In another world, Astronautics Corporation of America could easily have ended up far away from its current Wisconsin headquarters.
[caption id="attachment_367593" align="alignright" width="334"] Nate Zelazo[/caption]
The company’s co-founder Nate Zelazo had purchased land on the East Coast and was also drawing interest on the West Coast when he was preparing to start the business in the late 1950s. It was Zelazo’s professors at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who implored him to keep his business, and its technology, in Wisconsin.
Zelazo and his sister, Norma Paige, ultimately did start their company here and their loyalty to the state was rewarded with the loyalty of long-term employees, many of whom were young engineers who followed Zelazo from the John Oster Manufacturing Co. in Racine.
“They just had so much innate confidence in Nate,” said Mary Loomis, Astronautics senior communications manager, noting many of those employees worked from the company’s founding in their 20s through to their retirement.
Zelazo was president of Astronautics from 1959 through 1984. He then transitioned to be the company’s chief executive officer, a position he held until retiring in 2000 and becoming chairman emeritus. He remained on the company’s board and returned as CEO of its Kearfott subsidiary for three years starting in 2004.
He remained involved in the business through 2016, continuing to visit the company’s headquarters on North Teutonia Avenue.
Zelazo died Nov. 22 in Milwaukee at the age of 100.
A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Wednesday at Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun, 2020 W. Brown Deer Road in River Hills. Memorial gifts in Zelazo’s memory can be made to the Milwaukee School of Engineering and Marquette University School of Engineering.
Loomis said Zelazo will be remembered as an aerospace pioneer and risk taker who thrived on pushing the boundaries of innovation. She said he was fond of saying he didn’t work for the bottom line but instead focused on developing state-of-the-art products.
“He felt that if you did that, you would be successful and the rest would follow,” Loomis said.
Zelazo emigrated from Poland to New York in 1928. His father was already working in the country and Zelazo arrived at the age of 10 with his mother and sister Norma. He didn’t speak any English when he arrived, but teachers noticed his intelligence and convinced him to attend Suyvesant High School in New York City.
The prestigious school had a scientific focus and Zelazo would go on to earn a Bachelor of Science in engineering from City College of New York. He was starting work on a master’s degree at Columbia University when World War II broke out. Zelazo went to work for the U.S. Navy developing radar systems. He continued working on engineering and electronics projects for the Navy and the Department of Defense after the war.
In the early 1950s, Zelazo worked as a vice president at Ketay Instrument Corp. before joining the John Oster Manufacturing Co. in Racine to lead research and development in its avionics division.
In the late 1950s, he branched out on his own, starting Astronautics with his sister and finishing work on his master’s at UW-Madison.
Astronautics got its start on a U.S. Air Force project that focused on optimizing and conserving fuel use for manned space vehicles. The company continued work on military projects in the 1960s, developing electromechanical primary flight instruments for aircraft.
Zelazo and Astronautics eventually broke into the commercial flight industry with the development of electronic flight bags for Boeing.
“Once Nate accomplished one thing he was always looking for the next thing,” Loomis said.
She said that philosophy continues to serve the company well as it now works to develop secure air-ground communications systems. Electronic flight bags also remain an important product and are standard fit on all Boeing production 787 Dreamliners.
In addition to his focus on innovation, Loomis said Zelazo was known as a regular on the Astronautics manufacturing floor. She said he took pride in bringing customers through to show off the company’s capabilities, but also was known to sit down next to technicians and ask them about their work.
Zelazo was also an avid sailor and regularly took customers out on Lake Michigan.
He also served on the Greater Milwaukee Committee, the MMAC board and the MSOE Board of Regents and donated the building for Helene Zelazo Center for the Performing Arts to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in honor of his late wife.