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In Their Words: Making the Impossible, Possible

September 27, 2023

The story of how the UK Engineering Paducah Campus was born out of a supercharged phone call in a Lockheed Martin office, from the engineer who took the impromptu leap of logic. 

Photo of Steve Polston

Photo of Steve Polston

By Steve Polston

The Paducah engineering school started from a highly unlikely source – a supercharged phone call in the spring of 1992 to my Paducah Lockheed Martin Office from my boss, COO George Refakes, in our Bethesda Corporate headquarters. He opened the conversation screaming “Polston, do you realize you have a 15% annual engineering turnover rate in your company?” After I responded that I was indeed working to fix that problem, George pressed me harder (and in a calmer voice) about HOW I was working on it. After a long pause, I said, “George, I’m going to fix it by starting a four year engineering school in Paducah so we will have a local supply of engineers!” Now, shouting again, George responded, “Polston, I’ll give you an ‘A’ for creativity and an ‘F’ for the likelihood of success.” As strange as that diatribe sounds, it was an impromptu leap of logic and the genesis of our four year UK engineering college in Paducah. When my wife, Martha, asked me that evening how I was ever going to do this, in stumbling words, I said, “I’m going to have to make the impossible, possible!”

From the context of 1992, Paducah Engineering felt decidedly impossible. To start with, there was no historical Kentucky precedent for establishing an engineering school of any kind in a remote mid-sized town. A quick survey showed that, at that time, no engineering school existed outside of UK and U of L and none was likely to be attempted. With no precedent and therefore no template to follow, I could envision the necessary fundraising to do the physical construction of a stand-alone engineering school was going to be a monumental challenge.  Little did I realize at that moment, that the battle would not be raising the money and building the physical plant, but would be the political battle. Later, newspapers from Murray to Lexington to Louisville came out vehemently against a Paducah engineering presence. The school as a state project also looked impossible because there were no public resources to do anything relating to an expansion of engineering education in Kentucky. This lack of interest turned out to be a mountain-sized hurdle because the initial expenses of a state-wide campaign to sell the idea had to be absorbed by my company, Lockheed Martin, Paducah Community College, and Paxton Media – early and critical partners who believed in the need and feasibility for this plan!

In early 1993, there was a first sliver of rational hope when I reached out on this “mission impossible” to the Paducah Chamber of Commerce.  I was a board member and was invited to present our needs at a Chamber offsite. Somewhat surprisingly, the Chamber board quickly believed in the necessity of a Paducah engineering school. It was to be the first, and the only, fast sell! I was candid with the Chamber board that the idea was as yet only a hoping strategy but, of course, I argued that it was a rational hope. The Chamber was convinced. For the first time, I left the offsite feeling, in some crazy way, that the impossible might actually be possible.  

I knew from previous experience that to make the impossible happen you have to infect others with a vision and, in terms of the team needed to pull this off, it was still only me. Eventually, it turned out to be a lot of others who joined the pursuit. For openers, there had to be a core team of zealots with brute persistence, with brainpower, and most importantly, with regional and state influence. My first stop in building a five-star team was Dr. Len O’Hara, then President of Paducah Community College. I convinced him the idea was both mandatory for the future of Western Kentucky and, though grandiose, was feasible. I was encouraged after that encounter with Len. My next stop was Fred Paxton who owned and operated extensive media outlets in Paducah and the southeastern U.S. Fred sat in his office and listened for the better part of an hour as I pitched the idea. At the end, he asked who else supported the idea. I stated, “Len O’Hara,” and that helped. Fred greatly liked and respected Len. He ended the meeting with the promise to sleep on it. The next day, Fred actually called with a hint of enthusiasm in his voice and said, “I’m not totally sure why I’m in, but I will feel a lot better when we have a plan of attack beyond just the statement of engineering need by Lockheed Martin!”  

The next stop was to convince other West Kentucky industry leaders to get on board. It had to be more than Lockheed’s need for engineers.  Within a month, eight other West Kentucky and Southern Illinois CEO’s and plant managers joined hands with myself, Len, and Fred.  We jointly penned a letter to Dr. Gary Cox, executive director of the Kentucky Council on Higher Education. We made the following statement: “Industry in West Kentucky estimates in the next decade we jointly will require 80 replacement engineers annually. This represents our needs based solely on attrition and does not include expansion.” Dr. Cox commissioned and did his own study to verify our estimates. The numbers matched! Based on our statements and his confirming study, he verbally publicly recommended the State of Kentucky establish an engineering school in Paducah.

Two other vital supporters came on board in late 1994 and 1995. They were UK President Charles Wethington and UK Dean of Engineering Tom Lester. Together, they committed to establishing a UK-supported engineering college in Paducah. Perhaps most significant was the next commitment, when Kentucky Governor Paul Patton announced his support, including some financial aid from the state. The written support of the Kentucky Council on Higher Education was not far behind. In 1995, prominent Paducah attorney David Denton and Paducah businessman Marshal Nemer joined our core team as members and fundraisers. To add to our zeal caused by all these commitments, the project strategy planning was getting stronger. The core team jointly identified six success factors required to raise the estimated $8,000,000 to start physical school construction:

  • Develop a detailed long-view plan sufficient to the make the impossible, possible
  • Line up the required faculty 
  • Assure accreditation was probable
  • Field a five-star implementation team to execute the project through construction completion
  • To the end, continue to raise funds beyond the initial $8,000,000
  • Maintain brute persistence until the goal was fully executed

These success factors guided us. There were no signs of self-interest on display among the people involved in the project. None of us felt like we were boss – the mission was the boss. So, as great team does, we all worked for the same boss – making the impossible, possible.

In 1996-97, critical financial resources were there. UK and Murray State pledged sufficient engineering faculty. We had raised upward of $4,000,000 locally and from big corporate donors like Lockheed Martin, but we needed at least $8,000,000 to break ground. Core team member, Len O’Hara, convinced local businessman George Crounse to match the $4,000,000! 

In July 1997, we had the $8,000,000 to break ground and commence construction. The final pivotal point was achieved in late 1997 when the ABET accreditation organization agreed to accredit the Paducah campus as a separate entity from the UK College of Engineering in Lexington. Combined accreditation had been a legitimate UK concern as the new Paducah school began its start-up curriculum and lab delivery. With this milestone, in the summer of 1998, Paducah's engineering college opened its doors and had its first class of engineering students. The impossible had been realized and, in the spring of 2023, the 500th engineering degree was conferred by the UK Engineering Paducah Campus. 

*Story from commencement comments made by Steve Polston, retired Lockheed Martin CEO & Plant Manager, at the UK Engineering Paducah Campus graduation in May 2023.