Unexpected Reunion with a Mentor

Jim Spaniola and me at French Laundry Fenton, more than 45 years after our time in the Ceramic Circuits Lab.

More than forty-five years ago, I began my college education at General Motors Institute (now Kettering University) in Flint, Michigan. This was back in Flint’s glory days, when world-class industrial production as well as ground-breaking research took place right in the midst of the city. My co-op sponsor was the AC Spark Plug Division of General Motors. My first assignment at AC was in the Engineering Research Center, which was located at the corner of Averill Avenue and Davison Road. I felt lucky and excited to have what seemed like a plum first assignment.

I was a confident, some might say brash, high school graduate entering a world of corporate intrigue and engineering challenges, and despite my self-assured nature, it was daunting to enter a building where the overwhelming majority of employees were older, seemingly conservative, white males. Out of the hundreds of employees in AC Research and Development, I counted exactly two black professionals – engineers Tony Caldwell and Russell Larvadain. While their presence was a reassuring factor, I nonetheless felt like an an interloper in a strange new world. A trailblazer. 

I was assigned to work in the Ceramic Circuits Laboratory under the supervision of a thirty-something engineer by the name of Jim Spaniola. Jim was a dashing, dark-haired fellow who was always puffing on his pipe. He seemed detached from company politics, and our little lab seemed an oasis in the midst of the Engineering Research Center hustle and bustle. The work in the ceramics lab was interesting, and seemed important. We were fabricating electronic subsystems – the forerunners of today’s integrated circuits – on small ceramic plates called substrates. My job was to assemble prototype circuits by placing tiny transistors, capacitors, and other circuit elements on the substrate and connecting them together using hair-thin gold wires. Due to the tiny size of the circuit elements, I performed this work while looking through a powerful microscope.

The work in the Ceramic Circuits Lab was exciting and fulfilling, but the most rewarding part of the assignment was the relationship I developed with Jim Spaniola. Jim treated me like a valued colleague, and his respect and guidance were reassuring and inspiring. I valued the experience so much that I referred to it some 35 years later as I was writing my book, “Proving 
Ground: A Memoir.”

Last Fall, as I was working in Flint to prepare for the Urban Entrepreneurship Symposium, I happened to meet a fellow by the name of Dan Spaniola, the proprietor of Paul’s Pipe Shop on Saginaw Street downtown. I was surprised and pleased to learn that Dan is Jim’s brother, and that their father Paul founded the pipe shop in 1954. Dan told me that Jim was alive and well and living in Fenton, and he gave me Jim’s contact info. Back at home later, I called Jim to reestablish contact. I felt a bit of apprehension: would Jim remember me? Would he want to see me?

My trepidation was unwarranted. Jim definitely remembered me, and he sounded excited to hear from me. We agreed to meet for lunch at the French Laundry in Fenton, a jewel of a restaurant that is a local favorite. We both showed signs of wear after forty-five years, but we had a great time reminiscing and catching up. Turns out Jim left General Motors just five years after our first encounter, and he ran three successful businesses. Jim was an entrepreneur! We talked about ham radio (I had forgotten that we were both hams), and technology, and life. It reminded me of the conversations we had in the lab all those years ago, and why Jim had become such a memorable character to me.

Before we ended the lunch, I gave Jim a copy of Proving Ground, and I showed him where I had referred to him in the book. Then Jim surprised me by giving me the actual ceramic circuit I worked on in his lab. He said he hadn’t known why he kept it all these years, but that after I called him, he understood why. I was moved by the realization that not only had Jim made a lasting impression on me, but I had apparently made a lasting impression on him, too.

Thank you, Jim.

 

My experience with Jim was so memorable that I referred to it many years later in my book “Proving Ground: A Memoir.”

 

I gave Jim a copy of Proving Ground. He gave me the actual ceramic circuit I worked on 45 years ago.

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