Co-op & Cal

By:     Ashley Duvelius
Date:  February 15, 2018

This is the untold story of Henry Calvert “Cal” Messinger, the mechanical engineering alumnus, WWI veteran and faculty member behind the modern UC cooperative education model we all know today.

UC engineering professor Henry Calvert "Cal" Messinger, an early pioneer of co-op.

UC engineering professor Henry Calvert "Cal" Messinger, an early pioneer of co-op.

Many know that the University of Cincinnati (UC) College of Engineering and Applied Science (CEAS) established the first cooperative education (co-op) program more than 110 years ago. What many may not know is the story behind one of the early pioneers of co-op, Henry Calvert “Cal” Messinger.

The co-op program was founded by the UC engineering dean at the time, Herman Schneider. Prior to pitching his plans of co-op to the UC Board of Trustees, Dean Schneider proposed his idea to Lehigh University in his hometown of Lehigh County, Pennsylvania. Also based in Lehigh was Dean Schneider’s close relative, the young Cal Messinger, who would soon play an integral role in the development of UC’s modern day co-op program.

Today, the program allows students to gain real-world experience by alternating semesters spent in the classroom with semesters spent working jobs related to their fields of study. Co-op allows students to practice what we teach here at UC—and they get paid to do it.

The first installation of the co-op program was quite different.  When first initiated in 1906, a pair of  students alternated between one week of class and one week of work at the same company, thus providing a ”full-time” employee for the company. Due to the rapid toggling between work and school, the model made it difficult for students at both work and school.

Enter Cal Messinger.

Messinger moved to Cincinnati from Pennsylvania to attend UC from 1911-1916 and was a member of the fifth class to graduate from the new co-op program. As a mechanical engineering major, he held work positions with the Cincinnati Tool Company, Corcoran Lamp Company of Cincinnati and Brownell Engine & Boiler Works in Dayton.

Additionally, Messinger worked for one year at the Dayton Electric Company (DELCO), a Division of the General Motors in Dayton, Ohio.  While at DELCO, Messinger’s number was the first drawn for the draft in World War I and he enlisted in the Army in 1917.

Drawing from his mechanical engineering knowledge and skills gained during his years at UC, Messinger was tasked with and successfully developed the ability for allied forces to fire rounds through the front spinning propeller on military aircraft. He also maintained and repaired some of the first reconnaissance airplanes used by the military to observe enemy forces.

After returning home from WWI in 1919, Messinger was recruited by George Burns, UC’s first co-op coordinator (appointed by Dean Schneider), to further develop the co-op program. Hired as a co-op coordinator, Messinger was eventually assigned to work exclusively with students in mechanical engineering and in the new field of aeronautical engineering.

Initially, the responsibility of co-op coordinators was to work with companies to simply find co-op positions for students. However, Messinger wanted to go one step further—he wanted to find the best quality work experiences that exposed students to real-world engineering problems.

He traveled across the country, meeting with numerous companies to establish well-structured training opportunities for co-op students, ensuring that they experience a variety of departments and responsibilities while working for a company.

For his dedication and exemplary work in the field, Messinger quickly rose through the UC ranks, from coordinator to assistant professor of coordination to associate professor of coordination. A new position was created in 1946 and he was appointed as the first-ever director of the university department of coordination and placement, overseeing all of the co-op programs in engineering, business and architecture & design.  

Messinger made several major contributions to the co-op program throughout his UC tenure. During the Great Depression, UC experienced a drop in enrollment and the number of engineering students available for co-op placements, and Messinger developed a pivotal way to boost program interest. He suggested that instead of waiting to recruit co-op students at the university level, companies should visit and recruit local high school students. Many companies adopted this method. They would interview high school students and select the best candidates, offer to help pay for the student’s UC education, and offer them co-op positions that would help tailor the student for a specific job once they graduated.  Companies continued to use this process to find and tailor future employees well after the depression had ended and, as a result, UC experienced an overall increase in enrollment during those difficult years.

Later in his UC career, Messinger spent time working with universities across the nation to help them establish co-op programs of their own. Though rarely as comprehensive as the program at UC, these universities understood the value of cooperative education.

Messinger also encouraged UC faculty to visit and collaborate with companies, in exchange for the companies accepting more co-op students. This exchange kept faculty apprised of the innovative work being done in industry and also opened more opportunities for students.

Towards the end of his career, Messinger helped to establish the Cooperative Education Division of the American Society of Engineering Education (ASEE) to foster the growth and development of the co-op program across the nation and abroad.  He was recognized by his peers in industry and academia as a true pioneer in cooperative education.

The name Messinger may sound very familiar to Cincinnati natives.   Cal had two sons who participated in the engineering co-op program at UC: Robert “Bob” Messinger and Richard “Dick” Messinger.  Dick is retired from his position as the Vice President of Research and Development for Cincinnati Milacron, Inc.

Because of his innovative technological advances, including the development of the first computer-controlled robotic arms and plastic molding machines, Dick was nominated to join the prestigious National Academy of Engineering. The Messinger family legacy of engineers continues to this day, as Dick’s granddaughter Blakely Linz plans to transfer into the computer science program in fall 2018.