Retired Developer Establishes Professorship to Honor Faculty Mentors

C. Allan Poots didn’t receive a diploma from the University of Iowa, but the connections he made on campus during three years as a student guided him to a satisfying and profitable career—and now he is paying it back.

The retired developer, who built more than 650 houses and multiplexes in the Iowa City area as well as Coralville’s Brown Deer Golf Course, says he got something he didn’t expect when he announced to his engineering professors in 1959 that he wanted to leave school early to work: a shot of confidence.

“I told my counselor that I liked building houses more than I liked textbooks and that I wanted to work. He said, ‘Go ahead and do it.’ He thought it would work out okay,” Poots recalls. “He was confident in me, and that gave me the boost I needed to do what I wanted to do.”

More than 50 years later, Poots is honoring that faculty member, Edward Mielnik, as well as another influential professor, Samuel Harding, by establishing in their names the first permanent professorship in the College of Engineering’s Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering.

“I give Mielnik and Harding a lot of credit. I have the feeling I got along as well as I did because of them,” says Poots, who stayed in contact with the professors until their deaths. “I had a very positive relationship with them throughout college, and I’m pretty sure they influenced others as they influenced me.”

Honing skills

By the time he enrolled in the UI College of Engineering, Poots already had machine tool experience—his father managed the fabrication department of a wind-powered electric generator manufacturer in Newton, Iowa, and Poots had worked there as a teenager—and he had learned about houses by apprenticing with a neighbor who was a handyman. At Iowa, both Mielnik and Harding drafted him to help make exhibits for classroom demonstrations, and Harding hired him as an assistant.

At one point, Poots was sponsored by his dad’s factory to make a punch-and-die set to fabricate a metal fan for an electric generator; over two semesters he designed and built a tool to stamp out the fan, and each machining operation was used as an exhibit for class. He entered the project in a competition at Purdue University and placed second.

“To be honest, I was not a particularly good textbook student—in fact, I remember flunking one important test in Mielnik’s class—but I was never put down by either of them. It was a positive environment.”

Despite the encouragement, his heart lay elsewhere, Poots explains. He met and married his first wife while in school, and he built a house for them in Coralville. He loved the work.

“To create a house—from putting it on paper to transferring it to a piece of property—was very satisfying,” says Poots, who immediately began working for himself and continued to do so until his retirement in the 1980s. “I was very hands-on and involved at every stage. I’d be on site with shovels and saws.”

His first few construction projects were in Coralville—Poots built some of the first apartment buildings in Coralville, which he says was a “bedroom community” at the time—but he also built in Iowa City, including many houses in the River Heights and Parkview Terrace neighborhoods. He even built a duplex for Harding, who owned a double lot in Coralville and wanted to generate extra income with a rental unit. In 1961, he entered his first of many houses in the annual Parade of Homes, a showcase of high-end new homes presented by the local homebuilders association.When Poots’s wife was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1980, he retired and the two relocated part-time to Arizona; after her death in 1985, Poots felt drawn back to homebuilding. He developed Brown Deer Golf Course and 140 residential lots surrounding it, and he lives there with his wife, UI obstetrics and gynecology professor Jennifer Niebyl. He donated the golf course to the City of Coralville in 1992, and says he is pleased to be able to honor the UI men who kick-started his career.

“Both Mielnik and Harding were really good teachers, but I think I benefited as much, if not more, from them through living experiences than perhaps the subject matter they taught. They stuck with me in school and after, and we became lifelong friends.”

NOTE:

Edward M. Mielnik and Samuel R. Harding Professorship in Mechanical and Industrial Engineering

UI alumnus Allan Poots and his wife, Jennifer Niebyl, UI professor of obstetrics and gynecology, have endowed a fund to establish a faculty professorship in the College of Engineering. The professorship will support a faculty member who has a distinguished program in the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering. The first recipient will be awarded in spring 2016.

Poots and Niebyl previously funded an endowed chair in obstetrics and gynecology with UI Health Care.