A 10-year-old Harold Finch dreamed of adventures in outer space, drawing pictures of spaceships during the Great Depression.
When Sputnik orbited the Earth in 1957, shortly after he earned a mechanical engineering degree, Finch thought: “Maybe this dream could be more than fantasy.”
Fast forward to 2013.
Finch, a Lee’s Summit resident, is one of three men honored May 9 by the University of Kansas School of Engineering with its highest honor, the Distinguished Engineering Service Award. Finch solved the problem of protecting Apollo astronauts from extreme temperature during space flights making the moon landing possible.
Not least of his accomplishments, he’d say, is a Christian mission organization he founded.
Finch had a multifaceted career as a research scientist, educator and businessman. A movie based on his life premieres in October.
Finch said he spoke to about 200 people at the ceremony at KU, which was also attended by his wife, children and grandchildren.
He shared with them stories from his university days.
He said he wanted to debunk a myth that there were no computers and held up a slide rule.
“This is my laptop, I never had to reboot it and it’s user friendly,” Finch said.
He said he was “poor as a church mouse” and rented a small attic apartment. A glass of water he set on the window sill froze in the winter. In warm weather lunch meat he put on the shelf of his “refrigerator” – a closet – by the second day would have a green ring on its outside. Finch said he’d trim away the spoiled edge to make a meal. “At the end of a week that sandwich was about the size of a silver dollar,” he said.
He said those challenges led to his motto: Never, never quit. Years later it would become part of business seminars he’d teach.
“Our alumni make amazing contributions to society and the world,” said Stan Rolfe, interim dean of the School of Engineering. The award is given on the basis of an individuals contribution to theories and practices of engineering, research and development.
Finch was a scientist for the Midwest Research Institute in Kansas City (now MRIGlobal) when he suggested going after a NASA contract. Colleagues thought their small organization didn’t have much chance.
But he always liked a challenge. “Tell me I can’t do something and I want to do it,” Finch said.
NASA needed to control temperature of the spacecraft. One side would get very hot while the side facing away from the sun is freezing.
Finch’s idea: slowly gently spin the craft like it was on a rotisserie.
“If you can do that with a chicken on Earth, you can do that with a spacecraft in space,” Finch said. “It worked very well.”
Prior to working on NASA projects through MRI, Finch was a Captain in the U.S. Air Force after graduating from KU through a ROTC program in 1956. He also earned a master’s in Thermodynamics from Ohio State University in 1961.
In that phase of his life he was an intelligence officer analyzing the capabilities of potential enemy aircraft. As a duty officer he also investigated pilots reports of UFOs. He said he could explain 99 percent of the incidents but not all.
Much of his work for the Air Force is still classified, Finch said.
In 1967 community leaders in Johnson County recruited him to help with founding Johnson County Community College.
He told them he was a scientist, not an educator, and their reply was “We don’t want an educator, we want an innovator,” Finch said.
He took the job.
Finch was founding dean and chief administrator of the prominent community college until 1977. While working there he earned a doctorate in Education Administration from KU.
Next Finch and a friend George Robinson mulled over goals for starting a business. Both wrote down five goals, separately, as they prayed and thought about the future. Finch said they were startled to find they both used nearly the same words to say they wanted to build a successful business for five years and sell it then use the profits to start a family ministry.
He said that while studying engineering he’d had no formal management training, but quickly found that as a project leader at MRI he needed those skills. He saw business opportunity offering seminars.
“Dealing with people is difficult, going to the moon was easy, scientifically,” Finch said.
They started Padgett-Thompson, a consulting firm giving management seminars which trained 400,000 owners and CEOs in a single year. It was sold to an international corporation.
Finch, now a member of Abudant Life Baptist Church in Lee’s Summit, started Wellspring Foundation that sponsored and coordinated 1,200 mission volunteers on 80 trips to more than 30 countries.
In retirement he’s conducted 750 seminars on keys to success, speaking at universities and important bodies worldwide including the Supreme Court of Costa Rica and the Federal Congress of Ecuador.
Now he’s become executive producer of a movie “Unlimited” based on his life.
It stars Fred Thompson, Robert Amaya and is produced by Chad Gunderson, an award-winning Christian film maker.
Finch said in his seminars he includes ideas he’s learned from many other successful people, and emphasizes personal integrity and honesty. And time for reflection.
“You need a vision for what you want...like going to the moon,” Finch said. “You should spend a day alone thinking about the future, very few people ever do that.”
His seminars include testimony about his Christian faith and the movie is another venue for expressing that testimony.
“But there’s enough fictitious elements to make it more interesting,” Finch said.