Donor Spotlight

Bill and Harriet Lembeck

William and Harriet Lembeck to endow mechanical engineering professorship

In an inspiring act of generosity, William BS’53, ’52CC and Harriet Lembeck have made a $2 million bequest intention to endow the William Lembeck Career Development Chair in Mechanical Engineering. This new professorship will support a tenure-track junior faculty member.

Bill Lembeck, who attended Brooklyn Tech, graduated from the College in 1952 and the Engineering School in 1953 with a degree in mechanical engineering. He remembers being friends with celebrated New York Times editor Max Frankel ’52CC; TV pioneers Roone Arledge ’52CC and Lawrence Grossman ’52CC; and engineer Donald Ross BS’53, ’52CC. He then completed postgraduate work in aeronautical engineering at Princeton.

While still an undergraduate, Lembeck, who describes himself as “essentially a machine designer,” started a vitamin dropper business with his father. He invented the machines used in his original enterprise, which gradually developed into a thriving glass-decorating business that used equipment of his own design.

At 40, he sold his company and joined New York University Medical Center as a senior research scientist. He taught the fundamentals of mechanics to medical students and worked on the design of prosthetic limbs and hands. Lembeck was addressing a worldwide problem; while there were new possibilities because of the invention of smaller motors and batteries, the field was still nascent. “It is easy to forget how difficult it was at the time,” he says. “There was really no bioengineering then, and it was difficult to find a school that taught something like that. Our only model was The Six Million Dollar Man.”

He even hired a young Gerard Ateshian BS’86, MS’87, PhD’91—now the Andrew Walz Professor of Mechanical Engineering, department chair, and professor of biomedical engineering—as a temporary worker for one summer, encouraging the young engineer to stay on at Columbia. He credits his friendship with Ateshian as a major reason he remains connected to the School.

In 1989, Lembeck left NYU to become director of operations at Hypobaric Systems, from which he retired in 2010. Over the course of his long career, he was awarded four patents for his inventions.

Nowadays, he spends his time consulting and working with his wife, Harriet, who has spent her career as a wine and spirits educator. Mrs. Lembeck leads the renowned New York City–based Wine & Spirits Program and has taught spirits classes since the 1970s. She was wine director of the New School for 15 years, authored two editions of Grossman’s Guide to Wines, Beers, and Spirits, and has been a judge at wine competitions around the world.

Mr. Lembeck has been a longtime leadership donor to the University, especially to Columbia Engineering. He is a past member of the School’s Board of Visitors and a past chair of the Egleston Medal Committee. In addition to their support of the School, the Lembecks contribute to Bryn Mawr College (Harriet’s alma mater), the Salk Institute, and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.

Career development professorships, including the Lembeck Professorship, are designed to support young tenure-track faculty members as they establish themselves as leaders in their fields. The chairs help the School recruit and retain the best and brightest young faculty.

Lembeck believes this objective is the “best way to make a gift.” He says, “The talented people that you recruit make a department stronger.”

—by Timothy P. Cross