Alumni profile: Tom Kline, ’66
A lot can change in 50 years. Man takes the first steps on the moon. The World Wide Web emerges, taking others virtually on a remote visit to the moon and places around the globe.
In that same time, a lot can change on a college campus, too. Just ask Tom Kline, a 1966 graduate of the University of Chattanooga (now the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga). He and his UC classmates returned to campus last fall to celebrate their 50th reunion.
“The school is definitely bigger, and I’m proud of the growth,” Tom shares. “It’s better. It’s changed and not just the buildings. There are more people and more opportunities.”
Tom regrettably had not returned to campus in 50 years. A student from the North, Tom’s post-college path took him in many different directions following graduation.
“I really wanted to return sooner because this place is so special,” Tom says. “Fifty years go by fast, but I can still see the people, the places like yesterday. It still feels like home.”
Steps leading to the South
Growing up in the suburbs of New York City, Tom walked most places. He walked to school. He walked to work. He walked to the library.
At the library, he found a book of “a thousand colleges and universities.” He started at the back of the book, where he quickly came across the University of Chattanooga, and sent letters to the schools where an application fee was not required.
The second of six children in a two-bedroom apartment, Tom knew he wanted to leave the city suburbs for college. The University of Chattanooga stuck out to him because it was a smaller university with excellent academic credentials. Plus, it would be an adventure to call his own.
When Tom was accepted to the University of Chattanooga, he made a deal with his father where he would pay 75 percent of his own tuition and his father would pay the remaining 25 percent. Tom shoveled snow, delivered newspapers, cleaned a bakery bathroom and worked in battery factory — all to earn money for school.
“I remember my first train ride from New York to Chattanooga,” Tom reflects. “I stepped off the train in Chattanooga and thought my adventure is now beginning.”
All incoming UC freshmen received a letter from Rick Weintraub, president of the sophomore class, with his phone number if he could be of help to them. Tom took Rick up on his offer and called him from the train station for a ride to campus.
“The southern culture was very welcoming. I quickly knew I was in the right place.”
Tom immediately immersed himself into the campus community. He became involved in a fraternity, ROTC and student government.
During Tom’s first Christmas back home, his father encouraged him to switch his major from business to engineering. Tom eventually settled on industrial engineering after talking to Dr. Norbert Koch, the head of the Engineering Department.
“Dr. Koch said he would coach me,” Tom says. “Our professors cared about us. They were invested in us and our future. I’ve carried that with me. It inspired me.”
While at school, Tom followed a strict, self-imposed schedule. Study all week. Go out and “let loose” on Friday night. Participate in fraternity activities on Saturday. Study in the library on Sunday. Repeat.
“We all had a free period during the week from 10 to 11 a.m.,” Tom recalls. “Most students went to the University Center for a break. I went to study in my dorm.”
Tom’s love for his school was contagious. His brother, Peter, started attending the University of Chattanooga during Tom’s senior year.
“That’s one of many reasons why UC means so much to me,” Tom shares. “My brother chose to come here. This place was truly my home.”
Steps going into the world
Tom would have stayed in the South if he had found the right job out of college.
“I was rejected from the first nine jobs I applied for,” Tom admits. “I’m a lesson in persistence. I believe if you can be flexible, you will have more opportunities.”
Tom decided to pursue an opportunity to continue his education. With a biomedical research fellowship, he earned a Master of Science in industrial engineering from the University of Missouri-Columbia.
After graduating from Missouri, Tom entered the army. He began Engineering Officers training in Virginia and served first as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, stationed in Illinois.
When Tom learned he would be going to Vietnam for the war, he knew he needed to be in the best shape possible.
“I walked in the cornfields in my combat boots,” Tom says. “This is the time I started to get serious about fitness, and that continues today.”
As a platoon leader during the Vietnam War, Tom was awarded the Bronze Star Medal, the Army Commendation Medal and the Vietnamese Civil Works Medal.
Following the war, Tom started a 34-year career with the pharmaceutical company Pfizer Inc. His job took him back to New York.
“I always say my career started at UC, and not New York, because without it, I would not have a career.”
After only a year in Brooklyn, Tom received an assignment to help establish a new pharmaceutical plant in Puerto Rico. It was there he met Doris, his wife. Tom and Doris have two daughters and six wonderful grandchildren.
Tom continued to seize opportunities. In 1975, he was selected in a national competition as a White House Fellow, an opportunity that would bring unparalleled experience. He was selected to serve as special assistant to the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture under President Gerald Ford.
“What an honor!” Tom recalls. “It was hard work, but I learned so much. I learned so much about leadership.”
Tom took what he learned and applied it when he returned to Pfizer. In 1983, he became the youngest plant manager of the company’s sprawling manufacturing plant in Brooklyn.
“I was responsible for reducing costs and improving customer service,” Tom says. “I focused on three goals to achieve that. We would be the safest plant, have the highest quality and always respect one another.”
His work gained him national recognition for his leadership in improving public education, reducing crime, creating employment and building hundreds of residences for the needy, and his experiences led him to write “The Golden Hand Grenade — A Lifetime Fighting to Rebuild a Tiny Stretch of Urban America.”
At Pfizer, Tom later established and led the company’s global logistics, manufacturing procurement and contract manufacturing operations.
Today, he is principal of the Tom Kline Health Group and has volunteered with many community organizations, including drug treatment centers.
“I believe if I can help someone be better, then it’s good for everyone,” Tom shares. “Better for them. Better for the world. Honestly, that’s what industrial engineering ultimately is about. It’s making the world a better, more efficient, cleaner and happier place to live.”
Since his army days, Tom has remained in shape. He is a competitive race walker and has completed more than 100 marathons and ultra-marathons. He once walked across the Sahara Desert.
Tom also uses walking as a platform to help others. A year before his 50th reunion, he walked 6,500 miles from Point Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost point in the United States, to Key West, Florida, in an effort to help rid the world of malaria. His book “Stride to The Top” teaches busy executives the benefits of walking for their health and their business.
Steps changing the future
The University of Chattanooga has been an important part of Tom’s journey because it taught him about leadership and relationships. His gratitude for his experience inspired him to give back to his alma mater.
“We all need help at some point, whether it’s time, money, encouragement,” Tom shares. “There were people at UC and in my life who were there when I needed them.”
Tom now assists the UTC College of Engineering and Computer Science through a minority scholarship.
The Mr. Thomas J. Kline Scholarship was awarded to senior Diego Amara and sophomore Tony Amegnaglo for the 2017─2018 academic year. An electrical engineering student, Diego is active with IEEE and set to graduate in the spring. Tony is also an electrical engineering student who is involved in IEEE and club sports.
“The most important skill of a leader is to give back.” Tom says. “I’ve seen the value firsthand, and I want to help today’s students become tomorrow’s leaders. If you are blessed to have attended UTC, you are equally blessed to give back to those in need.”
Article By: Development and Alumni Affairs