To become a believer that every person has unlimited potential, one only has to look at the life of Harold Finch, or listen to the inspirational message on reaching for the stars that he’s delivered in hundreds of motivational speeches to thousands of young students, future engineers and business leaders over the past five decades.
A look at Finch’s career shows remarkable expertise in various professions. He developed a method to keep astronauts safe from the vast temperature swings in outer space and enable humans to land safely on the moon. He served as a U.S. Air Force intelligence officer conducting top-secret studies and analyses of potential enemies, including research on UFOs. He played a key role in launching and managing a community college. He founded two vastly different and wildly successful businesses. He started and funded a foundation that sponsored humanitarian projects in underdeveloped countries. He served as the inspiration – and executive producer – for a film based on his life, starring Fred Thompson.
Finch managed all this while giving thousands of hours of his time – pro bono – to spread a message of setting lofty goals and maximizing potential – with each lecture mixing in a touch of Jayhawk pride.
Finch graduated from the University of Kansas in 1956 with a B.S. in mechanical engineering and an ROTC commission as an Air Force officer. In 1961, he earned a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from The Ohio State University, and received a doctorate in education from KU in 1971.
From 1957-61, Finch served at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. His responsibilities included developing analytical techniques for predicting the weight of foreign aircraft. He worked on Project Blue Book, one of the systematic studies of UFOs conducted by the Air Force.
In 1961, he went to work as an engineer with Kansas City’s Midwest Research Institute MRI. Through his work with MRI, Finch was selected by NASA to be the project director for the Apollo Heating Program. He developed a program that monitored and controlled vehicle temperatures while a lunar craft executed slow rolls around a longitudinal axis. This maneuver was dubbed the Barbecue Roll, which served the same purpose as a backyard rotisserie by distributing heat loads uniformly around the vehicle. It was made famous by Tom Hanks in “Apollo 13.” Finch was the youngest person in MRI’s history to be named a principal.
Because of his reputation as an innovator and achiever, he was recruited in 1967 to help start Johnson County Community College. He served as the school’s first academic dean and chief administrator until 1978.
His entrepreneurial spirit led him to co-found two successful businesses. Padgett-Thompson was a management-training firm that worked to teach engineers and other professionals skills not typically acquired in undergraduate studies.
He later co-founded CottageCare, Inc., which centralized certain operations for business franchisors – allowing them to focus on daily operations and customer satisfaction. Both businesses earned the prestigious Inc. 500 award, which recognizes the nation’s fastest growing private businesses.
Finch eventually sold both businesses and devoted his time to philanthropy and the power of positive thinking. In 1985, he launched the Wellspring Foundation, which sponsored more than 1,200 people worldwide to work on humanitarian projects in impoverished nations during the 11 years it was in existence. He’s given more than 750 seminars around the world promoting the virtues of integrity, honesty, excellence and the pursuit of one’s unlimited potential.
Finch has spoken to thousands of grade school and high school students throughout Kansas, encouraging them to pursue careers in engineering and science.
His lifetime accomplishments inspired a motion picture, Unlimited, which has a fall 2013 release date. Plans include using the film on university campuses to promote honesty, integrity, excellence and the pursuit of impossible dreams.
He lives with his wife, Peggy, in Lee’s Summit, Mo. They have three children and six grandchildren.