Partners in progress


Dr. Martin “Jerry” Abegg, then-president of Bradley, breaks ground on an expansion of engineering and technology facilities on campus in 1990. Caterpillar was among the corporate donors that funded the project.

By Erin Miller

Bradley University recently announced the naming of the Caterpillar College of Engineering and Technology. The mutually beneficial relationship between one of the top universities in the Midwest and a global business leader not only enriches the lives of students and employees, but the central Illinois community as a whole.

When A.J. Rassi graduated from high school in 1958, about 30 percent of his class went to college. The others went to work.

“My father said to me, ‘You know A.J., I will gladly help you go to college if that’s what you want to do, but I’d like you to follow in my footsteps and complete the Caterpillar apprenticeship.’”

Rassi found a compromise. After serving six months of active duty in the Army Reserves, Caterpillar hired him in January 1959 to sweep floors. Rassi was quickly promoted to operating a radial drill for two months before he entered the four-year machinist apprentice course. Following a layoff from 1960 to 1962, Rassi was one of nine Caterpillar apprentices to join Bradley University’s first co-op training program.

In 1965, Rassi graduated with a degree in industrial technology and became a Caterpillar engine plant foreman.

“Bradley provided me with the meat and potatoes of my field — physics, math, technology,” he says. “But as I rose through the ranks of management, classes such as psychology, speech and English were just as helpful for my work. You have to know how to speak and write, and how to deal with people.”

After holding more than 20 executive positions in five cities, Rassi retired from Caterpillar in 2003 as vice president of the company’s track-type tractors division. A 2011 Bradley Centurion, he is a living example of the longstanding partnership between Bradley and Caterpillar.

“Every business needs highly trained people — whether they are engineers or accountants — to become major players in the company,” Rassi says. “Caterpillar is fortunate to have an institution with such a strong reputation right here in Peoria providing the next generation of talent, and Bradley is lucky to have a Fortune 50 company providing real-world learning experiences for students.”

Planting seeds

Lydia Moss Bradley founded Bradley Polytechnic Institute in 1897 with a mission to give students “the means of living an independent, industrious and useful life by the aid of a practical knowledge of the useful arts and sciences.” The school’s first 350 students studied subjects in science, languages and home economics.

Bradley began offering bachelor’s degrees in 1920, but it wasn’t until 1939 that it added a four-year degree in engineering.

In 1910, two years after Mrs. Bradley’s death, Caterpillar’s predecessor, Holt Manufacturing Co., accepted the deed to a plant in East Peoria that had been home to a tractor company, Colean Manufacturing.

At the company’s centennial in 2010, current Caterpillar CEO Doug Oberhelman said, “One hundred years ago, our company started operations in East Peoria with 12 employees and a vision to build machines to better serve customers in the Midwest.”

Caterpillar Tractor Co. formed in 1925 and immediately acquired Holt and C.L. Best Tractor Co. The Caterpillar name, originating from one of the company’s early steam tractors that appeared to crawl like an insect, was trademarked in 1910.

A relationship begins

Situated just across the Illinois River from one another, Caterpillar and Bradley began their official relationship in the middle of the 20th century when Caterpillar gave Bradley a $70,000 gift. The donation coincided with the founding of Bennett College at Bradley, which enabled students to study industrial education, automobiles, drafting, metalwork and electricity.

Yet, the association between Bradley and Caterpillar stretches back to World War I. At that time, Holt donated tractors to the Army Training Corps at Bradley.

In 1951, Bradley founded a college of engineering, and Caterpillar began providing cooperative education opportunities. Four years later, the company donated $100,000 for the construction of an engineering building, Jobst Hall, about the same time Caterpillar started the Educational Assistance Program to provide more educational opportunities for employees.

In the early 1960s, Caterpillar established the co-op program that Rassi participated in, as well as the visiting engineering professorship. In 1963, former Caterpillar Chairman Louis Neumiller made the initial contribution in the fundraising effort to restore Bradley Hall, the oldest building on campus, after a devastating fire.

Five years later, Caterpillar became involved with senior capstone projects in the industrial manufacturing and engineering departments. During these semester-long assignments, students work in small groups to solve problems, such as redesigning an engine assembly line or drawing plans for a more energy-efficient warehouse.

Dr. Joe Emanuel, professor of industrial and manufacturing and engineering technology, has advised the senior capstone classes since the mid-1970s. Caterpillar, he says, has consistently provided real-world learning situations for students.

“Caterpillar expects recommendations that are realistic, that will save money and that they can implement,” Dr. Emanuel says. “Students gain confidence and field experience that often translates into full-time positions after graduation.”

Collaboration continues

When former engineering professor Dr. Martin Abegg became university president in 1971, he recognized the potential for more collaboration between Caterpillar and Bradley by establishing the Bradley-Caterpillar Conference, which allowed company executives to spend time on campus while Bradley deans and faculty toured Caterpillar facilities.

In the late 1970s, the Caterpillar Foundation donated $300,000 to help transform Hewitt Gymnasium into the Hartmann Center for the Performing Arts, and in 1979 the Caterpillar Foundation began its matching gifts program.

The 1980s brought the Campaign for Bradley, during which the Caterpillar Foundation donated $5.6 million to fund buildings, equipment and annual operations, and to endow the new Caterpillar Scholarships and Caterpillar Fellows programs.

George Schaefer, then-Caterpillar chairman, noted, “Caterpillar has made a great many investments over the years, and this is one of the best.”

The 1990s saw the institution of a practicum program in which Bradley students work on projects at Caterpillar. The Bradley Centennial Campaign benefited from a $20 million donation; the gift established the Caterpillar Lecture Series, the naming of the Caterpillar Global Communications Center in 1999 and creation of other programs.

Established in 1999, Caterpillar Professorships recognize and reward an exemplary level of scholarship and creative production among the senior faculty. The eight current Caterpillar professors, like their predecessors, are model teacher-scholars for their scholarly achievement, mentoring of colleagues, and national contribution to the ongoing dialogue of their discipline.

21st century friends

As the new millennium came, Bradley and Caterpillar became founding members of Peoria NEXT, a collaboration focused on local science- and technology-based economic development. The three-story Innovation Center near campus was completed in 2007.

A year later, Bradley kicked off the largest fundraising campaign in University history, the Campaign for a Bradley Renaissance. The Caterpillar Foundation’s lead gift of $30 million set a University record and helped Bradley surpass its target, raising $161 million.

“As a Fortune 100 corporation with a vision to be the admired global leader, we look to Bradley University as a premier source of talent,” then-Caterpillar CEO Jim Owens said in 2008 at the campaign kickoff event. “As a citizen of central Illinois, Caterpillar sees Bradley as a resource for economic development. … As a global citizen, Caterpillar appreciates Bradley’s broad impact, with educational outreach programs that touch six continents.”

Today, Caterpillar employs more graduates from Bradley than from any other university, with more than 2,100 active Caterpillar employees holding a degree from Bradley. Since 1965, Caterpillar has hired an average of 46 Bradley graduates per year.

The Caterpillar-Bradley partnership led to the naming of the Caterpillar College of Engineering and Technology last year.

Looking to the future

Bradley now is pursuing an academic convergence model between the Caterpillar College and the Foster College of Business Administration, an initiative the company enthusiastically supports. Founding dean Dr. Lex Akers and Dr. Darrell Radson, dean of the Foster College, are leading Bradley’s convergence initiative. The distinctive educational plan promotes collaboration between engineering and business students and faculty. Caterpillar, Dr. Akers says, has been a valuable and supportive partner in designing Bradley’s convergence model.

“Caterpillar and Bradley have a long-term and mutually beneficial relationship,” Dr. Akers says. “Caterpillar has been an influential partner in suggesting curriculum, providing real-world projects, and practicum and internships for our students. Bradley in turn produces graduates who are knowledgeable in their fields, know how to communicate and are prepared to enter the workforce.”

In addition to new curriculum and partnerships between the two academic disciplines, the relationship will be further enhanced by an engineering and business convergence center that is being planned.

“Bradley’s Convergence Center will be the ideal laboratory for the next generation of thinkers and doers who will become the leaders of industry and the best prepared to address the biggest global challenges of the future,” Caterpillar CEO Doug Oberhelman says.

Through the years: Bradley and Caterpillar

  • 1897

    Lydia Moss Bradley founds Bradley Polytechnic Institute.

  • 1909

    Holt Manufacturing Co., Caterpillar’s predecessor, opens a factory in East Peoria.

  • 1925

    Holt Manufacturing Co. and C.L. Best Tractor merge to form Caterpillar Tractor Co.

  • 1933

    Bradley integrates engineering concepts into curricula.

  • 1939

    Bradley expands the two-year engineering program into four years.

  • 1943

    Camp Bradley houses soldiers with the arrival of 400 men who came for engineering training through the Army Specialized Training Program.

  • 1945

    Bradley offers a Master of Science in industrial engineering.

  • 1946

    Bradley Polytechnic Institute becomes Bradley University.

  • 1948

    Bradley offers a Master of Business Administration degree.

  • 1949

    Caterpillar begins financial support of Bradley with a $70,000 gift.

  • 1951

    College of Engineering forms, and Caterpillar provides co-op opportunities for students.

  • 1954

    Caterpillar donates $100,000 for the construction of an engineering building.

  • 1955

    Caterpillar initiates the Educational Assistance Program, offering continuing education opportunities to employees.

  • 1961

    Caterpillar gives $50,000 for the addition to Jobst Hall.

  • 1963

    Caterpillar begins the visiting engineering professorship at Bradley; Louis Neumiller, former Caterpillar chairman, leads a fundraiser to restore Bradley Hall after a fire. Neumiller Lecture Hall recognizes his $75,000 gift.

  • 1968

    Caterpillar makes a $500,000 lead gift to the $5 million Bradley Campaign.

  • 1971

    Bradley President Martin Abegg inaugurates the Bradley-Caterpillar Conference.

  • 1976

    Haussler Hall is dedicated, funded in part by a $250,000 gift from Caterpillar.

  • 1978

    Caterpillar donates $300,000 to help transform Hewitt Gymnasium into Hartmann Center for the Performing Arts.

  • 1979

    Caterpillar begins the matching gifts program.

  • 1981

    The Caterpillar Excellence Fund is established for equipment and graduate assistantships.

  • 1983

    The Caterpillar Fellows program provides support to junior faculty in engineering and business.

  • 1984

    Bradley becomes one of three schools in the nation to offer a degree in manufacturing engineering.

  • 1986

    The Caterpillar Scholars program is established for students majoring in engineering, business or one of the natural sciences; Caterpillar announces a $5.6 million lead gift to Bradley as a commitment to the $26 million Campaign for Bradley.

  • 1988

    Bradley students become involved in Caterpillar’s corporate internship program.

  • 1993

    Newly expanded and renovated facilities for the College of Engineering and Technology are dedicated. Caterpillar was among the corporate donors.

  • 1994

    Caterpillar makes a $20 million pledge to the Centennial Campaign; Bradley establishes the Caterpillar Lecture Series.

  • 1995

    Bradley begins the Caterpillar Dependents Scholarship Program for children of Caterpillar employees.

  • 1996

    Bradley names new faculty teaching and research awards for Caterpillar.

  • 1999

    Bradley initiates the Caterpillar Endowed Professorships Program, Caterpillar Graduate Fellowship Program, and Caterpillar New Initiatives Program, and names the Caterpillar Global Communications Center.

  • 2001

    Bradley and Caterpillar are founding members of Peoria NEXT, a collaboration focused on economic development based on science and technology. The building opens in 2007.

  • 2008

    Caterpillar announces a $30 million gift to Bradley, the largest in the University’s history.

  • 2011

    The Campaign for a Bradley Renaissance concludes with $161 million raised.

  • 2012

    Dr. Lex Akers is appointed the founding dean of the newly named Caterpillar College of Engineering and Technology.