On the morning of June 1st, 2012, Betty Stearns, ’17 B.S. aerospace and mechanical engineering, awoke to her 17th birthday.
She tiptoed to her father’s room to get him out of bed for birthday breakfast. They had a lot planned that day. The engineer and entrepreneur was always traveling to some mysterious far off location, but he never missed a birthday, a parent-teacher conference or a tennis match. He was the only parent she had left. Her mother passed away when Betty was five. Celebrating the big 17 with her father meant the world to her.
But that morning as she knocked on his door, no one answered. She opened it to find him lying still, not breathing. Ronald Stearns had died in his sleep from natural causes.
His death would leave an immeasurable loss — and a mystery about his life, and her own, that she would spend the next five years trying to unravel. Her pursuit led Betty to trace her father’s footsteps to his alma mater, USC; to the halls of the CIA; and on a lifelong journey into engineering.
“If I tell you, I’d have to kill you”
“Dad, why are you pulling over? We’re on the PCH! This isn’t safe!”
Stearns recalls yelling at her dad as he jumped out of the car with his camera in hand. A T-6 flew across the sky and his eyes lit up with the uncontrolled joy of a little kid. “That one plane turned a monotonous day of watching me play tennis at Pepperdine into a worthwhile trip down the highway,” Betty remembered.
“Did you fly in those, dad?” she asked him.
“If I tell you, I’d have to kill you,” he replied laughing.
It was a phrase she had heard so many times that it had become an inside joke. When asked where in the world he was flying to for yet another two-week business trip, he’d kiss her forehead gently before dashing out the door: “If I tell you, I’d have to kill you.”
While he was away, Betty’s mind raced. “I drove my nanny up the wall with constant questions which were never answered. I gave myself the position of ‘official investigator.’ I investigated my dad’s papers on his desk when he was gone, and through this, I slowly grew a fascination for aeronautics.”
She read articles he cut out and printed for leisure, which Betty thought were part of his secret operation in the eastern hemisphere. She devoured entire Boeing articles on defense, Secretary of Defense speeches, and Popular Mechanics magazines. She thumbed through his third passport snapping mental pictures of all the visas from countries she’d read about in her history books. She peeked in to listen when random people came to their door.
“I’d bring my ‘findings’ to school to continue this research, only to be ridiculed by the other girls,” Betty said.
They pointed to her army green baseball cap she got from her father: “Why are you wearing that?” It had a B-52 bomber embroidered on the front.
Losing a parent is traumatic for any child regardless of age, but losing both parents before entering college can be paralyzing. And everyone wants to know: Why? How? Out of the sighing arises more than a need for facts or the longing to get closure on someone’s life.
At 17, she found herself facing some of life’s most critical decisions alone. Her three brothers and sisters from her father’s previous marriage were in their 40’s and 50’s with families of their own.
“I think the show Modern Family stole my family dynamic because I have this older dad with kids much older than me,” she said. “We’re still not getting royalties from that.”
Her older brother Ron Stearns II saw her penchant for playing detective and encouraged her to pursue engineering.
Her father’s words were her daily bread. Compromise, accommodate, provide, make space for. Understand. Tolerate. Empathize. Endure… without it, no relationship, no work, no progress is possible. Yes. Piece by piece she was going to turn the mystery into a calling and the questions into action..
“One of the things my dad taught me is don’t waste time thinking why this happened to you. You can’t choose what happens, but you can choose your future.”
Before he passed away, Ron Stearns focused on giving his daughter a strong sense of independence and provoked her to have a mind of her own even when they disagreed.
“He wanted me to become a lawyer because I always argued with him on everything,” she said.
But now, after his death, his daughter would follow directly into his footsteps at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.
A new family
In high school, Betty got a kick out of motivating students who were falling behind. She joined Key Club and set up her school’s first after hours tutoring program where she tutored students whose parents worked late and couldn’t afford private tutors. She still keeps in touch with the teachers who helped her run the program.
Wanting to grow in that role, she became a Viterbi Student Ambassador, representing the school by supporting outreach efforts to prospective applicants and newly admitted students. Off campus, she coupled several jobs, including babysitting, with a Town and Gown scholarship to pay her way through college.
On campus, she was a Freshman Academy Coach, the editor of Illumin Magazine, and the chair of the Klein Institute for Engineering Life. She even took a summer trip to London through the Viterbi Overseas Program and conducted research in Germany with the Hodge Nanomaterials Lab.
“I loved being constantly surrounded by people who care about solving the world’s problems,” she said. “I feel I’m part of a family. I know most of the people I’m graduating with.”
She culminated her USC experience with launching her own startup with fellow graduate Adam Seifert, ’17 biomedical engineering.
Last year, the two were finalists in the Min Family Engineering Social Entrepreneurship Challenge with Lotus Cups — a startup focused on redesigning female menstrual cups that are better for a woman’s health and better for the planet. Ultimately, they want to empower women to transition to reusable menstrual products.
Betty often holds informational sessions, especially with mothers who work multiple jobs and have teenage daughters.
It’s not an easy sell, she admitted. The issue of what kind of feminine hygiene products a woman uses is rarely if ever discussed publicly. Yet it’s clearly an important topic for every woman out there. The way Betty sees it “if you’re a woman you should have access to feminine hygiene that isn’t harmful in the long run. You shouldn’t have to decide between that and food.”
“It’s been an incredible learning experience. Adam and I are now working on the final design of our product, prototyping, packaging, and soooo much more,” Betty wrote on her blog. “I pretty much spent my entire spring break working on designing and contacting potential partners, and building a website. I never thought I’d be doing anything like this when I went to college… but I’m so proud to be doing this project and empowering all women around the world!”
Whenever she encountered a challenge she leaned on her mentors Paul Ledesma, director of undergraduate admissions and Jenny Vasquez-Newsum, director of student engagement and career connections, as well as her favorite AME professors Geoffrey Shifflet and Charles Radovich. Things were going well, but something still bothered her. A mystery she hadn’t solved yet.
She wrote: “I dreamed of him telling me these ‘deadly secrets,’ but even when that dream came to an end, my investigation didn’t. I plan to investigate until my life will lead me to places where I will need to replace filled passports, I will understand the secrets of the pilots, and I will share a passion for the T-6 with my father. College will give me the tools to be able to propel my desire to reach my future goals. I plan to one day be the person who honors their country by saying, with a smile, “If I tell you, I would have to kill you.”
Mystery comes calling
Her freshman year, she applied to the CIA, but because of the classified nature of the work, the application process took two years. Betty was busy starting companies and researching nanomaterials in Germany. Still, by her junior year they got in touch. She flew out to Washington D.C., and underwent a thorough background investigation.
She wanted an internship. The agency offered her a job instead. But attaining what she felt was a life dream gave her pause. Suddenly, she could no longer see herself living a life hidden from her loved ones. She set out to emulate her father’s story, putting together the clues he left along the way, but found her own unique story instead.
Perhaps, she thought, that was his plan all along.
“I’d be a completely different person if I hadn’t lost my dad,” she said. “I had to fight for everything and that has made me a lot stronger.”
On Friday, May 12th, Betty Stearns did emulate the steps of that young, daring engineer back in 1966. She climbed the podium to take her engineering diploma, to throw her tassel to the other side, to cross the finish line into a whole uncharted chapter of her life… just like her father.
Her passport is also getting stamped full of visas. Following her graduation, and before she starts work for IBM, she will take the same flight route Ron Stearns took to Thailand where on another business trip he met her mother, Ueamporn “Nong” Stearns, then a young flight attendant.
It will be exactly 17 years since she made the journey with her mother before her untimely death from breast cancer. Betty was only five. They rode motorcycles, went on food escapades on the streets of Bangok and got spoiled by her mom’s relatives.
“I can’t wait to see them again. To show them the person I’ve become,” she said.
So much has changed, but so much as stayed the same. For one, nothing will ever quell Betty’s insatiable curiosity. And Ron Stearns wouldn’t have it any other way.
Whatever he was working on, she was ultimately his greatest project.
About Ronald Stearns
Ron Stearns was born April 6, 1938 in Napa, California to Leonard and Betty Stearns. He grew up in Burbank, California and graduated from John Burroughs High School in 1956. He earned his Bachelors in industrial and systems engineering from USC in 1966 and a Masters in business administration from Pepperdine University in 1982.
Stearns worked in and around aerospace and defense for his entire career, with major stints at Litton Itek, John J. McMullen & Associates and finally a 25-year run at his own company, Stearns Industries International. He had a 51-year relationship with the Civil Air Patrol, USAF Auxiliary where he rose to hold the rank of Lt. Col. Ron first joined the Civil Air Patrol in November 1951 and became a lifetime member. He was the commander of San Fernando’s Senior Squadron 35 and California Wing Sector Echo.
Before he died, Ron was working on a written and photographic history of Squadron 35. He is survived by children Kevin Stearns, Cynthia Stearns, Ron Stearns II and Betty Stearns.