When Dr. Edwin LeMaster first arrived at what was then Pan American College four decades ago, half of the buildings for the college were on the other side of the railroad tracks on the junior college campus.
Now as the dean of The University of Texas-Pan American's College of Science and Engineering prepares to retire effective Aug. 31, LeMaster will leave behind two new colleges dedicated to preparing students to enter careers in fields related to science, technology, engineering and mathematics, better known as STEM.
"It's a little bit scary after 40 years of working at one institution to say what am I going to do on Monday," LeMaster said.
LeMaster said he will make himself available to the two new deans of the colleges - Dr. David Allen, dean of the College of Engineering and Computer Science and Dr. John Trant, dean of the College of Science and Mathematics - if they need to talk to him.
"One view of retirement is that that's when you can do what you should have been doing all along anyhow," he said. "I don't think I should have been playing golf and fishing all the time, but I would like to do some of the fishing and some camping and backpacking."
LeMaster said he also plans to spend time woodworking and welding in his 1,600-square-foot shop located next to his home and working on projects with his wife Dr. Jane LeMaster, who is also retiring in August from her position as the executive director of the University's Center for Learning, Teaching and Technology.
"My wife has a separate 1,600-square-foot art studio and she typically makes projects and asks me to make stuff for her. We both hope to spend some time working on projects," he said.
Besides the students, staff and faculty, LeMaster said he will miss the daily challenges he had as dean, like keeping the budget in check, helping faculty members get their research established or helping struggling students persevere and continue their education.
"Those kinds of problems are problem solving at its best because you have all those variables and are looking for a solution," he said.
LeMaster said the successes of the University's engineering and science programs indicated to him that it was a good time to retire and allow others to steer the two new colleges.
"The college has grown so large that it's becoming difficult to manage," he said. "My retirement gives the University an opportunity to split it into two colleges. It's gotten so big it's a little unstable, so by perturbing it, it goes ahead and fissions into two colleges."
LeMaster came to the University in 1970 as an assistant professor of physics and quickly moved up the ranks.
He became the head of the physics department three years later and later went on to become the first chair of the newly formed engineering department in 1992.
"Our whole concept of ourselves as a University has changed. When I came here we were sort of an open admissions teacher college and business college; that's what most of our students were studying. We had around 6,000 students and had maybe five buildings on campus," he said.
Since then, the University has implemented admissions requirements, and as of Fall 2009 its student population has increased to 18,337, with 57 bachelor's, 57 master's, three doctoral and two cooperative doctoral programs within six colleges.
"I've just seen dramatic changes in both the quantity and quality of what we're doing," he said. "We're stepping up entrance requirements and stepping up expectations of our students' performance."
Many of the students who have graduated with STEM-related degrees have gone on to pursue professional degrees and doctorates, he said.
"I had a student send me an e-mail telling me he was designing offshore drilling rigs. Our graduates are doing fantastic things; our premed program produced a lot of students who go on to become MDs who are back in the Valley," he said. "We're doing well when we attract valedictorians and salutatorians to this university and we become the university of choice rather than the university of last choice."
He credits the University's outreach programs such as the Hispanic Engineering, Science and Technology (HESTEC)initiative and the Texas Pre-Freshman Engineering Program (TexPREP) in part for helping high school students strengthen their math and science skills and piquing their interest in careers related to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).
"The high school experience in the Valley is much richer academically, especially today," he said.
More high school students are taking advantage of concurrent enrollment programs - which have students taking college-level courses in high school in which they receive both high school and college credit - and participating in University-sponsored programs such as HESTEC and TexPREP, LeMaster said.
"That's where I see that outreach programs are a tremendous investment for this university to make in the people of the community, because then students will get interested and want to come to college," he said. "The kids from this region are used to working hard. They come from a background of hardworking parents, they like solving problems and sort of the real applications of engineering."
LeMaster said he thinks the growing popularity in engineering among Valley students is that engineering allows them to put what they learn from science to use to solve real problems.
"For 10 years I was chair of the physics department and it didn't grow much. It's hard to sell physics; engineering is such an applied field that the applications appeal to our students. We can go out and recruit high school kids by taking a race car, the mini baja race car out, and the kids come up and look at it and say, 'this is engineering?' the kids in this region respond to that kind of thing," he said.
He also credits faculty for the success of the University's science and engineering programs.
"Every one of the faculty members who we've hired has bought into the programs and made personal commitments to this program," he said. How can it fail when everybody was pulling together? We're such a powerful team."
Dr. Ala Qubbaj, vice provost for faculty affairs, credits LeMaster with the success of the University's engineering programs.
"Dr. LeMaster is the father of engineering by all means; he built the engineering programs from scratch to this great point in size and quality. He worked tirelessly over the years to further the educational mission of these programs," Qubbaj said.
As a faculty member in the engineering department, Qubbaj said he remembers LeMaster cared for every student, faculty and staff member. He also hired the top-quality faculty, gave them support and fostered their growth, Qubbaj said.
"I think the secret of the engineering programs' success is a culture of teamwork and collaboration that Dr. LeMaster created and nurtured," he said.
LeMaster said he plans on staying involved in the University after his retirement. He pointed out that the University has several emeritus professors who still contribute their time and talents to the institution.
"I guess I'm more of a worker than a player," LeMaster said. "I plan to keep a finger and a toe in to the things that are going on at the University. I've got a lot of blood, sweat and tears over the years in the University and want to see the programs at UT Pan American continue to grow."