For Hoover Medalist John Staehlin, retiring just means solving problems for others

John Staehlin is a man who likes problems. Not gathering them, but solving them. Not abstractions, but the concrete, the human and humane.

At 87, this former Westinghouse engineer may be retired, but he is still inventing ways to make the lives of people easier, often one at a time. He's designed a special crib for a wheelchair-bound mother, prosthetic limbs that allow a veteran to go rock climbing again and mechanical arms that allow those with damaged or missing limbs to grasp and hold objects.


And people have recognized Staehlin for his efforts, even in his retirement at Carroll Lutheran Village. In 2016, he was named Carroll County Philanthropist of The Year.

This year, he has been named as the recipient of the prestigious 2017 Hoover Medal from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. That places Staehlin in some very big company, according to fellow Carroll Lutheran Village resident Bob Coen, who also wrote a letter of recommendation nominating Staehlin for the award.

"Steve Wozniak and Jimmy Carter and Dwight Eisenhower — pretty impressive people," Coen said. "I wouldn't expect anything else from John but to say, 'I don't deserve that,' but he does. It's just amazing the lives that he has impacted."

"I was amazed. I couldn't believe it," Staehlin said, of learning about the award. "My executive director called me and said, some man from ASME has nominated you for the Hoover Medal. I thought, 'What am I going to do with that Hoover Medal?' It was unbelievable."

On a recent Saturday, Staehlin, joined volunteers from V-LINC, the successor nonprofit to an organization he founded at Westinghouse in the 1980s, to help build customized bicycles for children with disabilities at CHANGE Inc. in Westminster — extending pedals for those with one leg shorter than the other, using seats with safety belts or special stabilizing pedals.

"It takes 2.5 hours to get them all assembled, and then they start doing the special fittings for the individual child," he said. "It ends up the child riding off with a bicycle."

It was actually a child's wish to ride a bicycle that led Staehlin to form Volunteers for Medical Engineering, or VME, in 1982, while still working at Westinghouse.

"One of our co-workers said he had a granddaughter that has cerebral palsy who desperately wanted to bicycle with the rest of the family, but couldn't pedal a bike on her own," he said.

Staehlin and his volunteers found a way to attach two bike frames together so that the granddaughter could ride with her mother behind her.

"We put Velcro on the palms of the gloves and we put Velcro on the handlebars, so that when the child grasped the handlebars, her hands were stuck there so she wouldn't lose control," he said.

VME became a nonprofit vehicle for obtaining funding and applying engineering know-how to helping people with disabilities. An early success was the BLINK System, eye tracking software to enable paralyzed people to communicate through eye movement. It's still available today, as a free download through V-LINC, an organization resulting from the 2010 merger between VME and another nonprofit, Learning Independence Through Computers.

V-LINC continues Staehlin's tradition of recruiting engineers to help others, tapping engineering students to provide customized solutions to Maryland children with disabilities.

"What I Wish for My Child is a program that we still have in force," Staehlin said of this effort. "What we found was there were many, many request for bicycle adaptations, and so the bicycle clinic was formed. They do them maybe twice a year."

And Staehlin continues this work even in retirement at Carroll Lutheran Village, organizing groups of interested residents to work on projects, many of them to benefit other residents. Residents such as Coen.


"John Staehlin is my man," Coen said. He has been working with Staehlin to develop a device that will allow Carroll Lutheran Village residents to simultaneously open their front and storm doors, a real boon to people with limited mobility or wheel chairs — Coen uses a wheelchair due to multiple sclerosis.

"If you have double doors, it gets kind of crazy trying to hold the door," he said.

It's a work still in progress, but it will have potential benefits for both Coen and people everywhere, a typical mix of impacts for a Staehlin invention, according to Lisa Albin, director of church and public relations for Carroll Lutheran Village.

"While a lot of the projects and inventions he works on have applications that are broad in nature, they really impact lives one at a time," she said. "The people who were not able to speak and now they can, or could not hold something and not they can; because he has designed something individual for them, it's very meaningful. They are very personal, one-on-one inventions."

Engineering, after all, has never been about recognition for Staehlin — he just likes solving problems for people.

"His mind is always turning. If there is a problem, he is thinking about some fix for it," Albin said. "He is so humble and so modest; you would never think that all this great stuff came from this guy. Then he starts talking."