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Henry Rowan, who reshaped industry and university, dies

Henry M. Rowan, 92, an inventive engineer and industrialist whose historic $100 million donation transformed modest Glassboro State College into the regionally acclaimed university that carries his name, died Wednesday at an assisted-living residence in Bucks County.

Henry Rowan wipes a tear while with wife Lee and daughter Virginia Rowan Smith at 2002 ceremonies marking the 20th anniversary of his gift.
Henry Rowan wipes a tear while with wife Lee and daughter Virginia Rowan Smith at 2002 ceremonies marking the 20th anniversary of his gift.Read moreEd Hille / Staff Photographer

Henry M. Rowan, 92, an inventive engineer and industrialist whose historic $100 million donation transformed modest Glassboro State College into the regionally acclaimed university that carries his name, died Wednesday at an assisted-living residence in Bucks County.

In 1992, Mr. Rowan and his wife, Betty, set the record for the largest gift to a public college in the history of American higher education. While the couple had no connection to the school, they did occupy the same state. And that, Mr. Rowan later explained, was one reason they chose to share their fortune - a by-product of his revolutionary furnace - with the Gloucester County school.

At the time, Glassboro State's 10,000 students were "drawn, in the main, from the state where I had lived and worked almost all my life," he said in 2003. "It was a state that had been good to me, my family, and to Inductotherm," the global conglomerate he built from an experiment in his Mercer County garage in 1953.

"I can honestly tell you, without his gift, Rowan would have been a very average, local, who-cares college," said university president Ali A. Houshmand. "And as a result of what he has done, look at what it is."

In the two decades since the Rowans made their pledge, the university has aggressively increased enrollment, quadrupled the size of its Glassboro campus, and opened a medical school in Camden.

Its endowment now stands at more than $177 million; when Mr. Rowan pledged his money in 1992, it was just $787,000, or about $1.33 million today.

Somewhat like himself, Mr. Rowan once said, Glassboro State was "a no-frills kind of college, a place to roll up your sleeves and get to work."

Mr. Rowan's gift did not require Glassboro State to take his name, but in tribute to his beneficence - albeit in the face of protests by some students and alumni - administrators promptly rechristened it.

The gift did require the creation of an engineering school, which opened in 1995 and granted free tuition to the 85 students in its inaugural class. Engineering is now one of the university's biggest draws.

At every major point in the engineering school's development, its benefactor was there, providing money but also advice, especially in the early years. From shaping the program and funding a new doctorate program, to establishing a $15 million school-specific endowment, Mr. Rowan played a role, said Tony Lowman, engineering dean.

"He made sure to put the footings in correctly, like any good engineer," Lowman said. "And now he's really letting us reach for the stars."

Mr. Rowan continued to donate to his namesake university, giving a total of more than $125 million.

Like Glassboro State, several of Mr. Rowan's other causes had little or no prior relationship to the industrialist turned philanthropist.

'An inspiration'

In 1999, his daughter, Virginia Rowan Smith, had a chance encounter with a waitress who was a senior at a small school in Burlington City. After learning more about Doane Academy, Mr. Rowan became a major benefactor, giving more than $25 million over the years, including $5 million in 2013 to construct a Rowan Hall and $17 million this year to create a permanent endowment that helped secure the school's financial future.

Mr. Rowan became a regular visitor to the school, attending athletic events and graduation, headmaster George B. Sanderson said Thursday.

"He was an inspiration to our students and our faculty," Sanderson said, "not only because of the resources that he shared with us, but through his dedication to our values and our mission, and his own inspiring life story. So he was an important figure to us."

Other recipients of Mr. Rowan's giving include the Burlington County Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, and Williamson College of the Trades in Delaware County.

Fueling his philanthropy was the prosperity of Inductotherm, a group of 60 companies providing melting and thermal-processing technology for the metals industry worldwide. Today, Inductotherm and its sister companies employ more than 3,500 people in more than 20 countries.

Mr. Rowan's entrepreneurial drive was already in high gear in childhood, which he spent mostly in Ridgewood, Bergen County. His parents, prominent obstetrician Henry M. Rowan Sr. and Margaret Frances Boyd Rowan, divorced when he was 6.

His mother "preached a doctrine of thrift and self-reliance," Mr. Rowan wrote in his 1995 autobiography, The Fire Within. It was a lesson "I readily absorbed."

At 9, he went into business raising chickens in the backyard and selling eggs. His mother was his only customer, and a tough one. He bought his feed retail, but she refused to pay more than the wholesale egg price published in the newspaper. She not only erased his profit margin but put him in the hole.

For his 10th birthday, though, she spared him from ruin with a present that, he recalled, "I wanted more than anything else in the world": a 100-pound bag of feed.

Chicken business saved.

For high school, Mr. Rowan attended a Massachusetts boarding school, Deerfield Academy, and then enrolled at nearby Williams College. After two years, war forced a change of plans.

In 1943, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps and was trained as a bomber pilot, flying B-17s and B-29s. While in the service, Mr. Rowan married his Ridgewood sweetheart, Betty Long. Upon his discharge, they headed to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he earned a degree in electrical engineering, with help from the GI Bill.

After graduation, Mr. Rowan, by then the father of two, worked at Ajax Electrothermic Corp. in Trenton, the world's largest manufacturer of induction furnaces. He soon grew frustrated with Ajax's lack of innovation, and left in 1952.

The following year, a former customer, Paul Foley, asked him to develop a furnace capable of melting beryllium copper at Foley's Glenolden casting firm. Over the next six weeks, in the garage of their Mercer County rancher, he and his wife created "the most advanced 60-pound induction furnace anybody had ever built," he wrote in his autobiography.

On a spit over a bonfire in the backyard, the couple annealed the copper coil. From that prototype, a new company, Inductotherm, emerged.

Nary a nibble

Mr. Rowan was CEO, chief engineer, and half-owner. He financed his part by selling his house and moving to a rental in Sharon Hill near the factory.

Months went by before the Rowans got even a nibble from prospective buyers. But in early 1955, they reeled in a customer that would save them: the U.S. Mint.

Then located on Spring Garden Street, it bought six 600-pound melting units, which Mr. Rowan had redesigned for increased efficiency. On a point of pride, he beat out Ajax for the sale.

Soon, however, the Mint complained that a certain maintenance task took four hours and threatened to throw the contract to Ajax. In a show of bravado that became part of the Rowan legend, he wagered the melting superintendent that the job could be done in 10 minutes, on a furnace full of liquefied nickel alloy glowing at 2,800 degrees.

Mr. Rowan performed the maintenance himself, burning his fingers on a steam jet and risking an explosion or meltdown. Mint officials clocked him at seven minutes.

From that moment, Inductotherm was a force in the metallurgical industry. In 1958, the company's sales passed $1 million for the first time, reaching nearly $1.4 million - a 65 percent increase over the previous year.

Three years later, he bought farmland near the village of Rancocas, Burlington County, and built Inductotherm's headquarters. The Rowans eventually moved into a 1786 colonial brick farmhouse nearby.

"Winning in business only served to remind me that I was already losing that which mattered most to me: my two sons, Jimmy and David," Mr. Rowan observed in The Fire Within.

Both boys had muscular dystrophy, an inherited condition marked by the gradual wasting of muscle tissue. In 1968, at age 21, Jimmy died. Ten years later, at age 28, David died.

"Success and money; triumph and profits," Mr. Rowan wrote. "These are the standards by which society measures the significance of a man's life. Yet, at the same time, they sometimes serve to underscore the things that count most."

On April 1, 1990, Mr. Rowan got a call from a Glassboro State fund-raiser seeking a modest donation: $1,500. In return, Inductotherm would receive two tickets to Glassboro's "Autumn Nocturne" gala. He gave the money.

The next ask was heftier: $2 million to $3 million toward a $20 million library.


Mr. Rowan recalled saying: "I'm sure it's a worthwhile project. But I'm not inclined to be one of a bunch of people. I don't serve on committees; I don't belong to clubs; I don't get a kick out of being mentioned in the same breath with other successful people. I'm a loner. I like doing things independently."

He did exactly that in 1991, when he and his wife offered to give Glassboro $100 million to start an engineering program.

"I had been doing a lot of thinking. About myself, about my company, and about money, and what it could - and should - be used for," Mr. Rowan wrote.

A sturdy man who used to plow his own fields in Rancocas, Mr. Rowan also sailed a 23-foot Starboat, a racing keelboat. At age 70, he competed, unsuccessfully, in the 1992 Olympic sailing trials in Miami.

"I think he was the oldest participant, but you can't think of him as old," his son-in-law, Manning Smith, once said. He described Mr. Rowan as "full speed ahead."

Aviation Hall of Fame

Mr. Rowan's brush with World War II left him with a love of flight. He built an airport at the firm's headquarters and accumulated a fleet of 10 aircraft by 1992. He moved out of the pilot's "left seat" only at age 86. In 2012, Mr. Rowan was inducted into the New Jersey Aviation Hall of Fame at Teterboro Airport, having logged 8,000 flying hours.

In addition to his daughter, Mr. Rowan is survived by his wife, Lee; two grandchildren; and a sister. Betty Rowan died in 1997.

Services and a Rowan University memorial will be held after the first of the year.

Three years ago, as the then-89-year-old Mr. Rowan leaned on a cane, his namesake university unveiled a seven-foot bronze sculpture of him in front of Savitz Hall to mark the 20th anniversary of his historic gift. The statue, the work of artist Zenos Frudakis, was cast in an Inductotherm furnace.

On Thursday, a wreath and flowers accumulated at its base.

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