A first-generation college graduate who has helped more than 70 Washington State University students take their own academic journey, and a history-sharing volunteer still going strong at age 86, Mel Hamre is the epitome of a “Forever Coug.”
“I’ve always been a self-starter,” says Hamre, a 1954 graduate of the then-Washington State College, and a man who has always aspired to leave the world a better place because he’s lived in it.
The kid behind the projector
Growing up in the Puyallup suburb of Edgewood, Mel grew up on the family farm.
“We all were poor, but nobody told us,” he said. “We had a work ethic, and we lived well because we grew our own food.”
In schools, educational films were becoming popular, and “they changed my life,” Mel said.
Teachers rarely operated the projector—that was the job of students like Mel, who learned to run the films, becoming a projectionist. From there, he advanced to scheduling showings, maintaining equipment, and training other students. By his junior year, Mel became student audio-visual coordinator for the Fife school system.
Thanks to his work ethic and good record, Mel received a scholarship from the Sears-Roebuck Foundation. When he arrived at Washington State College in 1950, Mel had a marketable skill, useful for paying the $200-per-semester room-and-board and $87.50 in tuition and fees.
He landed a student job, rising to become chief projectionist and assistant chief technician, shipping films from the audio-visual center’s film library, and scheduling movies for entertainment in Todd Hall.
“I advanced to a buck an hour,” he said—more than the typical student wage in the ’50s.
Supporting the student experience
After graduation, Mel took a job teaching 8th grade back home at Edgemont School, but “my number was up,” and he was shortly drafted and sent to a U.S. Army combat engineer battalion in Germany. Once out of the Army, however, Mel had a decision to make.
“Things were happening fast in the world of science,” he said. “I decided my calling was to get on with my education.”
Earning advanced degrees at Purdue University, Mel went on to the University of Minnesota, spending his professional career in Extension, teaching, and research in poultry science.
Washington state, however, was always his true home. And, knowing firsthand the needs of students from working families, Mel began funding scholarships in CAHNRS and the WSU College of Education more than 20 years ago.
“I’d been there and done that,” Mel said. “I talk to young people, and I know
how hard it is: A $1,000 scholarship means 100 hours less they have to work. That lets them live the college experience—belong to clubs, work out at the Rec Center, go to the games. Not just pound the books!”