On May 30, 1920, Ralph Engel Probert was born in the small town of Salem, Ohio, roughly twenty miles from the Pennsylvania border. At this particular time (until 1968), Memorial Day was celebrated every year on this day instead of the last Monday in May as it is now. Growing up in northeastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania, he eventually married the love of his life, Evelyn Louise Cleavelin, in June of 1943, and they would be married for 62 years until she passed away in 2005. A year after marrying Evelyn, Ralph officially graduated from Purdue in 1944, having previously entering the Navy during the late stages of World War II.
After the war was over, he began a long career in electrical and electronic engineering (although his degree was in mechanical engineering). According to family members, he seemed to know everything about anything mechanical or electrical, from the theoretical like Ohm’s Law to the practical like how to solder wires neatly, and from physics to how to use a table saw. After raising his kids and eventually retiring, he remained very active, riding his bicycle outdoors into his late 90’s (he continues to walk and ride a stationary bike indoors). Until the recent COVID-19 epidemic, he volunteered multiple days a week in the hospital pharmacy at St. Vincent’s (at the age of 99) and had accumulated over 5,300 volunteer hours (and can’t wait to get back to this work). One of his sons, Dr. Rick Probert, personally attested that in his entire life, he had never heard his father curse or complain about anything that happened to him.
A few days after Mr. Probert’s 100th birthday party, Rick sat down with the centenarian to ask a number of questions that I had compiled regarding his father’s incredible life. The following is a transcript of his answers to some of them.
What did you do for your first paying job? It is funny now to say it, but I had a job sweeping and cleaning up in the schools. Job paid 18 cents an hour. I had that the last 3 years of high school. Then I went to college and in the summertime, I got a job with the Deming Pump Company for two summers for 46 cents an hour when I was a junior and senior in college.
What did your dad do? He was a freight agent for the Pennsylvania Railroad. He served in World War I, in the army — a drill sergeant. When he came home, he had the [Spanish] flu. [The year was] 1918. My mother nursed him back to health.
[Regarding the early years] He got transferred quite often. Outside of the first grade, I didn’t graduate to the next grade in the same school [the following year]. When dad got transferred and during the time he was moving, I was sent to live with my grandmother. When I was there, I went to the schools in Salem, and when my dad and mother got situated, I went back to the schools where they were. Then he got transferred again and it repeated itself.
What did you do for fun when you were a kid? Well, we did a lot of walking and playing ball, playing softball, and I tried to play tennis and wasn’t very good at it so I quit. I had some buddies and we would meet every day and would walk around. One of the things we would do is walk down to Main Street and look in the store windows. And then after we got past the stores, we always sat and tried to tell each other what we saw. There was a competition of who saw the most. Then we got together—- one boy —his mother let us and our girlfriends have the run of the house. We would roll up the living room rug and dance.
My first bicycle was a full size bicycle. I guess I wasn’t a full size kid because I couldn’t touch the pedals. Then my dad took and put blocks of wood on the pedals so I could reach [them].
You served in the Navy during WWII, correct, and attended Purdue University before that? Yes, I was originally in the graduating class of 1942, but had to retake thermodynamics in the summer of 1942. Tuition for any state school was 51 dollars per semester and I was out of state so it was 75 dollars per semester for me. I ended up getting a job at RCA in Indianapolis, and eventually finished my credits in 1943 through Indiana University, which was transferred to Purdue. I joined the Navy in 1943, and a year later officially graduated from Purdue. I remained in the Navy until February of 1946 [According to his son, Rick, upon a later conversation, his Dad’s entire college at Purdue cost around 3,000 dollars]
You met your wife at Purdue, correct? Yes, met her at Purdue and we dated at Purdue and went dancing and had a lot of fun. She turned out to be the love of my life. We were married 62 years when she passed away.
Do you have any fear of passing away yourself? No. It will happen someday and that’s all.
So would you consider that decade of the 1940’s most memorable for you? The most important for me was when I came home and I was married and my family life. I had 2 sons. Raising them and joining in on their activities was probably my greatest pleasure.
Going back to childhood, I know your father served in WWI, and did you have ancestors in the Civil War? Two great grandfathers in the Civil War, one I never talked to, but the other I visited often. He volunteered in the Civil War at 15 years of age- he was supposed to be 16, but he was big for his size [age]. He served about a year and a half in the Civil War. The other grandfather volunteered and served in the Civil War in an Ohio guard regiment at Cincinnati. He enlisted for a 100 days; he served his days and came home.
Do you remember anything in particular they said about the Civil War, or anything that they talked about? No, [the latter great grandfather] he didn’t talk very much about what he did in the Civil War, [but] I think he was a courier.
What occupation did your mom have? She was a stay-at-home Mom, that I know of, before she got married she was a telephone operator.
What kind of stuff did a telephone operator do back then? You had a phone in your house, and you made a call to the switchboard operator, and you would tell her who you wanted to talk to, and she would plug you in. And you would talk back and forth.
One sort of mundane question – do you have anything you bought that you think was the best purchase you ever made? No, I don’t remember anything. I guess the best thing I had the most fun with – I bought a 1958 Volkswagen Bug. I drove that Bug for 4 years on the same set of tires. There were only 2 or 3 of them in Evansville and when we saw each other in Evansville, we would honk.
On a more serious note, do you have any bits of wisdom you would share with someone who is a lot younger. I just mainly thank the Lord for every day. And take one day at a time. And do your best. Try to do your best with whatever.
Nice long life, then.