By Gabe Sturges
As many can attest, Union College embraces the development of the group dynamic, in turn creating close-knit relationships amongst the members of our campus community. While such bonding is expected among current students, a true testament to this wide-reaching presence is the frequency that alumni, both recent and not, happily return to campus.
Hank Bielawski, a civil-engineering graduate from 1972, ventures back to the campus daily and, consequently, has become a well-known member of the college community.
In truth, Bielawski is perhaps one of our college’s most frequently spotted alumni, whether seen studying intently at the library’s computers, riding his bicycle about campus or most likely, eating and chatting with any number of people in Upper Dining Hall.
An incredibly friendly and deeply interesting conversationalist, it’s quite obvious why so many enjoy his presence.
Born and raised in Schenectady, Bielawski had a passion for mechanics from an early age, although his mother originally wanted him to become a priest. Describing some of his first experiences with engineering, he discusses routine meetings with Dr. Alexanderson, the inventor of the television and a resident of Schenectady, who would give Bielawski parts as he attempted to construct his own television with a friend.
The only summa cum laude graduate amongst his fellow engineering classmates, Bielawski was immediately hired by General Electric as a mechanical engineer, but then transferred to a civil engineering division.
While speaking of his personal recollections, he mentions two particular professors who had a profound impact on him: Professor Shanebrook of the mechanical engineering department, and Professor Harlow of the civil engineering department.
“They imbued everything so well,” he said. “I can’t talk about Union without talking about them.”
Bielawski’s career led to many exciting opportunities, including a yearlong stay in Jetta, Saudi Arabia working as a product engineer between 1977 and 1978. Asked to illustrate the experience, he describes his time abroad as “a completely different world.”
During his early tenure, Bielawski not only worked for General Electric but also as an evening ski instructor for Brodie Mountain in the nearby Berkshires. Spurred on originally by a several-week period when his car was in the shop, Bielawski would hitchhike there and back from the mountain, in time for his nighttime shift, and for his work at GE the following morning.
Such recollections led Bielawski to a discussion about the value of work ethic. Quite suitably, his favorite word is inure, which means to accustom and harden oneself to outside circumstances. By doing so, he explains, nothing is unachievable.
Soon after, our conversation shifted to doing one’s part to make a definite and conscientious effort to protect the environment. Bielawski likens himself to an environmentalist who, as he professes, “feels guilty about throwing paper away.”
Among his many personal efforts, he tries to use as little energy in his daily life as possible. He said that his energy consumption in his home is so insignificant that National Grid called to confirm that the house was still occupied.
Returning to the idea of inuring oneself, Bielawski gave away his car on September 15, 2007 and is now in his fourth year of cycling as a primary form of transportation. His reasoning was exceptionally simple: cars use energy and are expensive; for the cost of an automobile, one can purchase many bicycles, of which he now has six in his collection.
He rides year round, no matter the weather, and can be seen lately bundled up for the winter weather in heavy ski jackets and equally suited technical apparel, camping backpack in tow all the while.
Although he prefers to use his bicycle, he forgoes evening riding in the winter due to the darkness; instead he purchased a bus pass and brings his bicycle along with him on the public transport.
Bielawski runs errands on his bicycle in the exact same manner as one would in a car; he described his frequent trips by bicycle to the Laundromat, for which he uses his largest camping backpack that can hold up to three loads of laundry.
Bielawski began returning to Union two years ago following retirement from General Electric. Spending time at Union proved to be a very convenient addition to his daily schedule, consisting already of attending morning mass at a nearby church. Soon after returning to campus, Bielawski purchased a gym membership and began frequenting the library and the dining facilities. Eating both breakfast and lunch on campus grounds, Bielawski raves about the “healthfulness and wide variety of the food.”
As a friend of the library, Bielawski can be seen daily as he conducts research involving the stock market. A current owner of over 1,200 stocks, many of which are NASDAQ and SP 500 companies, Bielawski graciously donates some of his earnings to Reamer as well as Schaffer library.
Even after two years, Bielawski enjoys spending time and sharing his experiences about Union. He and his family always return to celebrate Lobsterfest in the spring.
“The people are sensational here,” he says. “It is a campus I’m proud of and it is just a perfect little community.”