Montana State University

Unsung hero of aerospace engineering leaves Montana State University $1 million

January 16, 2007 -- By Tracy Ellig, MSU News Service


Montana State University recently received a nearly $1 million gift from Lysle Wood, an alum who died 15 years ago. (Photo courtesy of Boeing.)   High-Res Available

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Having helped build bombers for World War II, missiles for the Cold War and the rockets that helped send astronauts to the moon, Lysle Wood left his alma mater of Montana State University nearly a million dollars - delivered 15 years after his death.

Wood had told the university in the 1980s that it would receive a gift sometime after his death, but he made no mention of the sum. Wood died in May 1991 at the age of 87. He was survived by his second wife, Georgina, and it wasn't until after her passing in 2005 that Wood's estate released the gift to the university.

"It was certainly a very pleasant surprise," said Robert Marley, dean of the College of Engineering. "Mr. Wood was truly one of the great unsung heroes of American aerospace engineering."

Wood put no restrictions on how his gift was to be used. The College of Engineering is using $503,000 to create the Lysle Wood Distinguished Professorship, which will be for a professor in the Department of Mechanical & Industrial Engineering. The other $496,000 will be used to benefit the entire college through equipment and facilities endowments. The endowments are expected to earn 4 percent annually.

Wood was born in Renville, Minn. in 1904, one year after the Wright brothers made their historic flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C. He grew up in Terry, Mont., and dreamed of being a forester, but then became fascinated by automobiles, according to a Seattle Times obituary.

He earned a mechanical engineering degree in 1925 from what was then Montana State College in Bozeman. After graduation, he headed straight to Detroit for a career in auto manufacturing with Packard Motor Co.

Wood like cars, but hated Detroit, and in less than a year he had moved to Seattle and gone to work for Boeing.

"I didn't know an aileron from an elevator about airplanes," Wood said in a 1970 MSU Collegian profile. His first job was drafting and operating a blueprint machine.

He would spend the next 45 years with Boeing, retiring in 1970 as corporate vice president of customer requirements. It was a position he would reach even though his formal education ended with a bachelor's degree.

During his career, Wood worked on some of the most famous aerospace and aeronautical projects in American history. He helped design the world's first pressurized commercial aircraft, the 307 Stratoliner. He also helped design the 314 Clipper flying boat.

During World War II, he played a key role in designing the B-17 and B-29 bombers. In the late '40s and early '50s, he was chief engineer and oversaw development of the B-52 bomber and the Boeing 707, America's first commercial jetliner.

In 1953, Wood was picked to head the company's new pilotless aircraft division (later called the Aerospace Division) where he oversaw design of the Minuteman ICBM missile and the enormous first-stage booster for the Apollo spaceship and the moon-photographing Lunar Orbiter. He became the division's vice president in 1965.

Wood earned a private pilot's license in 1960 and in his retirement flew a Cessna to Alaska and the Yukon Territory for fishing and camping trips.

He was named one of MSU's Centennial Alumni and was awarded an honorary doctorate in 1952.

"Mr. Wood was an extremely talented and visionary engineer whose accomplishments can serve as an inspiration to all," Marley said. "It's wonderful that we can honor his memory through this endowment to support faculty and students."

Contact: Linda Wyckoff, senior development director MSU College of Engineering, at (406) 994-2223 or lwyckoff@coe.montana.edu.