Thielsch Engineering Inc., the metallurgy and failure-analysis firm he founded in Rhode Island 18 years ago, now employs 350 people, with annual sales of $45 million.
For all of his success, one solitary regret cast a lengthening shadow over Thielsch’s professional accomplishments: He left Lehigh more than 50 years ago without formally completing his master’s degree in metallurgical engineering.
That regret was wiped from the books in January, when G. Slade Cargill, chair of Lehigh’s materials science and engineering department, flew to Rhode Island to present Thielsch with his long-overdue degree. It was the culmination of a story that began more than a half century ago.
A fierce desire to learn
In 1949, with little money, Thielsch left Lehigh to take a job with Lukens Steel Co. in Coatesville, Pa. He had earned 27 credits of coursework, earning all A’s and B’s, and he had earned nine credits of thesis research.
But he had not completed his thesis paper.
As a graduate student at Lehigh, Thielsch was possessed of a fierce desire to learn. The lone microscope in the department of metallurgical engineering was locked away each night, but Thielsch made his way into the room by climbing through a transom over the door.
The metallurgy professors did not share his passion for crystals, or the various shapes they can be induced to form depending on the rates at which they cool. But Thielsch found time to investigate solidification structures on his own, even as he juggled several part-time jobs with his courses.
Throughout his life, Thielsch never lost the conviction that he could do whatever he set his mind to. After graduate school, he worked 31 years as a metallurgical engineer for Grinnell, becoming vice president of research, development, and engineering.
In 1984, when he was 62, he founded Thielsch Engineering. Over the next 18 years, he added engineering services divisions in environmental engineering, papers and processing, utilities engineering, energy efficiency, and more. Today, Thielsch shows no signs of slowing down. He has retained a board of advisers to help his company reach $100 million in sales. And if he stays healthy, he will work until he’s 90.
Still, he thought about the master’s degree he never received.
I always have regretted not to have received a degree from the Lehigh which I held at that time and continue to hold in high esteem as one of the leading universities in the metallurgical engineering field in the United States," Thielsch wrote in a September letter to Mohamed El-Aasser, dean of the P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science.
Thielsch did not formally petition Lehigh to grant him a degree; in fact, he spent most of his letter to El-Aasser discussing his work with crystal shapes and the crystallization of salts and metals.
But El-Aasser and Cargill recommended that the university award Thielsch a master’s of engineering in metallurgical engineering. Together with the MS&E faculty, the two decided that Thielsch’s academic record since leaving Lehigh, which includes 250 published technical papers and a book titled Defects and Failures in Pressure Vessels and Piping, more than qualified him for a diploma.
Illness prevented Thielsch from attending winter commencement on Jan. 12, so, on Jan. 21, Cargill flew to Rhode Island to hand Lehigh’s newest alumnus his diploma.
"I’m certainly very grateful and I appreciate it tremendously," Thielsch said. "My years at Lehigh made a major contribution to my career. Lehigh gave me a lot of stimulation to want to learn."
Photo caption: G. Slade Cargill, center, presents Lehigh diploma to Helmut Thielsch, as Thielsch’s wife, Margaret, looks on.