Mortimer Cooley: More than a mustache

The top 20 things everyone needs to know about the grand old man of Michigan Engineering.

1 – Mortimer Elwyn Cooley arrived at the University of Michigan in 1881 when the U.S. Department of Navy, authorized by an Act of Congress of 1879, detailed the 26-year-old ensign to serve as Professor of Steam Engineering and Iron Shipbuilding.

2 – Cooley became Michigan’s fifth professor of engineering — and the youngest full professor in the history of Michigan education. He would later describe these circumstances in his autobiography, Scientific Blacksmith:

When I was added to the faculty…instruction in engineering was being given within the Department of Literature, Science, and the Arts by the great ‘triumvirate’ whose names will never be forgotten by Michigan engineers: Charles Ezra Greene, J. B. Davis, and Charles S. Denison. Professor Pettee was also teaching mining engineering, although there were not many students in the course and no degrees were given in it at that time.

Mortimer cooley- portrait

3 – When Cooley arrived at Michigan there were only 60-70 engineering students on a campus of approximately 1300, and engineering instruction was confined to seven rooms in the old south wing of University Hall. Surveying 
was taught in the field, and there was no 
laboratory instruction in chemistry. Still — meager as this might sound — Michigan Engineering was advanced for its time.

4 – The first dedicated engineering laboratory would be built the following winter, in 1882 — a two-story 24 x 36 foot brick veneer building, constructed for $1500 and containing about $1000 of newly purchased equipment. In this building Cooley taught forging, pattern making and machine shop practice. His colleagues dubbed the structure, “the Scientific Blacksmith Shop.”

5 – Cooley’s title was soon changed to professor of Mechanical Engineering, which he retained throughout his active connection with the College. Instruction in mechanical engineering was then a new subject, and its development came under his sole direction.

6 – Cooley’s first experience teaching a class had come at the barely ripe age of 16. While living at home in Ontario County, New York, young mortimer walked four miles back and forth to a school in the neighboring farming community of Hopenell. Though not initially drawn to teaching, Cooley counts this time as a positive experience as his long walks enabled him to both study his lessons and keep him in fine physical 

7 – The remarkable teacher Charles E. Greene became the first dean when Engineering finally separated from LSA in 1895. Cooley became the College’s second dean upon Greene’s death in 1903, and served until his retirement in 1928 — at a quarter century, by far the longest-serving dean in Michigan Engineering history. As a professor and administrator at Michigan, Cooley’s services covered 47 years.

Cooley Portrait

8 – Four new departments within Michigan Engineering were added during Cooley’s deanship: Architecture and Architectural Engineering (established as a separate school in 1930); Aeronautical Engineering; Geodesy; and Surveying.

9 – Cooley’s educational ethos may have been based upon the exacting discipline of the United States Naval Academy, but it was leavened by foreign travel. His international viewpoint was manifest most directly in his insistence that modern language study be part of the engineering curriculum.

10 – During his time at Michigan, Cooley came to know six University presidents and served under 
five — Frieze, Angell, Hutchins, Burton, Little and Ruthven.

11 – While at Michigan Cooley simultaneously pursued a political career. He was elected to the Common Council of the City of Ann Arbor in the early 1890s, became mayor of Ann Arbor in 1920, and lost a race for the United States Senate on the Democrat ticket to Senator James Cou
zens in 1924. Cooley engaged in the Senate race not as a serious attempt to win but as a role model for engineers. In this excerpt from a speech he gave on campus during the campaign, he explains:
In venturing to try for this honor, thoughts
 of my profession are uppermost in my mind…. I am convinced that we, as engineers, have a duty to perform for the public which
 we have not realized, and if I can inspire the engi
neers to take an active interest in public affairs, even though I fail of election, I shall consider the 
race won.

12 – Cooley was a patriot and a devoted Navy man — and returned briefly to the Navy during the Spanish-American War as Chief Engineer of the Yosemite, seeing active duty off the Coast of Cuba. He also offered his services during World War I, but was told he was too old for active duty.

Cooley portrait

13 – Dean Cooley apparently was a big fan of cursing. With “a few favorite 
swear words” (compliments of the Navy, some said), he let them fly freely — and was immediately forgiven. Once, when a new University president was being considered, one of the regents suggested to Cooley that they might have made a mistake in not electing him. “Why in hell didn’t you?” Cooley asked. 
”You swear too damn much,” came the reply.

14 – Cooley had an aversion for magazine articles that “continue on page 
so and so” — particularly when “the continued part” was sandwiched in between columns of 
advertising. “If you and I were 
engaged in conversation,” he once asked a Technic reporter, “and a chap butted in between and tried to sell us a cake of soap, what 
would you do to him? And yet the American 
people stand for it.”

15 – Cooley’s favorite hobby was collecting oriental rugs, and his home on Hill Street in Ann Arbor was filled with a distinctive variety of them.

16 – Dean Cooley held the great affection of generations of Michigan Engineering students and alumni. The student-published Michigan Technic — before, during, and after his deanship — gushed repeatedly and in various ways about his “great courtesy and kindness, the warmth of his smile and his supreme spirit of good fellowship.” Other descriptions:
“[A] seasoned executive, diplomatist, arbitrator, leader of wise men, friend of youth, good fellow, fair-fighter and idol of the thousands who have passed under the wholesome influence of his commanding personality…. [S]trong, robust, virile, unwavering, but always kindly and helpful, magnetically cheerful and profoundly democratic, never brutal in his admonitions, tricky with his adversaries or to the slightest degree pompous in his success.”

Cooley portrait

17 – Cooley tendered his resignation as dean three times, beginning in 1925, until it was finally accepted in 1927, to take effect the following year. Cooley felt the invitation to continue each year “a very great compliment,” and “being in fair health and feeling eager for work,” he gladly accepted. “But in doing so it was with the understanding that I should continue to tender my resignation annually; and that at the first signs of any waning of mental alertness my friends might observe in me I should be retired…. Nothing would distress me more than to feel that I was serving beyond the period of my real usefulness to the University.”

18 – Cooley loved to work complicated crossword puzzles, and relatively late in life he became a devoted and rather accomplished poet.

19 – Dean Emeritus Mortimer E. Cooley died in Ann Arbor on Friday, August 25, 1944, in his 89th year.

20 – The first structure to be built on North Campus was dedicated on October 24, 1953, as the Mortimer E. Cooley Building, in honor of the “Grand Old Man” of Michigan Engineering.

Sources for this Top 20 include the many publications collected in this Michigan Faculty History. All photos are courtesy of the Bentley Historical Library.