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Laramee Establishes Scholarship to Honor the Late Al Russell

Thomas J. Laramee, who received his B.S. (1994) in Mechanical Engineering and Mathematics and his M.S. (1997) in Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) from UMass Amherst, has created the Al Russell Memorial Scholarship Fund in memory of Dr. George Albert (Al) Russell, who passed away in April after a brief illness. Dr. Russell taught in the Mechanical and Industrial Engineering Department for 34 years after earning his doctorate in 1968. Mr. Laramee currently serves as Principal Engineer of Zulily, Inc., a successful Internet startup in Seattle. Mr. Laramee pledged a cash gift of $32,000, $2,000 of which will fund the first Russell Scholar for the 2012 – 2013 academic year, while the $30,000 endowment is being invested.

The fund will provide scholarship support to an undergraduate student studying mechanical engineering with a 3.25 GPA or higher. The ideal candidate will be a U.S. citizen and must have evidence of studying across disciplines – either within the College of Engineering or outside, such as physics or math.

Dr. Russell’s course in Theory and Design of Mechanical Measurements left a lasting impression on Mr. Laramee and has impacted his whole career as an engineer. He was especially impressed by the engineering analogies Russell told his students.

“There was a flood coming to a small town,” as Laramee recalls one story, “and it was predicted that the flood would wash away the town's only bridge. The town's engineers got together to see if they could come up with a solution to keep the bridge from washing away. It was proposed that if they parked a train on the bridge, thereby increasing its mass, that this would be sufficient to keep the bridge from being destroyed by the flood. And so a train was parked on the bridge, and the river began to flood, with everyone watching to see if the bridge would hold. As it turned out, the floodwaters ended up inducing harmonic motion in the bridge, which caused the bridge to shake the coal cars of the train back and forth. Eventually, the shaking of the cars ignited the coal, which in turn ignited the train. The fire eventually consumed the bridge itself, causing both the train and the bridge to collapse into the river.”

Laramee adds that “My takeaway from this story was that it's best to think through the full implications of one's engineering solution before going out and actually implementing it.”

Over time, Laramee began to see how this sort of thinking extended to all of Russell's work. He learned that Russell's point was to be extremely careful, with a meticulous attention to the details of a problem. Russell advised his students to consider the problem from multiple angles and re-contextualize it whenever possible. It was this consistency, thoughtfulness, and attention to detail that motivated Laramee to listen closely to Russell, each of his lectures, and his personal advice.

“Just before I graduated,” recalls Laramee, “Russell had this advice for me: ‘Laramee, when you go out to work in the world, you'll soon find out that nearly everybody has an excuse for why something can't be done. Usually they'll tell you it's too hard. Or they give an excuse for why something is late.’ Dr. Russell then paused, his glasses resting on the lower part of his nose, and fixed his gaze on me carefully and said, "Be that guy who never has an excuse, not for anything."

Mr. Laramee developed a strong relationship with Dr. Russell that continued beyond his graduation from UMass Amherst.

“These are lessons that have stayed with me since I graduated from UMass and have been applied over and over to my career since then,” concludes Laramee.

Because of the impact that Dr. Russell had on Mr. Laramee, he chose to create the Al Russell Memorial Scholarship Fund to assist deserving students studying mechanical engineering.

Before working at Zulily, Laramee was at a start-up called Newsvine (acquired by MSNBC in 2007), where he was a critical member of their core engineering team. A software development veteran of several other Seattle-area start-ups, including Encoding.com and Starwave, He is a strong advocate of open-source software and describes it as “the quiet revolution of Internet systems.” In his spare time, Tom amuses himself as an independent musician, motorcycle enthusiast, and part-time chef for his wonderful wife and two daughters. (June 2012)