Ralph Palange, E36


Ralph Palange, E36

Ralph Palange came to the United States from Italy when he was eight. He grew up in Somerville, Massachusetts, where his father ran a grinding shop in Davis Square. After attending Somerville High School, he began his college career at MIT but transferred to Tufts in early 1933. At Tufts, he studied civil engineering, with a focus on sanitary engineering (now referred to as environmental engineering). By chance he met his future wife, Virginia, at Tufts. She also grew up in Somerville. When he was a sophomore, Ralph had agreed to pick up and drive family acquaintances to a high school reunion held at Tufts' Cousens Gym. Something made him stop on the steps to the gym and ask one of his passengers, a young woman, who he assumed was close to his own age, if she wanted to go out with him. "It was the last time I asked a 16-year-old out on a date!" says Ralph with a laugh. That casual encounter turned into a marriage that has endured 68 years.

Graduating in the Depression, he discovered that work was hard to find. "We were quite concerned about finding jobs," he recalls. "They weren't that easily available and, you know, if you could work for $100 to $125 a month you considered yourself very lucky." His first job paid $94 a month, but he was glad to get it as "things were very tough." After a year, he started a master's degree at Harvard University, following up graduate school with a long and rewarding career with the federal government. In 1965, he "retired" from the government to work for the United Nations in Brazil. After two years in South America, he returned to the United States and worked for the Department of the Interior until 1970, when it was transferred to the newly formed Environmental Protection Agency. He retired from the EPA in 1974, worked for the World Health Organization for two years, and then pursued a decade of consulting. "Fully retired" since about 1983, Ralph, age 90, now lives in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, with Virginia, surrounded by photographs of their two children, Margaret (Ohio Univ., 1964) and Stephen (Tufts, 1968), and two grandchildren.

Interview Excerpt

Ralph Palange, E36

On working

"I was working in local drug stores [as a clerk]. Most of the time I worked in a drug store in Teale Square. I was getting 30 cents an hour. In the summer, I could work 70 hours and make $21 a week. But tuition was only $300. At that time we also had a government program providing assistance to students. We did work at the school, for which we were paid 50 cents an hour. It was called the National Youth Organization, NYA. And I did that. I helped in the hydraulics lab. I corrected papers under Professor Holmbert. He taught the hydraulics course. And I set up some of the experiments. At the time the basement of Curtis Hall was used as a laboratory for various aspects—strength of materials lab, hydraulics lab and so forth. But I didn't have much time to participate in campus activities . . . plus the fact that I was brought up under different kinds of standards. As a matter of fact, you went to school to learn. You didn't go to school for all this hocus-pocus, side activities or social activities and so on. We came from a small rural village in Italy up in the hills. It's right in the center of the country going from the Adriatic to the Mediterranean and about halfway between Rome and Naples."

On the academic decision to study engineering

"I think I was impressed with the stories I read about the intrepid engineers who mowed down forests to build roads and so forth. And I was sort of interested in highway engineering when I started and then Professor Burden, whose major focus was in water supply and sewer treatment, got a hold of me and got me interested in that and wooed me into that area [sanitary engineering].

"Well, I'll tell you how [my interest in sanitation] started. My parents bought a seven-acre tract of land up in Burlington in which they erected a cottage, and my grandparents used to spend summers up there. They drilled a well and my father wanted to know if I could figure out—if I could find out, rather—whether the water was fit to drink. So I went to Professor Burden, this was in my junior year, and he got me started on testing water and so forth, how to take samples, and that's what got me started. Prior to that I was interested in soils engineering, highway engineering and so forth."

On social and extracurricular activities

"Virginia and I started going together in 1933, in my sophomore year, I guess it was. And she decided to go into nurse's training. I could see her once a week. We would get together. Our budget was $1 a week. We went to a movie. We went in to Harvard Square for a quarter apiece and for a cheese sandwich—we had a date." [Movies were apparently not only cheap at 10 cents for a Saturday afternoon flick, but plentiful, with movie theaters in Teale and Ball Squares, Winter Hill, and on Day Street in Davis Square, all within walking distance of Tufts.]

On the Reservoir

"That was up where Carmichael Hall is now. It was part of the Metropolitan District Water System, and it was merely an emergency storage facility, plus the fact that, in order to maintain proper pressure in the lines—in the distribution system—you had to set these reservoirs up above, which put pressure on. So what happens is at the source—at the treatment plant—you establish pumping. There's enough pressure to hold that water back and that in itself will distribute the water wherever you need it in the town. I imagine the state decided that it wasn't needed any longer. And Harry Burden was observant enough, or smart enough, call it what you like. He got the Metropolitan District Commission to give the brickwork out of the reservoir, when they took it down, to give it to Tufts. I'm not sure about this, but I understand that a lot of those bricks are now in Carmichael Hall."

Virginia Palange remembers it a little differently. Virginia: "Definitely. I was a high school student when he was up there. And it was an area where the teenagers on a Sunday got all dressed up, and the girls got together and the boys would get a gang together and we would walk around the Reservoir, which was at the top of the hill. It was up an embankment, a steep embankment, and there was a stair leading up to it and then a fence around, and a nice brick walkway. And it was just a nice place to, now you'd say 'hang out.' But it was always daytime, of course. I think some went out there at night. I never did. But anyway, you just wandered around and some of the boys you knew showed up. No, no, not real dating. This was in the mid- to early '30s, actually from 1930 to 1933, 1934. And then, of course, the Tufts' Class Day Dance was always a big thing for the local teenagers to watch (at the corner of Professors Row and Packard Avenue) on the tennis courts. It wasn't very easy but all of us in high school would go out to watch, and it was very dressy in those days. He took me to one . . . To be on the inside circle . . . I think I'd have gone with King Kong. [Laughter] It was such a thrill for a high school kid."

On dances and bands

Ralph: "Oh, we had good bands. You know, we could go to dances with these big bands for a dollar and a quarter a couple, places like the Totem Pole. You may have heard of it. The Totem Pole was a big dance hall on the Charles River."

Virginia: "They had a beautiful big dance hall—it was indoors. It was under a roof and they had these deep sofas and a lamp on either side. Very elegant."

Ralph: "It was nice to get lost in. [Chuckles]"

Virginia: "[On the street] they had what they call lamplighters. The couples would turn all the lights out, you see, and so it was somebody's job to go around and turn them back on again. [Chuckles] Yes, we were silly in those days, too. It took a lot less to keep us amused in those days."

On the Depression

The economic collapse of the country had a significant impact on Virginia's family as her father was a carpenter who was out of work for some time. By the late 1930s, family resources were rescued in part by a fortunate opportunity: constructing one of the few fine homes built in the decade—the president's house for Tufts.

Virginia: "[My father] did some of the woodworking, the flooring and the doors (for the president's house). That was his field. It was very well built. I lived [the Depression] more than [Ralph] did."

Ralph: "[But people] just figured this was part of the game, the way things were. As a matter of fact, when we married, I was making $2,000 a year. I had a civil service appointment and our goal was to reach an annual salary of $5,000 a year because if we could reach $5,000, we could have a nice house, take summer vacations in the mountains. She had a cousin who worked for New England Power Company. He was a college graduate, a Harvard graduate, as a matter of fact, and he was making about $5,000 or $6,000 a year and they took all kinds of vacations and lived in a nice Cape Cod house. And that's the kind of a goal you had."

Virginia: "But about the Depression. The effect it had on me, I was 15, a very impressionable age, and it was so rough that I have literally never gotten over it. I shop to find sales to this day. If it isn't on sale, I don't buy it. Somebody within the last 10 years had something in Reader's Digest that I think is a very apt description of the people who were marred or whatever you want to say about the Depression. It said . . ."

Ralph: "Scarred is a better word."

Virginia: "Scarred—'Forever a frugal spender and an inconspicuous consumer.'"

On challenges

The biggest challenge for Ralph was earning the money to help defray the $300 per year tuition.

"As a matter of fact, in my junior and senior year I received a $50 scholarship each year. And of course, that's nothing now, but at that time it was $50 out of $300 and that was 16 or 18 percent. . . . When I received these $50 scholarships I was told that it was a gift. But if I could ever pay it back, to pay it back. And every year I gave some modest contribution to the Alumni Fund."