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Rene L. Guerster, engineer, inventor, chief executive, and lifelong learner, has died at 84

He was granted 11 patents, earned four degrees, and ran several local companies. "He was ridiculously smart," his son said. "He was also wise."

Mr. Guerster and his wife, Miriam, were married for 62 years.
Mr. Guerster and his wife, Miriam, were married for 62 years.Read moreCourtesy of the family

Rene L. Guerster, 84, formerly of Maple Glen, longtime engineer, inventor, chief executive, and lifelong learner, died Thursday, March 9, of congestive heart failure at the Mayflower retirement community in Winter Park, Fla.

Born in Switzerland to European parents, an immigrant to the United States as a child, and a graduate of London’s prestigious Imperial College, Mr. Guerster settled in West Chester at Westtown School as a freshman in high school and fashioned an impressive 40-year career at companies based in Millville, Lancaster, Berwyn, King of Prussia, Hatfield, and Phoenixville.

He worked at Phoenixville-based West Co., now West Pharmaceutical Services, from 1970 to 1991 and, as the first top executive from outside the family, rose from director of engineering to president and chief executive officer. An expert in celestial mechanics, he held jobs earlier as a flight engineer and product development supervisor in the space systems divisions at General Electric and Ametek Corp.

Friendly and inquisitive, Mr. Guerster liked to learn about people, how they grew up, where their family lived, why they did what they did. His family called him a “cheerleader for everyone’s success” and said he provided “encouraging, bold, and entertaining commentary in any situation.”

He was featured in business articles in The Inquirer and elsewhere, and a magazine published a piece about him in 1986 titled “The accessible CEO, Management Psychology.” In that story, the author quoted him as writing in the West Pharmaceutical in-house publication: “We need to grow, to make work more exciting, to stretch our minds, to invigorate our spirit. Growth is as important to our company as it is to any person in it, and for the same reasons.”

He was also a consultant to business executives, president and CEO of two start-ups, and a project engineer. He earned three master’s degrees, two at night school while working full-time, in addition to his bachelor’s degree at Imperial.

He received his final master’s degree, in modeling and simulation with a specialty in cognitive science, at the University of Central Florida in 2013 when he was 75. “He was wired to be intellectually curious,” his son, Jon, said.

A natural innovator, Mr. Guerster was granted 11 patents, including one in 1972 for a tubular extension process, and the last in 2016 for an improved steering system for wheeled land vehicles. He spoke English and German and was published in the journal Human Factors.

He was a member of the Pennsylvania Business Roundtable and on boards at the Abington Memorial Health Care Corp., Walnut Street Theater, the local Habitat for Humanity, and other organizations. At Westtown, he funded faculty sabbaticals and established an endowment scholarship for immigrant students.

His former dormitory was renamed the Guerster House. “He found his home at the Westtown School,” his family said in a tribute.

Born Oct. 1, 1938, in Basel, Switzerland, Rene Ludwig Guerster and his parents fled Nazi-occupied Europe for the United States when he was 3 and moved around the country as his father found work as a teacher at universities.

After graduating from Westtown, he earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering at Imperial in 1960, a master’s degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Pennsylvania in 1966, and a master’s degree in management at Temple University in 1978.

He met Miriam Harthen while in college in London, and they married in 1960, had daughter Cathy and son Jon, and lived in Vineland, Maple Glen, and later in Florida.

Mr. Guerster routinely helped his children with homework after long days during the week and sometimes showed them around the Temple library on Saturday. He fussed over his grandchildren and attended many Little League games and high school events.

“He took pride and pleasure in having a personal relationship with each of them,” his daughter said. A friend said in an online tribute: “He was so so proud of the entire family.”

Mr. Guerster captained voyages with his family in the Chesapeake Bay and near the Virgin Islands, restored and drove classic cars, vacationed in Ocean City, and enjoyed golf and jazz. Later, he embraced woodworking and made jewelry boxes for his family and a rocking horse for his great-granddaughter.

He coached his son’s sports teams when he was young, worked crossword puzzles when he got older, and liked his scotch with a few rocks. One day recently, on a trip to the hospital, he talked with his daughter.

“He told me that when he passed we could be sad,” she said. “But it was not a tragedy because he had lived a wonderful life. That is one of the gifts he left me with.”

In addition to his wife and children, Mr. Guerster is survived by five grandchildren, two great-grandchildren, and other relatives.

A private celebration of his life is to be held later.

Donations in his name may be made to Westtown School’s annual fund, 975 Westtown Rd., West Chester, Pa. 19382.