Sam Iacobellis is 87, a mechanical engineer, a Lyles College of Engineering Alumnus, the son of an immigrant and retired from Boeing. Alan Suarez is 23, a mechanical engineer, a Lyles College alumnus, the son of an immigrant, and just starting his career at GE Healthcare.
Rarely do such parallel lives intersect, but when they do, great things can happen. Iacobellis and Suarez met during the Lyles College Dean’s Medalist luncheon, where Suarez was celebrated as the undergraduate 2016 Dean’s Medalist for his accomplishments at Fresno State.
“Meeting Mr. Iacobellis was pretty unreal,” Suarez said. “Yu always read about people like him; individuals that have had a huge impact on history and possess unreal amounts of knowledge. I really enjoyed our conversations, and he gave me so much advice in just a short time.”
Known as the “father of the B1B bomber,” which is credited with helping to end the Cold war, Iacobellis was an honored guest at the luncheon. He spoke at great lengths with Suarez and several past Lyles College Dean’s Medalists about his life, being a first-generation graduate and his career.
“My father came from Italy to Ellis Island in 1914,” Iacobellis said.
From America’s gateway, he traveled directly to Fresno because the crops were similar to those grown in his native Italy. But it wasn’t an easy transition.
“Nobody knew that he couldn’t read or write,” Iacobellis said. “Neither in English or Italian, so he wanted me to go to school.”
Like Iacobellis’s father migrated from Italy, Suarez’s parents migrated to the United States from Mexico on Christmas Day in 1998. Suarez was four-years-old. It was not an easy transition for Suarez’s family either.
Suarez’s parents did not -graduate from high school, but he says their perseverance, dedication and commitment to work has taught him so much about being an adult and taking on responsibility.
“My father has immense work ethic and knowledge. He works harder than anyone else I know – all to make sure we had a better future,” Suarez said.
Both men’s parents knew the value of education and pushed their sons to acquire as much as possible.
Iacobellis’s mother was from New York and emphasized schooling from the time he was a small boy.
“She [his mother] was very bright, and both [parents] gave me a very good background of schooling and work ethic,” Iacobellis said. “My sister, Anna Saladino, also worked to help the family and help me in school.”
Iacobellis’s path to Fresno State is typical of many from the Valley, leveraging an interest in sports to a degree from college. He says it was common for a young Italian boy to play the accordion, but because he was in the United States and not from Italy, a family friend suggested that he do what all the other boys did: play football. He made the team at Edison High School and eventually was offered a scholarship to play at Fresno State. Once in college, he also was typical of many incoming students. He struggled with deciding on a major and the path his life would take after school.
“They gave me some ag., I didn’t like that. I tried being a coach, and that didn’t interest me,” he said. “So I switched my major to engineering.”
Iacobellis said his career choice was inspired by a relative. As a child, he looked up to a cousin who flew P51’s for North American Aviation. Coincidentally, North American Aviation was on the Fresno State campus recruiting employees.
“I just went right to North American … I didn’t ask how much they were going to pay me, I just wanted to go there. So the day after graduation I reported to Los Angeles to work,” he said.
He sat at a drafting board making $1.62 an hour.
“It was one of the most rewarding experiences one could have because I was capitalizing on all the previous engineers work,” Iacobellis said. “I was taught to never take shortcuts, because the life of a pilot or an astronaut or a crew member is in your hands. I never went to work a day without looking forward to it. I know I was lucky, but I’d like to know that I made some of that luck.”
After 43-years, Iacobellis retired from Rockwell International Corp which is part of Boeing and formerly North American Aviation.
Iacobellis never forgot his Alma Mater. He helped shepherd a $2-million endowment between Fresno State and The Boeing Company named the Husband-Boeing Honors Scholars Program which supports inspiring engineers. The program was named in memory of Columbia space shuttle commander Col. Rick Husband who was aboard the Columbia when it broke apart and incinerated in 2003 during re-entry after a successful 16-day mission.
Suarez says Iacobellis’s story has inspired him.
“I want to make a difference like Mr. Iacobellis did,” Suarez said. “Hopefully, one day, I can be in a similar position to support students.”
Suarez is already working on making a difference through his new career as engineer at GE Healthcare.
I knew I wanted to be a mechanical engineer when I was in the eighth grade,” Suarez said. “I originally wanted to design cars. That stemmed from me helping my dad fix our car and an old riding lawn mower and taking advantage of all the great science and math classes.”
When Suarez had the opportunity to design a prosthetic knee for a research project at Lyles College, it quickly developed into a passion for biomechanics.
“I decided there was nothing I wanted to do except that,” he said.
Suarez says he especially loved the idea of being able to use his skills to help others, whether it be through a prosthetic he designs or through early diagnostics he develops.
“My ultimate goal is to one-day be CEO of a company like GE Healthcare and lead a team that solves a major problem and will help millions of people,” Suarez explained. “I hope to help my parents and repay them for all the sacrifices they’ve made for our family.”
Suarez also has a goal to help communities like Merced, which were almost destroyed by the recent recession.
“As a president, or vice president of a major company, I would love to bring jobs to these communities or open up organizations that help people get ahead,” Suarez said.
He also has an interest in going back to school to earn a master’s degree in business and a doctorate in engineering.
“I have found that there is so much to learn!” he said.
Iacobellis did pursue his master’s degree, but it took a Russian space launch to get him started.
“When I was driving to my new job in Los Angeles around 1957, they announced on my car radio that the Russian Sputnik was coming over,” Iacobellis said. “I pulled over on the I-405 and saw it go by. I said to myself, ‘I’ve gotta go back to school.’ So I signed up for the master’s program at UCLA.”
He says the Sputnik shook up the engineering and aerospace world and an education boom began.
“After that happened, school seemed as urgent matter to the country,” he said.
He says experts were brought in as guest speakers from all over the country. They spoke on the law of relativity, rocket engines and aviation. Iacobellis stayed dedicated to his coursework and graduated in 1962.
“I was able to go to my workplace and take classes at night and I never missed a day’s work,” he said.
Iacobellis was later awarded an honorary doctorate in science from The California State University. Suarez was awarded the Sam Iacobellis award for Excellence in May. He hopes to reconnect with Iacobellis at next year’s Dean’s Medalist luncheon to talk more about the life Iacobellis has led and the career he has so well established.
“I never went to work a day without looking forward to it,” Iacobellis said. “I think that you should have an attitude that you’re learning and willing to take some rough times before you get to the great ones.”