Mechanical Engineering Alum's Career with the U.S. Navy Has Been an Adventure
Whether he was working on an island restricted to the public or flying several time zones away to complete an assignment, John Walker '74 had an interesting career. He says his time at the University proved to be just what he needed to get started.
April 11, 2023
By Renee Chmiel, Office of Marketing and Communications
When John Walker '74 decided to study mechanical engineering at the University of New Haven, he chose his major because he thought it was something he'd enjoy. He never expected his degree would end up preparing him for an exciting career with the U.S. Navy. His work brought him to unique and interesting places that, for most people, are not accessible.
Now retired and living in southern California, Walker has fond memories of the work he did, of the places he visited, and of the people he met.
"I had a wonderful time," he said with a smile. "I made a good living, and I got to go to a lot of places most people can't go to and see a lot of things that most people can't see."
'It sounded interesting'
Walker grew up in Hamden, Conn., spending much of his time on the Yale University campus, where his father was a chemical engineering professor. Walker originally ended up leaving Connecticut for Florida, enrolling at Stetson University. He left before completing his degree, going on to work in a variety of different positions, including being a tool and diemaker apprentice, land surveyor, and motorcycle mechanic.
After then living briefly in Colorado, Walker decided to return to Hamden, where his parents still lived. It was 1972, and Walker decided to return to school to complete his bachelor's degree. He enrolled at the University of New Haven, and it was a decision he says he was very glad he made.
"The professors were the high point, for me," he said. "I had such a wonderful time at the University. It was a small school with excellent faculty."
Initially, Walker had no plans to work for the U.S. Navy. His eventual career came about as "kind of a fluke." While he was living with his parents, his father, still teaching at Yale, returned home from work and mentioned that there was a U.S. Navy recruiter visiting campus from Maryland. This recruiter was looking for engineers, and Walker's father said that none of the Yale students had signed up to talk with him. He asked Walker if he'd be interested, and he agreed. The recruiter, it turned out, was a research physicist.
"It sounded interesting, so I put in an application," explains Walker. "He offered me a job, and 30 years later, I retired from the Navy."
'The most interesting part of the job'
In the meantime, Walker's career took a shocking – and fascinating – turn. He became involved with environmental testing – work that didn't focus on, he explains, "the environment as in bugs and bunnies," but, rather, on testing factors of an environment such as the impact of vibration or temperature. He and his colleagues simulated what happened on a ship if, say, there was a nearby underwater explosion. Everything that goes on a Navy ship must be "shock-qualified," he explains. It must be able to handle extreme vibrations, and it must be tested extensively. That's where Walker came in.
"If not for the University of New Haven, I wouldn't be anywhere"
John Walker '74
"That was the most interesting part of the job," he said. "'Shock' is almost nebulous in how it's defined. The only way to do it is to simulate it in the real world as much as you can, which is with explosives in seawater."
Transferring to the West Coast
Testing, he explains, also varies depending on the object being tested. Some items on a ship must work no matter what, unless the ship sinks. Some of the items on board, known as "mission critical," must work even after it sinks, such as releases for lifeboats. Walker and his colleagues also ensured that "non-mission critical" items that don't need to survive a disaster don't end up becoming a hazard.
Testing brought Walker to some memorable places during his career. He spent a few weeks in England witnessing tests, and he once went to Iceland for an assignment that only took about 15 minutes. Since he had the right clearance, knowledge and skills, he was the one who was sent to Iceland – from Los Angeles – to complete the test. He spent an extra day in the country afterward.
Walker also spent time on San Clemente Island, a small island off the coast of southern California. Owned and operated by the U.S. Navy, the island is not accessible to the public. Walker spent a few months doing tests there in the 1980s, and he says there's wildlife there that "you don't see anywhere else."
Walker's career eventually brought him to Southern California full-time. After spending more than a decade working in a U.S. Navy lab in Maryland (and living on a houseboat near Annapolis), Walker learned of an opportunity in San Diego. That's where the only shock machine in the country was located that enabled crews to do the testing simulations that he was working on. Because a mechanical engineer was leaving a post there, the Navy needed an engineer with Walker's background and experience. He was ready to leave Maryland for the sunshine of San Diego.
"I put in the application, and several months later, the phone rang," he recalls. "They wanted to know if I still wanted to move from Maryland to San Diego. I looked outside, and there was an ice storm, so I said yes, please."
'It was my foot in the door'
Even after Walker had traded cold weather and snow for palm trees and warmth, he continued to work with many of the same people. He explains that it's a "small world" for those who, like him, work in shock and vibration environments. He connected with many of them at an annual symposium for those who worked in the field, eventually serving as its coordinator. The event was held twice in his new home city.
Now retired for nearly 20 years, Walker still lives in San Diego. As with his career, his retirement has also been an adventure. He's ridden a bicycle coast to coast a few times, and he plans to ride his new motorcycle to Alaska this summer. He's enjoying his retirement just as he enjoyed his career, and he's grateful for everything that led him to where he is now and the path that got him here.
"If not for the University of New Haven, I wouldn't be anywhere," he said. "It was my foot in the door to the world I ended up in – the Navy, the labs. It never would have occurred to me to look into working in Navy labs. I think such a career wouldn't occur to a lot of people, but it was a great experience."