INTERDISCIPLINARY EDUCATION IS THE YARDSTICK OF SUCCESS
Marguerite Hrabak (née Jost) started at Fenn College of Engineering in 1947 and was one of two women enrolled in a class of 700. There was never a doubt she would study engineering.
The eldest daughter of parents who had emigrated from Germany, she attended Notre Dame Academy and excelled in science and math. Her father had a small tool and dye shop and needed help. Since there were no boys in the family, she became his “only son” by default and began helping him in the shop when she was 13 years old. She learned to read blueprints and run milling machines, lathes and drill presses.
Because her parents were of the Depression era, they insisted she have a back-up plan to ensure her success. Plan A was to study to be an engineer. Plan B was become a teacher, the usual career for women at the time.
Hrabak rode the streetcar to school from East Cleveland for 10 cents, and attended classes in Fenn Tower and the YMCA. After class, she participated in the cooperative education program, calculating figures for NASA and counting money for Halle Brothers Department Store to help pay her tuition. With all of her practical experience, she flourished in the challenging academic environment at Fenn.
“It was a great time … especially coming from an all-girls school. The guys were older and treated us like little sisters. I was good in math, so I always had someone who was interested in my help. We sat alphabetically because that’s how the instructors could keep tabs on the GIs who had to have an attendance record to earn their stipend. Fortunately, I always sat next to this guy named Frank Hrabak. Over time, we learned to get along, even though at first, he was quite sarcastic about this girl in his classes,” she recalls.
Frank and Marguerite eventually married. She left Fenn College in 1949 and went to work in her father’s shop in order to save money for a house. Frank graduated in 1951, went to work at Brush Electronics as a teacher, and later took a job at Reliance Electric as a teacher in charge of trainees, where he stayed until his retirement. The husband-and-wife engineering team designed and built their first home in Euclid and subsequently had five children.
Although her father wanted her to take over his business, the couple decided instead to have an auxiliary business at home. They received referrals through Reliance, and Hrabak worked on small contract projects while the kids were taking a nap. Over time, her contract work evolved into a much larger engineering business which included making custom electronic controls and test equipment for Procter and Gamble and Alcoa.
When her last child went to kindergarten, she realized that she needed to go back to school and finish her degree if the couple was going to earn enough to put five children through college. She returned to Cleveland State 25 years after leaving and graduated with a degree in engineering science in 1974.
Soon after graduation, Hrabak was attending a reception at Cleveland State and a reporter from the Cleveland Press was interested in her story. The paper ran a full-page spread about her determination to finish her engineering degree despite a 25-year lapse. Soon after the article appeared, she received a call from Lincoln Electric, offering her a position. She started in methods engineering and was promoted to purchasing a year later. She worked for Lincoln Electric for 10 years until her husband contracted Parkinson’s disease. They spent their remaining time together concentrating on their home business.
“For many years, I felt like I had to apologize for my degree in engineering science because no one really knew what it was,” she says.
“Engineering is like a yardstick. If you have a specialty, you study an inch wide and a yard deep. However, engineering science is a yard wide and an inch deep because we interface with government, with business, with banking, with everything. It is a very valuable skill … more so now than ever before.”
Today, Hrabak lives on the 117-acre farm in Chardon that she and her late husband refurbished over the past 35 years. She works part time for the township in a variety of roles, including as zoning secretary and grant administrator. She also sits on the county planning commission.