For engineer, Penn State was another big ship

February 17, 2015

Editor's note: This story originally appeared in AlumnInsider, the Penn State Alumni Association's monthly member e-newsletter.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The man wearing sneakers, khaki pants and a polo shirt bounces through the doorway and toward the front door. Immediately, his energy and enthusiasm belie his age. He’s displaying the same amount of youthful zest as a college student heading into spring break, except for one thing: He’s 94 years old.

He’s extending his greetings within the confines of his apartment at an assisted living community in State College, and he gives the impression he’s ready to go on a jog, or play pick-up basketball, or engage in any number of other activities that people half his age sometimes can’t muster the energy to participate in.

The man’s name is Nick Landiak. He has quite an impressive background, and he’s eager to share it. Landiak accrued two careers, similar in nature but vastly different in execution; he once was a senior engineering officer for the world’s fastest ocean liner before coming to Penn State and helping to rebuild the University’s internal utility systems in the 1970s and ’80s before retiring in 1986.

He’s been married 68 years to his wife, Marie, and was strongly motivated to come to Penn State since two of his three children were nearing college age. They both graduated from Penn State, and have two grandchildren.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, that all comes later. At the beginning, all Landiak wanted to do was help animals.

Landiak grew up on a farm in New Jersey, saw a veterinarian work on animals and surmised that’d be a pretty cool job. So he attended college for two years before World War II broke out, first going to Louisiana State University and then transferring to Kansas State for the veterinarian program, one of the best in the country at the time, he said. Then the war started, and his plans changed forever.

Landiak graduated from the Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, New York, and sailed both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans throughout the rest of the war. When the fighting ended, he figured it was time for a change.

“I thought, ‘Geez, you don't want to sail when you're married,’ so I started looking around for a job,” Landiak said, “but I couldn't find anything.”

Everything on land involved traveling, so he figured if he was going to travel, he may as well stay on a ship. He was assigned to the SS United States in the early 1950s, acting as first assistant and chief executive engineer. The vessel set world records for speed, beating ships from the other side of the world. The SS United States overtook the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth, behemoths in the sailing world, in the time it took to cross the Atlantic each way; there were two records, going from east-to-west and west-to-east, to account for travel patterns.

Landiak was still a young man, in his late 40s, when the SS United States was decommissioned in 1969. So what to do for someone who had already traveled the globe, set world records and could sit back and collect retirement benefits? Not stand still, that’s for sure.

Landiak had plenty of options, but because two of his three children were younger and would attend college in the near future, he wanted to jettison a traveling type of lifestyle and work at a university, which led him to Penn State.


Nick and Marie, who have been married for nearly 70 years, made friends upon moving to Penn State and enjoyed a robust social circle. Here, they're pictured in front of a large painting of the SS United States at the Merchant Marine Academy, in Kings Point, N.Y. 

IMAGE: Landiak Family

“At that time, Penn State had a job open for utilities operation, so I applied for that; shortly after I applied, I got the job and I figured, ‘This is great,’” Landiak said. “It’s a nice institution and the job is just another ship. The systems are the same, except they're spread all over the place.”

What he didn’t know was how many necessary upgrades were awaiting him. Campus grew mightily in the 1960s and ’70s, with Penn State having just one electrical source — meaning if power went out in one area, it impacted the entire campus — and no bag house, causing smoke to oftentimes cover campus buildings, including Old Main. Landiak helped construct plans for a bag house, which removes particulates from the exhaust gasses from the boilers. Additionally, with the addition of East Halls, internal piping needing to be routed and extended further across campus.

“The growth of the campus overtook the existing systems, and without a lot of major improvements, the new buildings could not be satisfied, so it took a lot of planning and projections to put in the systems,” Landiak said. “As the new thoughts of a new building came to be, we were in the picture at the discussions of a new building going in, to see what we had to do, as far as utilities are concerned. That was fun.”

Marie and Nick made friends and enjoyed a robust social circle, and Nick’s busy schedule ensured there was always something for him to do or somebody to meet. He’d routinely come home late at night, briefcase and papers in tow, prompting Marie to look at him and ask, “I thought you had an eight-hour-a-day job? What do you have to work all night for?” Nick then replied, “Because it's necessary.”

He explained the pattern thus: “Every night: emergency, emergency, emergency. If it wasn't steam, it was electricity or it was water; it was anything to do with utilities.”

Another utility systems visionary at Penn State hired Landiak: Lloyd Niemann.

Niemann developed the early computer control systems at the University, which evolved into the Central Control System (CCS). Now, CCS manages the remote operation of buildings, said Paul Ruskin, ’69, ’71g, who retired from Penn State last year after 38 years of service to the University.

Ruskin added: “Lloyd Niemann was one of the prime movers for energy conservation in Penn State facilities in the late ’70s.”

Niemann was also previously the manager of the University’s Utility Systems Engineering team. Eventually, he was assigned to lead a new development group and brought Landiak along. They wrote proposals for system upgrades and new equipment, with Landiak saying the two had a big effect on the improvement program, studying the systems and making recommendations.

“Being a marine engineer is a multi-discipline thing, you learn steam engineering, diesel engineering, electrical, air conditioning and refrigeration, piping and all that stuff,” Landiak said. “So you have experience with all these systems, and that's where my expertise played well in what I was doing at the University.

“I had a good time. I really like that kind of work: doing inspections, giving something a lot of thought, giving recommendations, reading studies, calling people and finding out what costs would be for certain systems.”

Added Mark, ’80, his son: “He still worked a ton of hours, he had a big job to do. My dad is the type of guy who's a pretty focused individual, so he'd go right into it.”


Pictured are Nick and Marie and their three children. From left to right: Marilyn, Mark, Marie, Nick and Karen. 

IMAGE: Landiak Family

One particularly big project Landiak worked on was creating a master plan for Penn State. He helped put this together in the late 1970s, projecting the needs of the University for 2000 and beyond. For the project, Niemann oversaw a small group that included Landiak, who helped outline how the systems would need to be modified and brought up to code so they could handle the continual expansion of Penn State.

The projects Landiak helped develop were widely used. About a decade ago, he visited campus and wanted to give it a look. He said he was looking for a pristine document, perhaps set aside for safekeeping. Instead, he found a rolled up, raggedy set of papers. When he asked why it was in such bad shape, he was told because the Office of Physical Plant still uses it all the time. That made him laugh.

Further highlighting this point: Landiak and Niemann attended a conference at Penn State five years ago, with Paul Moser saying the two were relevant to the presentations; Moser is the superintendent of steam services at OPP and invited them back so everyone could hear their historical perspective. He also extended the invite out of respect, Moser explained, for what they did in the past, especially because their work pertains to what Moser and others were (and are) doing at Penn State.

“It was fun to have those guys there, they participated,” Moser said. “They sat in on the meetings, listened to the discussions, heard what the challenges and successes were and offered some of that ‘grandfatherly’ advice. Today, we’re building off of the systems they built in the 1960s and ’70s. They appreciated that people are building off of that and still using it.”

Moser didn’t know who Landiak was the first time he saw him milling about in the OPP reception area years after he retired, but when he learned Landiak was a former department leader, it was fun getting to know him as he gave Landiak an informal tour around the office. Even having just met him, Moser could tell that Landiak “has a lot of energy for life.”

One additional point Moser made regarding the systems: the boilers Landiak and Niemann helped to modify and install were only just recently removed. Four were built prior to the 1960s and two more added in 1972, and they stayed put (and worked) until 2010. No additional upgrades were needed, and Penn State was able to do this because of the thinking of a guy like Landiak, Moser said.

It’s meaningful for Landiak that the campus vision he helped construct 40 years ago is still very relevant for the University. For a guy who’s spent his entire life making systems efficient and maximizing capacity, it’s always been about ensuring what he leaves behind is well built, even his legacy.

“Our master plan was a good one,” Landiak said. “We started getting a few of those projects in the stream before I left; and after I left, then they started coming on. I was very satisfied that most of the projects that we had on this master plan got done, and the University is in great shape with its utilities. They take care of the load.”

  • Landiak

    Landiak was assigned to the SS United States in the early 1950s, acting as first assistant and chief executive engineer. The vessel set world records for speed, beating ships from the other side of the world. The SS United States overtook the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth, behemoths in the sailing world.

    IMAGE: Landiak Family

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Last Updated February 17, 2015