of the room.

He began with geometric forms and advanced to a wide range of subjects. As his skill grew, so did his subject matter. He progressed to painting tigers, capturing them in sharp detail and bright colors. There was a time when he was influenced by the work of Picasso, among others. He would look at something by an artist and paint an interpretation of the piece. His work depicts a wide range of painting styles. “To date, I’ve completed about 200 paintings. All of my work is a Walter Mahnken original. I don’t copy anything but my artwork is influenced by what I see in the art magazines,” he said.

He is nonchalant when admitting that he is self-taught. But self-taught artistry isn’t something that everyone can do. “I’ve been retired for a long time now and involved in painting. When I started out, it was very elementary. It was all geometric shapes. All triangles on top of triangles. Like with every hobby you advance in your attempts. And now I’m doing a wide range of subjects. It evolves,” he said.

Thinking about what might have been isn’t something that Mahnken spends his time on. He doesn’t speculate on a life he didn’t have except to say that he was fortunate. “When I look at the sequence of things during the war, I can say, Stevens saved my life. Now that might be a stretch because I don’t really know what would have happened. But the West Point class that I would have been in had a very high casualty rate,” he said.

He is grateful for the life that he was given. He married his wife Doris in 1947 and had two children. Recently, he became a member of Stevens Legacy Society and the Lifetime Giving Societies. Stevens fundamentally changed his life and he wants to give that opportunity to students who need a scholarship to complete their education.

Stevens is different from when he attended, he says. “The Stevens that I know, is not the Stevens of today. It was a small obscure school, but respected engineering college. Today, it is a big, well-known engineering college,” he said. Even Hoboken is different. He remembers Hoboken when boats were docked at the river. “It was a seafaring town at one time and dirty. The river was dirty. The town was dirty. If you wanted a breath of fresh air you went up to Stevens,” he said.


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