May 25, 2010
Holocaust Survivor Graduates With Honors at 79
Many people change careers throughout their professional lives, though few do so as they approach their 80th birthday. No one must have told that to Ralph Montview.
Spry and sharp, Montview, 79, is hoping to launch a career as a transportation consultant. His graduation in May from California State University, Fullerton (CSUF), with a master’s degree in civil and environmental engineering has brought him one step closer to reaching his goal.
Montview earned the university’s 2010 Osher Lifelong Learning Institute Award, a distinction given to an outstanding older graduate who best models a desire to continue and share intellectual pursuits. His master’s thesis, “Urban Transportation, Issues and Solutions,” lays out his original blueprint for making Orange County’s transit system greener and more efficient.
“All I need to know is where you start from and your destination,” he said. “Based on that, I can come up with a transportation system. I know where to widen streets, where buses are needed, etc.”
His research is gleaned from extensive surveys he conducted with hundreds of local commuters and from insights provided by vehicle manufacturers, oil companies and decision-makers. He processed the data with computer software he developed. The result is a unique take on a treelike transit plan that includes a deeply dug underground system that can resist damage from earthquakes.
This is not the first time Montview has sought to reconfigure a regional transit system. Nearly 50 years ago, he had ambitious plans to develop emerging transportation corridors in Israel, where he lived after World War II.
Born in Siedlce, Poland — a town that once had a Jewish population of nearly 50 percent, according to an 1897 Russian census — Montview was set to begin the second grade the morning the Nazis invaded his town. With his father taken away and his home destroyed in an ensuing bombardment, he was sent to live with his grandparents but ended up in and out of five different Polish Catholic and German orphanages.
Often chastised by the other children for being Jewish, he spent much of the war hiding in the streets.
“To survive on the streets, it takes a terrific sense of survival, courage, determination and just hope,” he said. Reduced to skin and bones, he rummaged through garbage for bits of food and kept warm by covering himself with paper. He learned he could conserve energy by lying in a fetal position. Throughout the harrowing experience, he gleaned courage from the memory of his father, who often told his young son, “Courage lost, everything lost.”
When the war ended, Montview, then 14, entered France illegally and later immigrated to Israel as part of Aliyat Ha Noar (Youth Aliyah), the Jewish Agency’s initiative to bring Jewish children to the fledgling state of Israel and provide them with job training. He spent time at three kibbutzim but said he was often mistreated and found the living conditions poor. After his military service, which he spent patrolling the Syrian and Lebanese border and then later working as a medic, Montview taught himself draftsmanship. He worked in Beer Sheva before landing a low-level job with Israel’s Ministry of Housing, where he worked his way up to urban planner, despite his lack of formal professional training.
“I was doing architectural work, which I learned on my own,” he said. “I only attended the Technion when there were free lectures.”
In 1962, he submitted a plan to the ministry proposing a system of tunnels that would run through Haifa Bay to ease traffic through the city. But that was just the beginning. He envisioned a 25- to 30-year renewal plan that included rebuilding the Port of Haifa, cleaning up the beaches and building bypass roads around Haifa Bay. He also had plans for Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, but the lack of progress on his initiatives left him frustrated and disillusioned. In 1963, he left Israel for New York. He earned a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering from City College of New York in 1974 and moved to Orange County in 1977 to take a job with the aerospace firm Interstate Electronics.
Nearly 50 years later, he looks with irony and a hint of disappointment as Israel nears completion of the Carmel Tunnels project, a set of tunnels that will reduce road congestion in the Haifa area.
“I made a mistake,” he said. “I should have taken my plan to the City Hall where I had connections. My father knew the family of the mayor of Haifa, and whenever I had a problem, I’d go over to him and he’d take care of it. You have to have protectzia,” he said, referring to the Hebrew word for “connections.”
Montview retired from professional life in 1990 but performed volunteer work in the community, including speaking to school-age children about the Holocaust and serving as motivational speaker for high school students at risk of dropping out. In 1999, quadruple coronary bypass surgery nearly killed him.
“Nobody believed I’d survive,” said Montview, a congregant at Anaheim’s Temple Beth Emet. “The HMO expected me to die. But I wasn’t going to wait for the Angel of Death. I hadn’t been working for a while, and I wanted to update my skills.”
Determined to get back on his feet and return to work at the age of 70, Montview registered with the California Department of Rehabilitation and studied HTML and Java at Cypress College, earning a certificate in network administration. When he was told he was “unemployable,” he entered the graduate program at CSUF’s College of Engineering in 2006.
More than 30 years after he last studied engineering in a university setting, Montview found himself in a brave, new scientific world.
“There are six methods now to do structural analysis. When I studied, there were only two. Fluid mechanics — I never had it before,” he said.
Despite the new concepts and working with instructors and students — often 50 to 60 years his junior — Montview says the most difficult part of studying at what U.S. News & World Report lists as one of the nation’s top 100 engineering colleges was physically getting to class. The 10-mile drive to campus sometimes took up to two hours by bus, but it was these commutes that inspired his thesis and potential new career.
Montview’s instructors are a bit surprised by his ingenuity, but not by his success.
“He has a lot of prior experience, and he put that experience into his work,” said engineering professor Jeff Kuo, who taught Montview in several courses. “He looked at things from different angles. That’s extraordinary. It’s different than what a typical student would do.”
While his formal studies just ended in May, Montview’s creative juices are just beginning to flow. He envisions building future bridges with heavy-duty transparent tubing that can withstand earthquakes. He has devised what he says is a more energy-efficient means of desalinating water, and he’s got ideas for improving wind turbines. With his thesis complete, he is busy preparing abstracts in order to present his ideas at
academic conferences, and he hopes to begin consulting with the City of Anaheim’s Department of Public Works.
Slowing down is definitely not in the cards.
“I need to be creative all the time,” he said. “It’s my nature. As long as I live, I will learn and I will have ideas.”