Charles "Chuck" Buchanan BSGE 1965
As a kid, he constructed a headboard for his parents’ bed with a built-in radio.
Later, in high school, he was met with challenging math and science classes, and worked to excel in both.
To establish a college fund, he and his father invested in the hog market. After they lost the herd to disease, Chuck realized he would have to work his way through college.
So it’s almost natural that he became an engineer. Engineers have a need and find a solution.
Chuck’s ability to find solutions in a creative way led him into a successful career during which he acquired 122 patents that contributed greatly to the automotive industry.
When he was in high school, his younger brother Steve remembers his brother being full of ideas even then.
“He was always into some new concept and would always take the time making the idea fascinating to listen to,” he said. “He was always able to explain things on a level you could understand and not lose you in the high-tech facts.”
He began his higher education at the University of Illinois, majoring in General Engineering. During his time as a student, he was the president of the Psi Upsilon fraternity, a position that led him to meet his wife, Diane (class of 1965 with a major in French and minor in general science), who was then the president of the Phi Mu sorority and a French major.
Chuck worked through college to earn his way and was also known for being the anchor of many fraternity tug of war teams.
After Chuck graduated in 1965, he and Diane married that same year. A year later, they moved to Dayton, Ohio for Chuck’s first job in the Delco Products division of General Motors.
He began working in product engineering, in areas such as windshield wiper systems, engine cooling motors, motors and compressors, and suspensions. Chuck eventually spent a total of 27 years working for Delco and went from being the Staff Engineer for Suspensions, then for Windshield Wiper Systems, and then for Advanced Wiper and Actuator Engineering.
After ITT Industries bought the Wipers and Motors Business Unit in 1994, Chuck was then put in charge of Advanced System Engineering. During the same year, Chuck and his team of engineers developed the first variable damping shock absorber in the United States.
Among this team, Chuck was known for being a supportive mentor. He encouraged others and thus inspired their creativity in coming up with new ideas.
Four years later, when Valeo, Inc. bought the business from ITT, Chuck became Senior Valeo Expert in the Wiper Branch. His expertise was then in suspension and actuator wiper systems.
During his time at Valeo, he was one of the five worldwide Senior Valeo Experts of Engineering professionals, a true testament to his ability to problem-solve.
“He could go to any problem, any engineer, and analyze it and usually come up with a solution,” Diane said.
Chuck had stayed at the same desk in Dayton throughout his career to this point, but with Valeo he was then required to commute to Detroit during the week. During this time, he began to learn about I-TRIZ, a methodology for creative problem solving.
Diane said Chuck became a “master” of this approach, which helped him to produce 56 of his 122 patents. In 2004, he was awarded Triz Specialist Certification by Ideation
International, Inc., a business that utilizes the I-TRIZ method.
She said, “If Chuck could have any wish granted, it would be that more people learn the I-TRIZ method.”
Those who worked with Chuck remember him as a helpful and kind person as well as an innovative creator.
Peter Zhou began working for Chuck in 1989 and described him as his “best friend and greatest boss.” Zhou described a time when Chuck helped his daughter and son-in-law learn English when they moved to the United States.
“I never knew any other boss who would like to help his subordinate’s children to learn English,” he said. “We will never forget [his] kindness.”
Another co-worker of Chuck’s, Ralph Edwards, worked with Chuck from when they both first started at Delco. The story of how they met was one that they laughed about for the rest of their careers.
Edwards, who was in the production division while Chuck was in advanced development at the time, described how he was working to meet a tight deadline for a product when
Chuck came up to him and began questioning a specific part of it.
“He said, ‘Do you ever think about maybe optimizing that, doing some calculations and seeing if you could do a better job?’” Edwards said. “Here’s this guy, I don’t even know him, he’s a young guy, and he’s asking me questions like this when I’m having trouble meeting production schedule.”
As time went on, Edwards said he and Chuck became extremely good friends, and they often made jokes about their rough first meeting.
“We always laughed about that. As we went on designing different things, he would ask me or I would ask him, ‘Hey, did you optimize that?’” Edwards said. “For 30 years that was a big joke.”
In his opinion, what made Chuck different was that he not only had the ability to come up with ideas but could also prove that they would work.
“Anybody can come up with an idea, but if you can prove it, especially through mathematics, that’s pretty good,” Edwards said. “He had a great sense of humor and personality but was also a very smart guy too, with a whole lot of ideas just bubbling out of his head.”
Gordon Lewis worked as Chuck’s patent counsel for over 20 years, writing over half of Chuck’s 122 patents. As Lewis came to know Chuck’s inventions intimately, he attested to the fact that Chuck was able to take risks and think outside of the box.
“Most engineers are very uncomfortable with taking risks, and I guess that is what I would consider Chuck – a technological risk taker,” Lewis said. “He was willing to defy convention for new product and new technical developments.”
Lewis described how he and Chuck would often spent time outside of working discussing problems and goals, which led to a great deal of tangential thinking, but also a great share of ideas.
In his 40 years spent in the business, Lewis said Chuck was “without a doubt the most creative single inventor” he worked with.
“He was just an extremely interesting person,” Lewis said. “He could sit down with anybody … and give them his vision of the future in any given realm.”
Chuck retired from Valeo in 2004, but continued to be active. He and Diane often visited campus during homecoming and enjoyed passing by familiar landmarks.
Retirement didn’t keep him from continuing to invent, either. In their home, Diane said he constructed a countertop that could pull out and double as a breadboard or a laptop holder.
“Everywhere he went, he was innovating,” Diane said.
Over the span of his career, Chuck held 122 patents for products varying from automobile wipers, actuators, mechanical systems, electronic controls, suspension systems, and composites structures and processes.
But he probably should have held more. According to Diane, he often gave patent credit to young engineers he worked with to encourage them to continue in their work, an uncommon trait in such a competitive field.
“He was open and sharing in helping people be innovative about their business or ideas,” Diane said.
Many features of vehicles today such as automatic sliding van doors, powered windows, automatic door lock systems, and automatic windshield wipers have evolved with the help of Chuck’s work.
Outside of his career pursuits, Chuck also was involved with the Greater Dayton Jaycees, an organization that teaches leadership through community projects. Chuck served as its president in 1975 and went on to serve as the U.S. Jaycees National Vice President in 1978. He was also in the Ambassador Honor Program, the Jacyees’ highest honor.
From 2001-2002, Chuck also served as the President of the Engineers Club, an organization formed in Dayton, Ohio that was co-founded by Charles F. Kettering. Orville Wright, president of the Dayton Engineers Club in 1919, accepted the keys to the newly built clubhouse at 101 East Monument, Dayton which was dedicated to the Club.
Aside from being a Valeo Senior Expert, he was awarded Valeo’s “Prix de L’innovations” award for having one of the six top profitable inventions for Valeo in 1999.
Chuck passed away in 2009 with a lifetime of accomplishments behind him. It is difficult to say he could have done more with the skills he had. His creative contributions to the automotive world and to his fellow engineers will be remembered.