From Havana to Baton Rouge: ChE Professor Marks 50 Years of Teaching at LSU
BATON ROUGE – LSU Chemical Engineering Professor Emeritus Armando Corripio’s life story is nothing short of inspirational. From fleeing his native Cuba during Fidel Castro’s reign to becoming a professor in an unfamiliar country, Corripio has proven that if you work hard and keep your eye on the ball, good things will come.
This year, he celebrates 50 years of teaching at LSU, where his lessons have been invaluable to not only his students, but to anyone needing a bit of motivation to follow their dreams.
Corripio’s story begins in 1941, when he was born in the tobacco-growing town of Mantua in western Cuba. Cuba was prosperous at the time with a “great standard of living,” Corripio said. His hard-working father owned a successful store that sold everything from gas and groceries to clothes and shoes. The capital city of Havana was seeing a boom in commerce, fashion, music and gambling. Even American celebrities like Frank Sinatra and Ernest Hemingway frequented Havana hot spots. As the 1950s neared, however, things changed.
Corripio referred to his high school years as “very shaky ground” due to Castro taking over Cuba.
“When I finished high school, most universities were closed due to the rebellion,” Corripio said. “Castro didn’t like that some Cubans were studying while others had to fight. Santo Tomas was the only university open.”
Knowing their son wanted to study chemical engineering, Corripio’s parents bought a house in Havana so he could attend Universidad de Santo Tomas de Villanueva, a Catholic university with an American rector. He was only one year away from graduating when everything suddenly went wrong.
It was April 17, 1961, the day of the Bay of Pigs Invasion in Cuba. Nearly 20,000 Cubans were taken prisoner by Castro and his regime seized Santo Tomas, padlocking the campus and holding the students as prisoners.
“We were in the middle of taking an exam and had two months of school left when the teacher came in and told us to go home before the gunmen took us prisoner,” Corripio recalled.
“We hopped in my car, and I dropped off three of my friends. One of them was taken prisoner right after I dropped him off. On my way to drop off the last guy, we were stopped by Castro’s militiamen and told to get out of the car while they searched it. We got out and they took the seats out. I was sure I wasn’t going to make it home, but they let me back in [my car]. I don’t know how."
After Corripio arrived home safely, he immediately tried to fly to Kingston, Jamaica, where he had to obtain a visa before he could fly to Miami. The problem was that most Cubans were doing the same thing. There were only two flights a week to Kingston, and they were always full. He tried eight times to board a flight before finally succeeding on the ninth try.
“There were so many people trying to get out that it was hard to get on a plane,” Corripio said.
Once in Kingston, Corripio had to stay in a refugee camp for a month while waiting on X-rays and other documents he needed to obtain his visa. Men and women were separated in the camp, with women preparing the one meal a day and men cleaning all of the dishes.
“There was a mail strike the week I was supposed to get my documents, so then I had to wait another two weeks before I could get my visa,” Corripio said.
Once he did, Corripio boarded a flight to Miami, and a year later, sent for his mother to join him. His father stayed behind to run what was left of the family business until that proved fruitless, and he flew to Miami on a Freedom Flight four years later to join the family.
“For a while, I was in Miami and didn’t know what to do,” Corripio said.
The U.S. government offered Cubans in Miami a free one-way ticket to a U.S. city of their choice. It was a huge decision for most, since it meant deciding where they wanted to live in a country they had never been to.
“A friend of mine, Alfredo Lopez, said we can go to LSU with a loan from the federal government, which was $500,” Corripio said. “That covered tuition and everything at the time. So, we both came together.”
Since they “didn’t quite finish” their junior year in Cuba, Corripio and Lopez had three semesters of classes to take at LSU, which accepted all of their previous course credits.
“Coming to LSU was one of the greatest ideas Alfredo ever had,” Corripio said.
Corripio boarded a plane to Louisiana and continued his studies in chemical engineering at LSU. On the day of his last final exam in 1962, he took a Greyhound bus back to Miami to marry Connie, his sweetheart of more than a year. The newlyweds would spend their first summer together in Midland, Texas, where Corripio had a job with Mobil Oil. Soon after, LSU Chemical Engineering Professor Jesse Coates called Corripio to tell him that he needed three humanities courses in order to graduate in the spring.
“So, I added one class that semester, took a credit exam during the Christmas break, and took another class in the spring,” Corripio said.
The spring of 1963 saw Corripio celebrating two special occasions—his college graduation and the birth of his first child, a daughter named Connie.
“Two weeks before commencement, my daughter was born, the same day the plant design report was due,” Corripio said. “I gave it to Dr. Coates one day late with a cigar that said ‘It’s a girl.’ He smiled.”
After receiving his bachelor’s degree, Corripio went to work for Dow Chemical in Plaquemine while taking evening graduate courses at LSU. It would be four years of balancing work and school, but he finally earned his master’s in ChE from LSU in 1967. By this time, his family had expanded to include a son, Bernardo, and another daughter, Mary. Michael followed in 1972. Both sons, and his future son-in-law, would later graduate from LSU in chemical engineering.
During his second semester of graduate school, Corripio took a course on process control from LSU Chemical Engineering Department Chair and Professor Paul Murrill, who later became chancellor of LSU in 1974. Murrill wanted Corripio to consider getting his PhD at LSU.
“He said he had done it with a family and did not starve,” Corripio said. “After five years, I followed his advice and found out he was right. Murrill helped me by giving me an instructorship in the department in 1968. So, I took my courses, worked on my dissertation and finished in one-and-a-half years.”
Corripio earned his PhD in chemical engineering from LSU in January 1970. He had planned to look for a job in the field until fate intervened. One of his students, Dwight Fontaine, found out Corripio was looking for an off-campus job and started a petition to keep Corripio at LSU. As a result, the LSU Engineering Council gave him the Outstanding Faculty Member Award, and Murrill and College of Engineering Dean Roger Richardson offered him an assistant professorship.
“The dean said ‘I guess they really want you,’” Corripio laughed.
Thanks to a U.S. Air Force Scientific Research grant secured by Murrill, Corripio spent 1970-1978 teaching Analog/Hybrid Simulation and Automatic Process Controls to juniors using a new hybrid computer—the EAI 680 analog operated by SDS Sigma 5 digital computer.
“The reason I got the job at LSU was because, at the time, hybrid computers were very popular because of the space program,” he said. “While working for Dow, I learned about this particular hybrid computer [EAI 680]. LSU was trying to acquire the same computer and wanted me to run it.”
In 1978, Corripio took a sabbatical and worked for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, where he developed the Aspen Process Simulator and also aided in computer control and process design.
“The Department of Energy wanted a program that people writing proposals to them could use to present new sources of energy during the Energy Crisis, such as liquid from coal,” Corripio said. “They gave a lot of money to MIT to develop that project. So, I joined them to work on the project.
“That was a very enjoyable time. We rented a house there [in Newton, Mass.] and enjoyed the new surroundings.”
When he returned to LSU in 1979, Corripio continued teaching undergraduate and graduate courses and was promoted to professor in 1981. From 1984 to 1993, Corripio partnered with IBM to deliver training to students and practicing engineers in the Advanced Control System.
“I was very familiar with the new system since that’s what they used at MIT,” Corripio said.
He also taught several ACS courses in Brazil and Israel between 1985 and 1990, when IBM sent him around the world to promote the ACS program. Also around this time, LSU College of Engineering Dean Ed McLaughlin put Corripio in charge of the Central American Program for Undergraduate Scholarships (CAMPUS), sponsored by the U.S. Information Agency, in which he worked with 10 students from Panama and Nicaragua.
In April 1990, he received the Charles E. Coates Memorial Award from Professor Frank Groves, which Corripio said “was an honor to receive.”
When the IBM program became outdated, as was common with computer software, Corripio taught the senior course, Plant Design, from 1993 until his retirement in 2005.
“It was a great opportunity to pass on to them what I had learned from my professors,” he said.
Though officially retired, Corripio still teaches one senior course five mornings a week at LSU.
“I really like teaching at LSU,” he said. “Especially since this is the only course I teach and I teach it every year. Not only have I acquired the experience teaching it, but I’ve also worked in that industry. I like meeting the students. They never get old.”
As for how long he will continue teaching, it’s anyone’s guess.
“As long as I can do it, I’m going to keep on doing it,” he said.
Contact: Libby Haydel