Building Legacies: Fred Pirkle
Jan. 31, 2023
SHSU Media Contact: Campbell Joseph Atkins
The following is part of a Today@Sam series highlighting the individuals who have SHSU buildings dedicated to them on campus. Special thanks to Barbara Kievit-Mason and University Archives for their assistance.
Fred Pirkle made things happen.
These are the words that jump out at Sam Houston State University students and faculty when they enter the second floor museum in the building that now bears his name. This could almost be considered an understatement, since the SHSU distinguished alumnus patented over 20 products and orchestrated the largest donation in the university’s history.
The Fred Pirkle Engineering Technology Center, opened in 2017, houses SHSU’s Department of Agricultural Sciences and Engineering Technology. Each of its four floors are named for a famous inventor, including Thomas Edison (first level), Pirkle (second), Thomas Jefferson (third) and Sam Houston (fourth). The state-of-the-art facility houses everything from a robotics lab and a machine and woodworking shop to a multimedia workroom and wildlife physiology lab.
“SHSU students who are getting a technical education are learning skills for life,” Pirkle said to the Huntsville Item in a story that ran in December of 2011, shortly after the lofty donation was announced. “Those technical skills are critically important for America in today’s world. Americans are hard workers, and we’re smart workers. I want the students who are touched by this gift to be inspired to contribute to the success of this country and be leaders in the world.”
Frederick L. Pirkle was born in San Antonio on Feb. 17, 1946 to Charles Earl and Zutella Bones Pirkle. He was an avid outdoorsman and his love for hunting, fishing and nature in general always stuck with him. His mother nicknamed him “Shotgun Fred” because he approached life with a blast.
“Early on, Fred displayed a knack for the two things that would frame his life’s journey, barbecue and innovation,” reads a plaque in the second floor museum in the Pirkle Center. “While he learned the art of cooking from his grandfather, he was born with a unique ability to envision practical solutions for abstract problems.”
After graduating high school in 1964, Pirkle worked as a mechanic’s helper for Van Winkle Motor Company in Dallas while training to become a General Motors Guardian Maintenance Service Craftsman.
Pirkle was hungry for a place he could hunt and fish while also furthering his education. He was captivated by Huntsville’s many hills and overall beauty and enrolled at SHSU in the fall of 1967 as an industrial arts major. He would ultimately earn his bachelor’s degree in 1970 and a Master of Arts degree in industrial technology in 1974.
He then took his aspirations to Houston to teach at Cypress Fairbanks ISD and first indulged his entrepreneurial desires by opening Shotgun Fred’s BBQ, a part-time barbecue business. He didn’t have much money at the time, so he would often sleep in the same classroom he taught in during this stint in his life.
This would soon change when he first officially put his degree and unique, lifelong skillset to the test and found work as a sales engineer, ultimately moving to Philadelphia to work for Ogontz Controls.
“Understanding the future potential in energy conservation, he left the company to manufacture valves of his own patented design,” said the Pirkle Museum.
He founded ThermOmegaTech, Inc. in 1982 with the goal of designing a reliable, stand-alone, self-actuating and cost-efficient temperature control valve for the railroad industry.
The rest, as they say, is history.
“Since its founding, ThermOmegaTech has designed and manufactured the most advanced, reliable and compact self-actuated valves for temperature control on the market,” said the Pirkle Museum. “The company’s products have gained worldwide respect across diverse industries such as aerospace, chemical, construction, engineering, beverage, food, government, heating, air conditioning, manufacturing, medical, petroleum, pharmaceutical, plant safety, power, pulp, paper, railroad and wastewater.”
Loyal to his roots, Pirkle also made another splash in the barbecue world with his patented BBQ Guru technology, which allows a meat smoker to be even more precise than a household oven in reading temperatures. The product line is now used in countless competitions and backyards alike.
In 2012, Pirkle’s company pledged a $25 million donation to the university to fund a new engineering technology program and provide financial support to students majoring in the field. According to a Houstonian article published in January of 2012, $10 million of the donation went towards the building itself while another $10 million provided an endowment fund presenting scholarships for students in the program. The remaining $5 million created the Frederick L. Pirkle Enrichment Fund for faculty recruitment, professorship, advanced equipment and internship aid.
“We are truly honored and deeply grateful for Mr. Pirkle’s generosity and vision for his alma mater,” said former SHSU President Dana Gibson to the Huntsville Item in December 2011. “This remarkable and unprecedented gift is an investment in the future of SHSU and will enhance its ability to provide opportunities for students to gain invaluable knowledge and experience in industrial technology.”
Pirkle was diagnosed with amyotophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) in early 2011 and passed away after a courageous fight on March 9, 2012. He was survived by two children. His legacy has continued years after his death through family, business, education and, of course, barbecue.
Pirkle’s most lasting legacy, besides his family and friends, will always be the facility at SHSU and the students’ dreams he illuminated through his endowment fund. If you happen across the Pirkle Center at night, you cannot help but notice “Latent Energy,” the art structure comprised of colorfully lit orbs erected near its entryway. Perhaps this design by Creative Machines is the best metaphor for the diverse and lasting light Pirkle brought to SHSU, its students, and the world as a whole.
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