Engineering legacy: Civil engineering’s first black graduate
Clarence Mabin, a 1961 graduate of civil engineering from the University of Missouri, recently semi-retired from his position as president of Custom Engineering, Inc., a mechanical and electrical engineering firm with annual revenue of $1.5 to $2 million. After a rewarding career, the octogenarian is enjoying leisure time with his family. He said he is especially getting a kick out of his two small great-grandchildren who love to play basketball.
Mabin’s happy end-of-career story is not unlike that of many successful MU engineering alumni, but as an early African-American student in engineering and the first black graduate in civil engineering, the story of his path to success isn’t quite as typical.
“If the railroad passenger business would have held up, I probably never would have gone to school,” Mabin said. “Like my father, I was a dining car waiter and I didn’t have much of a desire to do anything else. Back then, working as a waiter on the railroad or a job at the Post Office were about the best two best jobs an African-American man could get.”
After graduating from high school in 1949, Mabin worked for the Burlington Railroad as a waiter in a private dining car. The railroad’s chief engineer noticed the young man’s keen interest in building plans that three bridge inspectors were examining in the dining car and asked him if he’d ever considered training to become an engineer.
Mabin had never dreamed of anything like an engineering career, but the casual remark sparked his curiosity, and two things happened to push him toward engineering. First, schools were integrated in 1954. Then, one of Mabin’s friends who worked as a construction engineer at Lincoln University told Mabin he could get him a job as a draftsman with the Nebraska Department of Transportation (NDOT) if he went to junior college.
Mabin enrolled in Missouri Western State College — now MWSU — in St. Joseph, Mo., where he did very well. When he went to work for NDOT, his boss asked him why he didn’t just go ahead and get an engineering degree.
“I had a lot of ambition,” said Mabin, adding that he initially made plans to attend the University of Nebraska. But when he went to his meeting with the college’s dean, he had second thoughts.
“He offered me no encouragement, and when he found that I’d have to work, he said I’d never make it,” Mabin said.
So in 1958, the ambitious young man enrolled in civil engineering at the University of Missouri.
By then, Mabin and his wife, Forestine, had three children. Forestine was operating a successful beauty salon in St. Joseph, so she stayed behind. Mabin had no car, but tried to get a ride back at least a couple times a month.
“My high school homeroom teacher from Dalton High School [a black high school that served students from a wide area] had been a teacher in Columbia early in her career,” said Mabin. “All of our teachers had a great concern about us, and she knew a fellow who lived there. She wrote to him about my [financial] difficulties and he invited me to stay with him. That man, Dorsey Russell, was like a father to me.”
Mabin remembers three MU Engineering faculty members who went out of their way to help him: Karl Evans, William Sangster and Mark Harris.
“Dr. Harris caught me on my way out of class one day and told me that if I had any difficulties to come and see him and he’d help me out,” Mabin said. “But I didn’t experience any difficulties. It was a pleasant experience. My main goal was to get to class and get it done.”
As a student, he worked at the Tiger Hotel and also for an architect in Columbia. He spent summers in a variety of jobs in St. Joe — including work as a waiter — and worked one summer with MoDOT.
When Mabin graduated in 1961, he took a job as a member of of NDOT’s bridge design team. He went on to work for the O.K. Electric Co., Inc., and eventually moved into the steel tubular products business for Valmont Industries — a company that designed highway lighting, traffic, signing and transmission structure — and then Ameron Pole Products.
Along the way, Mabin became a nationally-recognized expert in the design of pole structures for street, outdoor lighting, traffic lights and highway signage. Even in retirement, he serves as a consultant, reviewing plans for design companies who need an engineering stamp of approval on their plans.
In 1993, Mabin purchased Custom Engineering and turned the faltering company into an award-winning, minority-owned success story.
Mabin said his life experiences have motivated him to point more blacks toward the field of engineering, just as others influenced him.
“It wasn’t always easy,” he said, “but it’s been a good ride.”