An educator, scientist and a politician all spoke glowingly of Charles Proteus Steinmetz this afternoon, a three-pronged salute that would have been much appreciated by the former “Wizard of Schenectady.”
“Steinmetz had a great many achievements in the scientific world,” said Schenectady City School District Superintendent Larry Spring at today’s unveiling of a bust of Steinmetz placed on the lot of his former home at 1221 Wendell Ave. in Schenectady. “We know why he was so celebrated in that world. But he was also a great man in other realms as well. He had a vision about education that continues to guide us today.”
A German immigrant who came to Schenectady in 1894 to work for GE, Steinmetz was also president of the city school board and the city’s Common Council. An active Socialist during the second decade of the 20th century in Schenectady, he may be known mostly for his scientific genius, but he also was the man largely responsible for the creation of Central Park and the construction of three new school buildings around 1912 when the city’s population was booming. Joseph Steinmetz Hayden, the adopted great-grandson of Steinmetz who drove from his home in New Hampshire to be present at the unveiling, appreciated the kind words used to describe his great-grandfather by Spring, Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy and Danielle Merfeld, GE Global Research vice president and site leader.
“I knew Steinmetz through my father, and I knew him more as a humanist than a scientist,” said Hayden, who grew up at 1018 Nott Street just around the corner from Steinmetz’s former home. “He was a great scientist, but of course he loved children so much and he loved teaching. He was so appreciative of a good education.”
Brian Merriam, head of the Schenectady County Chamber of Commerce’s Edison/Steinmetz Statuary Committee, put together today’s event, and also spearheaded last year’s installation of life-sized figures of Steinmetz and Thomas Edison on Erie Boulevard just north of the GE plant. Dexter Benedict, a sculptor from Penn Yan in the Finger Lakes region, created the statues of Edison and Steinmetz, and donated his work to produce the bust of Steinmetz. About 60 people were present at Friday’s unveiling.
“I saw how Brian and other people put together this noble effort, and I was really inspired by them and by Steinmetz,” said Benedict, who has created commissioned busts of various historic figures for more than three decades now. “I thought, ‘I have the mold for his head, I can do this.’ I had seen the plaque in this park before and I thought to myself, ‘You know, it’s nice but it needs a little personality.’ So I donated the bust.”
Mayor McCarthy called Steinmetz’s story “inspirational,” and talked about the influence he had on this community, and “how that influence had a global impact.” Merfeld, who got her doctorate in electrical engineering at Northwestern University, felt a personal and special connection to Steinmetz.
“He was one of the greatest innovators of all time, and he had a huge impact not only on GE, but the world,” said Merfeld. “As a leader of our research center here in Niskayuna, I have a particular affinity for him. He founded the first modern industrial research center, and put modern industrial research centers on the map in the U.S. I feel a personal debt of gratitude to him for that. He also was focused on social aspects. That was a big part of his brand, and we feel like he brought that to GE. We owe him a great debt, as does this community and our country.”
The move to remember Edison and Steinmetz by placing statues on Erie Boulevard began back in 2011 when Merriam, the fourth-generation owner of Merriam Insurance Agency in Schenectady, convinced the Schenectady County Chamber of Commerce President Chuck Steiner and Proctors’ CEO Philip Morris that honoring the two scientists in such a way was a good idea. GE also joined the project and eventually submitted the largest financial donation.
“I got a lukewarm reception from some people, but I got Philip’s attention and Chuck liked it a lot,” said Merriam. “He said to go ahead and use the chamber’s fund-raising arm to raise the money to pay for it. So I started begging people for money. Some people, like Neil Golub and Walt Robb, contacted me before I could get ahold of them and were very generous, and we got GE on board.”
Flora Ramonowski of Schenectady was also at the unveiling.
“My great-grandfather came over on the same boat as Steinmetz,” she told Hayden. “They both got chased out of Germany by [Otto von] Bismarck. When I came to Schenectady in the 1980s, I started hearing about this wonderful man. I always thought we should have a statue of him. I wasn’t about to miss this.”
It was a long day for Hayden, who also visited with officials at the Schenectady County Historical Society, mySci and Union College, where Steinmetz started the electrical engineering program.
“It’s been a great day, and I’m meeting up with some high school friends later,” said Hayden, 77, the former director of the New Hampshire Bar Association. “I talked to some great people at the historical society, and I brought a trunk load of papers, photographs and other personal memorabilia, and we’re talking about the best way to maintain the legacy of Steinmetz in Schenectady and around the world.”
Reach Gazette reporter Bill Buell at 395-3190 or [email protected]