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Enewsletters: Science alumni and Navy veterans reunite after 40 years

NESEP alumni

Reunited Navy Enlisted Science Education Program students in 2016 -- (from left, front row) Edelene “Eddy” White, Winfred Aker and Dan Kooken; (back row) Jim Cech, Glenn Kautt and Dave Pratt.

Even though most of the men – and one woman – hadn’t seen each other in over 40 years, these former Boilermakers and members of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps, hugged, laughed and shared stories as if they had just gotten coffee last week. The 40th reunion, which ran from April 28 to 30, saw most in attendance from the classes of 1974 to 1976. 

The reunited alumni had the bond of Boilermaker fellowship but they also grew close during their time in the Navy Enlisted Science Education Program (NESEP), which saw thousands of graduates nationwide attend college for free during their years of service. NESEP allowed the top enlisted men and women to advance as commissioned officers in either the Navy or Marine Corps. An estimated 500 candidates were selected out of 8,000 applications each year during NESEP’s peak. Purdue was among the first 22 of the nation’s top schools to take part in the program, which began in 1958. 

For the NESEP student the obligations were clear. You must maintain a strong grade point average and attend military drill once a week. Upon graduation, for every six months of education received, you must serve an extra nine months of active duty. For many NESEP’s this was not an obstacle as they were already planning a 20-plus year service career. Most NESEP students enrolled in Science and Engineering classes. Purdue Marines were permitted to pursue degrees in Industrial Management

As students, NESEP’s tended to be older than their classmates by a few years and were required to wear their service uniforms once a week. Besides that, they were like most undergrads. 

"I was a part of the first Purdue Student Concert Committee and we brought in Jefferson Airplane,” remembered Jim Cech, a 1975 alumnus. “I met them at the Purdue airport and the first thing Grace Slick says ‘What are you doing in the middle of a corn field?'" 

Cech and many other NESEP/Purdue Science alumni counted themselves lucky to concentrate on their studies with a “laser focus.” These men and women arrived with military training and bright minds that took to the science courses well.

A plaque, currently in the Electrical Engineering Building, states "In Honor and Memory of the Men of the NESEP Program.” That plaque was created prior to the graduation of Leslie Burgess (’75 Atmospheric Science) and Edelene “Eddy” White (‘74 Chemistry), who were Purdue's first female NESEP’s. 

White was the only woman at the reunion and she had many memories to share – most good, some bad. She recounted Purdue's administrative staff trying to get her out of the program before she even landed in Indiana. They wanted White and Burgess to transfer to a different school. Even though they already had their orders in hand, they were told their orders could be changed, if Purdue asked the Navy’s top brass themselves.

“We told them to go jump in a lake and we were at Purdue 10 days later,” she beamed with pride. The NESEP directors had her back and ensured that she would get equal treatment at Purdue. 

The science curriculum in the early 1970s was rigorous as it is today. White said that once she arrived, all focus was on passing physics, chemistry and mathematics classes. But White still had battles to fight due to her gender. When it was time to go to Officer Candidate School as her Purdue career was winding up, White and Burgess were first recommended to train with naval nurses instead of their male counterparts.

“We not only said ‘no;’ we said ‘hell no.’ We are NESEP’s,” she stated. “We were too salty to just accept that. There was no way! So we were allowed to train with the men."

The education helped lead White to become a naval investigator. She was “NCIS” before the CBS hit show of the same name. She worked cases of brutal violence as well as ship captains stealing money from their commands. After decades as a Naval law enforcer, White decided to follow a spiritual calling and became a Presbyterian minister in Ozark, Missouri. 

“During my stint as a special agent, my cases were all felony crimes – rape, murder, drug deals. You name it; I did it. I saw all of the bad guys,” she explained. “After that, I realized I liked helping people stay out of jail more than I liked putting them in jail. When I got out of the Navy, I wanted to help people out.”

NESEP 1970s

A group photograph of Purdue NESEP students in December 1974.

Turbulent times

Dave Pratt (’74 Mathematics) and his classmates were called on to be leaders and experts on their ships. Pratt dove into mathematics and early computer science classes as a 24-year-old freshman after a six-year stint working in U.S. nuclear submarines in Holy Loch, Scotland. 

“It was the height of the Cold War with ballistic missile submarines at the forefront,” Pratt remembered. “It was a time of nuclear protests by the Scots, Russian spies and spy ships, the black market, and an exponential expansion of technology. Exciting times for a young sailor.”

He was elated to be accepted in NESEP. He moved his wife, Isobel, and baby daughter to West Lafayette after finishing training and classes at NESEP prep school in San Diego. Eventually, the Pratt’s lived in Purdue’s Married Student Housing. His son was born during his junior year.

“At the time, the Navy needed to increase the number of technically trained officers,” recalled Pratt, a Florida native. “The systems and weapons were becoming so much more complex. We needed to ramp up the level of technical knowledge among the officer corps in a hurry."

“The Navy paid my full salary, tuition, books, fees, everything. My job was to go to school and we all took it seriously."

While just a handful of years older than his classmates, Pratt recalls having a more disciplined undergraduate experience. He stuck out a bit as the average male student in the early ‘70s sported long hair. But he said the biggest difference was he preferred to be with his young family at night as opposed to typical late night college student activities.

Plus, he had his hands full with an always challenging mathematics program and computer science classes that were already expanding and reaching uncharted territory.

"I'm not sure the other students liked us because we tended to push the curve,” Pratt said. “I think the professors liked having us in their classes. We challenged each other."

NESEP students in the Purdue Armory
NESEP Science students meet their officers in the Purdue Armory.

The reunited NESEP students recounted their Purdue years, which coincided with the Vietnam War. Pratt said Purdue was quite conservative compared to many other campuses around the nation. 

“A few schools even had students burn down the ROTC buildings. The Kent State incident happened while we were in school,” said Daniel G. Kooken, another ’74 Mathematics graduate. “Being at a more conservative campus like Purdue was definitely a blessing for us.”

Throughout their late April stay, the NESEP graduates were given tours around campus, which was nearly twice the size from their day. More trees, more buildings and fewer parking lots were what stood out the most to the alumni.

“I haven’t seen everyone as a group in over 40 years and almost everyone recognized each other. We look pretty good after all those years,” Pratt laughed.

The stories flowed and among the new buildings, there were still many familiar sites – Stewart Center, Purdue Memorial Union and Elliott Hall of Music housed a lot of fun times while the Mathematical Sciences Building and Wetherill Laboratory hosted many late nights of studying. Pratt recalled all of those IBM punch cards and waiting in line for the processor in those early 1970s Computer Science classes only to find the second card was incorrect and having to start all over.

No more NESEP

That Boiler bond and Naval camaraderie perseveres despite the NESEP program being dissolved in the 1980s.

"The program got too expensive. They paid for everything plus we got our active duty pay. It was incredible," said Maurice Dean Bain (’74 Mathematics) 

Bain added, "Those Science and Engineering degrees held great weight in the ‘70s, thanks to notoriety of the Purdue astronauts and the schools much acclaimed science programs. That degree opened so many doors for us, even well after our service years. Purdue was innovative. We didn’t have the first Nobel laureate (Chemistry professor Herb Brown) yet but Purdue's reputation in the science community was very useful.”

While they went on to serve in nuclear submarines, jet aircraft, surface warships or lead Marines, Purdue NESEP students treasure their time together along with their academic training through the College of Science. 

“We were all family,” Bain said, "and still are".

“We were NESEP’s,” White added. “That was an honor to be a NESEP. We worked to get here and by goodness we worked to graduate. … I’m extremely proud of going here and going through the program. I had a great career. I did things I never expected I would do and have been places I never expected I would go.”

A revised plaque that includes the Purdue NESEP women and Marines is in the works. Additionally, a NESEP fund is being established at the University to help deserving Purdue NROTC students.

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