by Stephen Zubrycky, Senior Writer
You might know him by his distinctive beard. You’ve probably seen him at Starbucks… ordering a latte or a peach iced tea. Or maybe you know his ties… like the one with the M&Ms or the one with the smiley faces. But somehow and some way, you probably recognize when Walter P. Saukin, Ph.D., enters the room.
The beard is one of several things about Saukin, 75, that has remained a constant over his 42 years with the civil engineering faculty at Manhattan College.
“I had the beard since I was a kid, because I always looked young,” Saukin said. “I shaved it only once, and that was when my mother died.”
But while the beard may have defined his look for generations of Jaspers, it’s his dedication to teaching and outreach, his zeal for engineering and sports, along with his rock-steady commitment to the college, that have defined his legacy.
Saukin was born in 1943 to an immigrant family in the South Bronx. Saukin’s mother, a Polish immigrant, was a stay-at-home mom and his father, a Russian immigrant, worked in a factory. He is a proud product of New York City’s public schools, where he proved himself to be a diligent and gifted student.
“Every morning, from five o’clock to nine o’clock in the summertime, I would read… learn what I could learn, memorize the rest,” Saukin said. “And from nine o’clock in the morning until nine o’clock, ten o’clock at night, I was your regular everyday kid… running around, playing, having fun.”
He attended Morris High School, where he graduated as valedictorian, before moving onto the City College of New York, which Saukin has given the moniker “poor man’s Harvard.”
“I was there for a functional education, because I need this money, I need to get a job and make money because I have these parents at home that I’m going to be responsible for,” Saukin recounted. “It was a challenging experience, but I did well.”
Saukin aimed for both academic and athletic excellence.
“I used to run… I took weights, and I’d run with weights,” Saukin said. “It got to a point where I was sprinting a straightaway with a 15-pound dumbbell in each hand. Crazy? I don’t know. Because you’re trying to learn how to build your body.”
In 1971, after earning his bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate from City College, Saukin began his career in education, sending cover letters to every engineering school within 100 miles of New York City.
Only one school bit – Lafayette College, in Easton, Pa. – and Saukin was off to the races.
Saukin’s days at Lafayette started at 4:30 a.m., when he’d leave his Brooklyn home and jump into his Volkswagen bound for Easton; he would arrive at 6:15 a.m. for an extra nap. From 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., Saukin taught. Then, it was back in the car to his consulting job 20 miles west in Allentown, Pa., where he’d work until 7 p.m. before hitting the gym for two hours. When it was time to hit the hay, Saukin would retire in a rented room near Lafayette.
The next day, Saukin would rise again for class, then jump in his car and take a quick pit-stop at Princeton University, where he was doing research and consulting, on his way back to his wife in New York.
Saukin and his wife, who are this year celebrating their fiftieth anniversary, met in 1961.
“I met her just walking down a country road in the middle of no place… but as soon as I met her I said, ‘This is who I want to marry.’”
Saukin was first introduced to Manhattan College in 1972 when he was a part of the college’s environmental engineering summer institute.
“I wasn’t there so much to learn the subject,” Saukin said, “but to scout the area. And when I saw the number of faculty here and their stature in the environmental field… I said, ‘forget about it.’”
“I’m a competitive guy. And I’m here to make money, and if I see that on the east coast I’m going to have that kind of competition… I took it personal.”
Five years after attending that institute, Saukin would join the faculty.
“I found the faculty at Manhattan College were very supportive, very friendly, and I felt that the administration was more than accommodating,” Saukin said. “Anything I ever asked for, they always provided.”
And Saukin asked for a lot.
When Saukin was the executive director of the New York Water Environment Association (NYWEA) in the 1980s, he was able to bring the association’s headquarters to the Manhattan College campus.
Saukin also started the first NYWEA student chapters, and had student chapters written into the NYWEA bylaws before he left office. Today, Manhattan’s NYWEA chapter is among the most active in the state.
“Dr. Saukin has made a profound impact in NYWEA. He continuously encourages students to be involved in the organization. He is always the first person to tell students about the organization and get students excited about NYWEA events,” said senior civil engineering major Jamila H. Thompson, who currently serves as the NYWEA president.
“Last semester, I told Dr. Saukin about my idea on how we can get more involvement in NYWEA. A few weeks later, we were overwhelmed with countless membership applications. We were extremely excited, but a majority of my happiness was because he was happy.”
But Saukin’s biggest ask was made in 1982, when he started Manhattan College’s Summer Engineering Awareness program, which is still very much alive and kicking today.
“I first met Dr. Saukin when I was a student at his summer engineering program. It was there where I first heard about NYWEA. I am very grateful to have grown with this organization and make him proud,” said Thompson.
Thompson is one of several students who have taken inspiration from the program.
“I knew I was interested in engineering and interested in coming to Manhattan, but I didn’t know a lot about all the different sections of engineering,” junior civil engineering student and program alum Mike Ramos said. “The program promoted getting your hands dirty, which is what I wanted… [it] made me confident in being a civil engineer.”
Even though it’s Saukin’s baby, the program is interdisciplinary and open to engineers of all disciplines.
“Not only does he have academic experience, he gives you life experience,” said another program alumna Alexis Velardi, who is now a senior chemical engineering student at Manhattan College. This summer, Velardi was a member of the student staff at the program. “He is the most energetic [and] just a great guy.”
In recognition of his work with the summer program, Saukin was named the guest of honor at the New York Building Foundation’s annual benefit in 2016.
His outreach work does not stop there.
Saukin is one of the first board members of the ACE (architecture-construction-engineering) mentor program. Founded at Manhattan College by alumni in 1994, ACE partners professional engineers with teams of high school students to work on engineering projects. Saukin is still on the board of the organization – which has grown to serve 1,700 students annually across America.
He is also a fixture at the college’s recruiting events, like Accepted Students Days in April and Engineering Awareness Day in November. Additionally, Saukin offers private tours of the college to individual prospective students and their parents.
In 1993, Saukin was elected chair of the civil and environmental engineering department.
“At that time, the college was being challenged by recruiting students for engineering. It was a tough time,” Saukin said.
“When I became chair, I said, ‘I always do things myself, so how do I get other people to do things? The only way to do it is to lead by example,” Saukin recalled.
As chair, Saukin hired Professor Anirban De, Ph.D., the department’s current chair.
“He’s a caring person, and sets a caring environment… a welcoming, nurturing place for students and for young faculty,” De said of Saukin. “At that time, he was my mentor, and I’ve looked at him that way ever since.”
But first and foremost, Saukin is an educator.
“Dr. Saukin is the most captivating professor you’ll ever have,” said Christina Cercone ‘08, a former student of Saukin’s and current visiting assistant professor of civil engineering. “He’s so motivating in class… he made civil engineering seem like the greatest thing ever.”
“Dr. Saukin is very energetic in class. He really knows his stuff and he’s a wealth of knowledge,” Ramos said. “He’s always up and beyond, extremely interesting and always has knowledge in anything you want to know… engineering, how to live your life, real estate. He’s a fountain of knowledge.”
A long time lover of sports, Saukin encourages his students to maintain both a sharp mind and a fit body. He played a role in recruiting junior mechanical engineering major Pamela Miceus and senior civil engineering major Samson Usilo to the women’s and men’s basketball teams, respectively.
“I love to watch the practices, because what you see on the court is what you see in the classroom,” Saukin said. “I can see the problems that occur on the court, and I can bring that to the classroom.”
For Saukin, lessons learned on the court have always reinforced what is learned in the classroom.
“The gym and the classroom are one in the same,” Saukin said. “In the gym, I can be the trainer and I can tell you what to do, but I can’t do the lifting for you. And in the classroom, I can tell you what to do… but you got to do the lifting.”
Saukin’s three children were all raised in this vein, showing academic and athletic excellence. His daughter is a medical doctor. Both his sons earned civil engineering degrees at Manhattan College before attending law school.
Saukin acknowledges that he is getting advanced in years, but has no intention of slowing down anytime soon. Next fall, he will be teaching seven sections of two courses.
“You never know at what age you will play your best game, or do something that will make a major difference,” Saukin said.
It is the work that keeps Saukin going – and keeps him young.
“What have I discovered? Want to call it the fountain of youth?” Saukin asked. Or, put more succinctly, home.
“Anybody who is here knows that their soul has a home,” he said. “So when you see me running around campus, [it’s because] I just enjoy it. It’s like going to the park, going to the Botanical Gardens. And the students are the flowers… you want to water them.”
Taylor Brethauer contributed reporting.