Dave and Charlene Ernst
Dave and Charlene Ernst have been longtime supporters of aerospace engineering student projects.

Typical Alumni Couple, Remarkable Generosity

Dave Ernst (BS ASE 1963) and his wife Charlene seem a pretty typical aerospace engineering alumni couple: Dave's childhood fascination with aviation led him to UT and then on to a lifetime career at Lockheed Martin (including the many years when it was General Dynamics). He spent over two decades doing stress analysis for the F-16 and survived two rounds of massive layoffs in his many years with the company. Since 1999, the couple has enjoyed his retirement in their home near Weatherford, Texas.

Then again, the Ernst's are not so typical. Despite their comfortable but modest living over the past several decades, they have donated what small funds they could here and there to the aerospace engineering department at UT for so many consecutive years that they've lost count. In addition to their decades of contributions to Friends of Alec, they recently included the department in their estate plans.

"Dave had a good career and modest and comfortable lifestyle because of his education," Charlene said. "It's just really important to give something back since it helped him."

Dave's path to UT started when he began dreaming of becoming an F-86 pilot while growing up in a small upstate New York town during the Korean War. When he discovered his eyesight was too poor to become a fighter pilot, he decided on the next best thing: designing and building the planes. That required an aeronautical degree, and only five schools in the country offered one.

"Going off to MIT or Caltech was a very expensive proposition," Dave said. "I found A&M at the time was an all-male school in the middle of nowhere, and I had no car. With Texas being co-ed, having a good reputation and being in Austin, that made the decision pretty easy."

Dave had never set foot in the Lone Star state until he stepped off the Missouri Pacific train for his freshman year in 1956, when he paid $50 for a semester's out of state tuition and $90 a semester for his Roberts Hall dorm room. By the time he graduated seven years later - including some time off to rebuild finances - the department's name had become Aerospace Engineering, and he was hired at General Dynamics in Fort Worth to begin learning the ropes of stress analysis.

"I didn't have any way to compare the education I was getting with another school at the time," Dave said, but he soon discovered he was better prepared to learn and do his job than most of the guys coming from even the big name colleges. He began as a rookie engineer stress analyst on the F-111 plane, a two-seat fighter-bomber with variable sweep wings that allowed for supersonic speeds as well as long-distance travel with heavy loads.

"The courses I had were much more in-depth, detailed and hands-on than what most of the guys that came to work at the same time as me had been exposed to," he said. "As I worked my way up and started having people working for me, I realized the people coming out of the UT aerospace department were much better prepared than almost anywhere else in the country."

Dave's colleagues made similar observations, and his repeatedly good performance reviews bore out how well his education had prepared him over his peers. Dave worked on the F-16 after GD won the contract, and by the time he retired, he was the senior lead stress analyst over the plane's entire airframe structure.

These days, the couple does community volunteer work, enjoys photography and the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra as well as attending the annual Alumni Colleges and learning about the exciting projects going on at the University.

"It's heart-warming to know that there are such interesting things happening in the Cockrell School that could benefit from our support," Charlene said. "UT offers a quality education, and we want to see that continue for others in the next generations."

Since they don't have children, it felt natural to include the department in their will. The Ernst's have never been able to give large amounts of money but recognized early in Dave's career that the small amounts they could offer add up over time.

"We see how little the state gives to higher education these days, so it's important for the alumni and friends of colleges to contribute what they can," Charlene said. "They've got to have everybody's help." 

For more information on including Aerospace Engineering in your estate plans or for other gift planning options, please contact Bliss Angerman at 512-232-7085 or bliss.angerman@austin.utexas.edu.