March 12, 2011 10:18:00 PM
Birney Imes - [email protected]
If you frequented the McDonald''s on Highway 45 as I did with our kids in the mid-80s, chances are you would have seen there a tall, stooped man with a spectacularly wrinkled shirt and a twisted necktie drinking coffee. Had you seized the obvious stereotype and assumed him a college professor or an engineer, you would have been correct.
The man was Ralph Moellenhoff, and he was a structural engineer. I never knew Ralph; we spoke, sometimes exchanged pleasantries. But there was an air about this roughhewn man, an uncommon kindness, a gentleness
Last week I got news of Ralph''s death from his daughter in Texas, who now is a chemical engineer, but in the mid-80s was an attendant at the 45 McDonald''s.
"He was there for the free coffee," explained Meg Reese.
As a father of a daughter myself, I expect the free coffee wasn''t the only thing that drew Ralph to the Golden Arches.
"We hung out together," Meg said about her father.
Turns out my superficial observations were accurate. Ralph Moellenhoff was not only a brilliant man, but he was beloved by his children and coworkers.
Meg is the oldest of Ralph''s five children. He was a single parent. According to her, you could engage Ralph on any subject and he would know something about it, from Star Trek to Shakespeare.
"He would quote Shakespeare at the dinner table. We would have these intellectual discussions. Sometimes he would get going and we would have to say, ''Tone it down, Dad.''"
When Meg attended graduate school at Texas A&M, Dad came to visit. Her roommate was from Hong Kong, and naturally, she and Ralph delved into Chinese history.
"She told me later that my dad knew more about Chinese history than any American she''d ever met," said Reese.
Meg said her father enjoyed reading and crossword puzzles "until they got too easy. Then he started doing the Sudoku ... in ink."
Gill Harris hired Ralph to work for Ceco in the late 70s; he laughs with affection at the mention of the man.
"Ralph was no slave to fashion," Gill said before launching into the famous Wheel of Fortune story.
Somehow Ralph got chosen as a contestant for the popular game show. By all accounts the engineer acquitted himself well winning $50,000 in prizes, including a shopping spree on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, CA.
"That''s about the most ironic thing I can imagine," said Harris.
After Moellenhoff''s funeral in early February, Harris asked a son if the suit his father was buried in came from that Wheel of Fortune shopping spree.
The son told Harris his dad took the trip to California, but wasn''t able to do much with the shopping spree; he was too tall (6''8" or 6''10" depending on who you ask) and couldn''t find anything that fit.
The suit Moellenhoff was buried in, the son told Harris, was the same one he wore on the show.
From the mid-80s until just before his death, Moellenhoff worked in Starkville at Gulf States Manufacturing.
Irving Pylate is the company''s chief engineer.
"What a great guy," Pylate said, first thing out of his mouth at the mention of Moellenhoff.
Pylate then went on to say how kind, sharing, and humorous Ralph was.
"He was an extremely good engineer," said Pylate. "He could do math in his head that most people would need a calculator.
"He was extremely intelligent," added Pylate, "but he was always ready to entertain a better idea."
When the going was tough, Moellenhoff would come in early and worked late, Pylate said.
When he died, Pylate e-mailed the news to those who had worked with Ralph.
"Within two minutes I started getting e-mails from Georgia, Florida, from every district manager. I got 25 to 30 e-mails."
Pylate filed the e-mails. One of them he remembered: "What we need, someone wrote, are more Ralph Moellenhoffs in this world."
Oh, yea, there''s one more thing about Ralph, probably something only his children knew.
"He used to take us to play putt-putt golf," Meg remembers. "He always sunk that putt on the last hole, the one where if you made a hole-in-one, you won a free game.
"He was a great dad," she said.
Birney Imes is the publisher of The Commercial Dispatch. E-mail him at [email protected]
Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.