Army, non-traditional path at CU Boulder led Olester Benson to 2018 George Norlin Award
Olester Benson, Jr. chuckles when he remembers his first run at a college education. Though talented enough student to gain acceptance to Eckerd College, in his hometown of St. Petersburg, Florida, he acknowledges that his motivation for enrolling wasn’t exactly academic.
“It was the height of the Vietnam War, and I got the Selective Service classification 1A” — essentially, first in line for the draft, he says. “So, I enrolled in school primarily to get a deferment. Because my intentions and motivations were not what they should have been, I did not apply myself.”
After a year and a half, grades sagging, he was kicked out.
Yet, in an ironic twist, it was the very thing that he ran from that would eventually lead Benson to the University of Colorado Boulder, and his eventual winning in October of the prestigious George Norlin Award from the CU Boulder Alumni Association in recognition of his extensive career accomplishments and the untraditional path he took.
“His career and achievements are clearly a credit to the University of Colorado, and I am proud to have served a small part in his education,” wrote Tad H. Koch, professor of chemistry and biochemistry, in nominating his former student for the award.
After tiring of a series of “odd jobs,” he enlisted in the U.S. Army as part of the new, all-volunteer military, as an infantry soldier. By then, however, it was 1973 and he was not sent to Vietnam.
“The thing I ran away from was the thing that saved me,” says Benson, who went on to serve in the Army for 24 years, retiring as a master sergeant. “It gave me focus, made me much more disciplined and helped me grow up. I got to travel the world and encounter many more cultures and a lot of different types of people.”
The Army also paved the way for him to pursue the education that had previously eluded him, culminating in a PhD in chemistry from the University of Colorado Boulder in 1988 and a subsequent career as a top researcher with Minnesota-based 3M Corp.
Benson took his second run at higher education while serving at Fort Lewis, Washington, where he enrolled in a few math classes. When he was posted to Europe, he eagerly studied German, history, physics and other subjects to start building a “good, strong, liberal-arts background.”
When his Army hitch came to an end, he decided to re-enlist. But he wanted to prepare for a future in something that wasn’t “carrying a rifle.” He trained to be a medical and pharmacy specialist at the U. S. Army Academy of Health Sciences at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas.
“The classes were taught by registered pharmacists, Army pharmacists and specialists,” he recalls. “I asked a lot of chemistry questions that they were not really able to answer, so what I did was sign up for evening classes in chemistry at San Antonio College.”
Sometimes it just takes that one little thing in life, for someone to take an interest in another person and say, ‘You can do this, we see this in you.’”
Posted to Fitzsimons Army Medical Center in Aurora in 1978, he hoped to enroll at CU Denver to continue studying chemistry. But by the time he arrived, enrollment had closed for the summer session, prompting him to petition the department head to ask for a late-enrollment waiver.
“Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” he says.
The gambit paid off in ways he could not have imagined. The department chair was Robert Damrauer, now associate vice chancellor for research at CU Denver. (He and Benson are shown at the top of the page.) Damrauer not only got Benson into classes right away, but later recognized his talent and urged him to pursue a graduate degree in chemistry. Then, he personally drove him to Boulder.
“Here I am, 30 years old, it’s 1982. Bob Damrauer comes to my house, takes me to the university, shows me around Boulder, shows me the department, introduces me to the professors. … He was so much more than just a teacher,” Benson says.
Still on active duty at Fitzsimons when he arrived at CU Boulder, he had earned a BA in chemistry from CU Denver, owned a home and was married with a young daughter. He became a “decidedly non-traditional student,” commuting nearly an hour each way, four days a week, to attend classes and labs.
He recalls how difficult it was to connect with his classmates and he missed out on joining study groups. Also, because his tuition was being paid largely by the U.S. Army, he did not need to teach to make ends meet.
“My contemporaries were all teaching assistants, but I never got that camaraderie or pedagogy of being a TA,” Benson says.
But, thanks to the Army and “just growing up,” at CU, Benson was a decidedly different student than the unfocused youth who failed chemistry and was asked to leave Eckerd College more than a decade earlier.
“At that fairly liberal Presbyterian college, class attendance was optional, and I took chemistry at 8 o’clock. Not a good idea,” he says, laughing. “At CU, I took the hardest classes at 8 o’clock and was alwaysthere ahead of schedule. In fact, I was incensed if the professor was late.”
After earning a PhD in 1988, a 3M recruiter interviewed him on campus, and he was soon hired.
“I’m still in the same research group I joined the first day. On Sept. 6, I celebrated my 30thanniversary at 3M, and in those 30 years I’ve only moved 12 feet,” says Benson, who holds the company’s highest research title, corporate scientist.
Working at the corporate laboratory, he specializes in photochemistry, acquiring 71 patents and helping to design technology that has led to more than 300 products, from sandpaper to optical components on NASA’s Deep Space 1 spacecraft.
Among his other accolades, Benson received the Percy Julian Award from the National Organization of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers, named after the first African-American inducted into the National Academy of Sciences.
He served for many years as a graduate recruiter for 3M, a position that allowed him to bring many CU and Colorado State University scientists to the company. He also served on the CU Boulder Graduate Student Advisory Council for nine years and has made significant donations to every school he has attended.
“I still give to my high school, even the school I dropped out of. I’m a Science Fellow of that school now,” he says.
He credits the then-all-female staff at the CU Boulder Veteran and Military Affairs Office for giving him the practical financial strategies to succeed as a veteran student.
“Even though I got off active duty in 1984,” he continued as a reservist until retiring from the Army in 1997. “I still had another four years. Other than my graduate stipend, my only other source of income was the GI Bill. The women in the (VMAO) knew the system so well, they helped me strategize about when to take my benefits to maximize my return,” Benson says.
He also praises Damrauer, Koch and other faculty for believing in him.
“I was privileged, I was blessed, to have professors at the university who saw my potential and who helped guide me and encourage me to get me through,” he says. “Sometimes it just takes that one little thing in life, for someone to take an interest in another person and say, ‘You can do this, we see this in you.’”