“Beautiful, up-to-date, progressive”

Karen and Les Gerhardt.

For Karen and Les Gerhardt, Buffalo has always been a second home, and UB has always been more than just a school.

Karen and Les Gerhardt (MS ’64, PhD ’69) moved to Buffalo from New York City the day after they were married on Sept. 2, 1961, stopping for a one-night honeymoon in Niagara Falls. He was 20 and she was 17.

Les, a brand-new engineering graduate of City College of New York, was starting a job with Bell Aerospace. Karen enrolled at the then-private University of Buffalo to study to be a teacher. 

Sixty-one years later, at a much different UB, Karen made a significant pledge to the Office of Student Life to celebrate the couple’s deep ties with the university and with Buffalo. To honor her commitment, a central space in the Faculty Club in UB’s One World Café, the new front door to the North Campus—will be named the Karen and Lester Gerhardt Dining Room.

Les Gerhardt earned his graduate degrees in electrical engineering at UB while working at Bell Aerospace. Among other work for Bell, he helped develop the visual simulation system for the lunar module that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon. He was prized at Bell. 

In 1970, when he decided he wanted to teach and was offered a faculty position at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Bell reluctantly let him go with his agreement to fly back to Buffalo to work for the company one day a week.

“Management thought the best way to keep him was to let him get teaching out of his system,” Karen says. It didn’t happen: teaching was his passion. He spent the rest of his career at RPI as an educator and administrator, gaining global recognition for his contributions to engineering education.

Buffalo: Always a second home

What neither Les or Karen ever got out of their systems was Buffalo. 

In a fairy-tale second chapter to the story of a college-student lifeguard from the Bronx falling in love with a pretty guest from New Jersey at a Catskills hotel, when the young newlyweds set up housekeeping in Buffalo, they were taken under the wing of two couples a little older who also worked at Bell. 

“They adopted us. They were like our parents,” Karen says. The three couples became the fastest of lifelong friends.

Les Gerhardt died in 2018 after a short illness. During his 48-year career at RPI, Buffalo was always a second home. And UB was more to him than just the school where he’d earned his graduate degrees. He was a member of the School of Engineering Dean’s Advisory Council, a long-time donor to the school’s scholarship funds and a recipient of the UB Distinguished Alumni Award.

Why support the new One World Cafe rather than something in engineering school? “The One World Cafe is beautiful, up-to-date, progressive—like my husband,” Karen says. “If I won the lottery, I’d name the whole place for Les!”

Published January 7, 2022