How RSE alum Herb Thal ’53 is Still Pushing Boundaries
It’s a bright Sunday morning in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Thousands of runners mill around expectantly, waiting to take part in the nation’s largest ten-mile race. The Broad Street Run draws around 27,500 runners every year to participate, and this year’s oldest participant is about to make history.
Herb Thal ’53, an RSE alum and accomplished engineer, took part in his ninth consecutive Broad Street Run in May 2022 at the age of ninety years old, making him the oldest person to ever run the race. He started running marathons at seventy-two, but his hunger for success began decades earlier, when he was an undergrad student at RSE.
Thal was part of the influx of postwar students that lived in RPI’s infamous Rendael Dormitories, colloquially known as “Tin Town.” Rows upon rows of recycled WWII warehouses stood a mile from campus, boasting a steam radiator that heated the rooms to baking temperature unless it was on the fritz (as it frequently was), a plywood sheet serving as a desk, and a cozy eight feet by twelve feet of total space for two students.
The dormitories were only in operation for the classes of ’49 to ’54, making Thal one of the lucky last to stay in the notorious accommodations. He credits his desire to move out with bringing him to RSE. “I met somebody, somehow, who suggested that I come and visit. I saw the House and got to talk to people and learned that they were serious about maintaining a high academic record for the fraternity. I was living in Tin Town at the time, which was not a great place to be. It was a long way from campus. I became convinced that RSE would be a good place to join.”
Thal officially moved into RSE in his sophomore year and said that one of his favorite memories from being in the House was the sense of commitment and community. “We all ate together. I remember waiting outside the big doors to the dining room to go in to eat. There was a big entrance lobby and double doors into the dining room. Everyone gathered outside the doors, the waiters opened the doors and we all sat down together.”
In the corner of the RSE living room, there was a little lobby that would host bridge games on most evenings. Thal was less than amateur when it came to bridge, but his sense of competition made up for head knowledge. “I knew nothing about bridge, and there were a lot of hecklers standing around, but I got into it. Eventually I was able to participate with a fellow member partner in tournaments on campus. We weren’t bridge masters by any means, but we enjoyed it. It was duplicate bridge, where you move from table to table and use the same hand that the last person used.”
RSE became a part of Herb Thal’s life. He enrolled in the Army ROTC when he joined RPI in 1949. He lived at the House until his second term of graduate school, when he married his wife, Joan, and moved into a modest apartment in Rensselaerwyck. In 1955 he received his M.E.E. degree, and in 1956 he started working for General Electric in Schenectady while completing the courses needed for his PhD in the evening program. His first two sons were born in Samaritan Hospital during this time.
Thal fulfilled his military commitment and returned to his work at GE and to completion of his PhD thesis. At GE he worked on high-power magnetrons, which are diode vacuum tubes that were used in early radar systems and are now still in most microwave ovens. He later moved to King of Prussia, PA where he worked on GPS satellites, communication satellites and radar and taught as an adjunct professor at Drexel University and University of Pennsylvania. He was elected to the grade of Fellow in the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).
After his early retirement in 1989, nothing could keep Thal from pushing his own boundaries. He continued doing engineering consulting until he was eighty-four, and in 2004 he started training for his first marathon with LLS Team-in-Training (Leukemia and Lymphoma Society), a charity for patients with leukemia, the same disease that ironically would take the life of Thal’s wife only three years later.
Since 2005, Thal has run eighteen marathons. His last time running the Boston Marathon was when he was eighty years old on an eighty-five-degree day. This year may be his last time running the Broad Street Race, but Thal still drives himself toward success like he did at RSE. He has raced bikes as an octogenarian, travelled the world studying solar eclipses, explored Europe and Africa after retirement and raised five children. Now, as an alum, he gives back to the organization that gave him so much. “I always had a feeling— when you were a student, someone else was paying for you. We certainly weren’t paying our own way. When I am in the position to pay that back, I do.”
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