Remembering Fred

Author: Paul Down

By Paul Down, Industrial Design Faculty Member of Notre Dame

Frederick S. Beckman quietly passed from this life on Sunday, October 31, 2010. Like a few others before him, Fred devoted most of his 93 years to Notre Dame, beginning as an Art Department instructor in 1946, shortly after WWII and officially retiring in the mid-1990s. Teaching part-time well past his 80th birthday, Fred instructed his last undergraduate industrial design course while filling in for a colleague who was on sabbatical in the fall of 2001.

For the current generation of students and faculty life marches on. We’re all busy. However, if we’re ever inclined to ponder our own destinies, now might be a good time to pause, considering the impact that one devoted life can make as a university professor.    

Fred, a young faculty member in the mid-1950s, found opportunity to establish a legacy that continues to quietly echo even today. Virgil Exner Jr., one of Professor Beckman’s students in the 1950s, was the son of Virgil Exner Sr., Chrysler Corporation’s then Vice President of Styling and the innovator of “Forward Look” styling that lifted Chrysler’s impressive automotive line-up to a status that challenged General Motors and Ford for over a decade. Upon meeting young Virgil’s father, Professor Beckman quickly established a friendship leading to the sharing of a mutually beneficial vision. It seemed that Exner Sr., Chrysler’s first ever automotive stylist and division VP, was concerned that the stream of available young designers joining the auto-maker’s ranks were primarily coming from art and design schools that offered a solid foundation in art and design proficiencies, yet lacked the intellectual balance that was available from a broader university experience. Exner’s contention was that a top design program within a place like Notre Dame could prepare designers who were much more than just great automotive stylists. Such ND designers would also be prepared with a solid multidisciplinary foundation that included the sciences and humanities. Such a foundation would enable a next generation of designers to exert their knowledge and greater authority across upper management disciplines, therefore giving Notre Dame’s future design graduates the advantage to excel with a broader understanding of purpose and the ability to communicate with tools that extended their reach beyond clay and paint. Such a strategy would place young collaborative designers into higher administrative positions within the corporation, enabling design to leverage greater steering control when facing powerfully willful managers from Chrysler’s engineer and marketing sectors. (Exner Sr. himself had previously attended Notre Dame and was fully aware of the strategic advantage that a liberal arts education had given him in his unique assent to the status of Chrysler’s VP of Design.)  

Around 1955, the ensuing relationship between Beckman and Exner built on their collective vision that a new concentrated styling program should give next generation ND alums the opportunity for a design education that balanced with ND’s well-established academic reputation. Ensuing summers found Professor Beckman interning in virtually each of Chrysler’s Detroit-based product development studios. During school semesters, scores of Chrysler’s professional designers traveled to South Bend, working with Fred and his students at perfecting a transportation design program that would compete with the best in the nation. Soon, the unused loft above O’Shaughnessy Hall was converted to become ND’s elegant new Design Center, fully equipped with AC, provided courtesy of the Chrysler Corporation. (Fred later recited the corporate responses to year-end student presentations that often resulted in 100% of his class being immediately hired by Chrysler’s Styling Group.) The influence of seeds planted by Fred Beckman and Virgil Exner grew through the late 1960s as Ford also noticed and employed Domers from this important academic/design resource.

In the early 1970s, Professor Beckman recognized the importance of diversifying into the broader field of industrial design. NDs design focus shifted from opening career opportunities in the automotive industry to placing students in positions designing consumer products ranging from toys, games and cars to aircraft interiors. Recognition and subsequent accreditation from the Industrial Designers Society of America added to NDID’s visibility in national magazine coverage of student projects, numerous industry sponsorships, and national awards. These were powerful evidence of the validity in Fred’s leadership and the vision that he shared and aggressively implemented with Virgil Exner.

In the early 1980s, Fred, serving as Chair to the Department of Art, Art History and Design, recognized the art department’s degraded facility in the Old Field House and promptly set his sights on renovating a vacated Science Building that was allegedly slated for demolition. Again, Professor Beckman’s vision and perseverance served and energized subsequent generations of students and faculty. Reborn and remodeled in 1982-1983, Edna and Leo Riley Hall of Art and Design soon also became home to a newly established graphic design program for which Fred made the first faculty hire. Today, Riley Hall remains home base to AAHD and the only Catholic industrial design program.

Also continuing his long professional design consulting activities in tandem with his academic career, Fred continued designing. His most recent ventures as practitioner/designer included co-designing multiple lines of office marking products for Stewart Superior, a company formerly co-owned by Congressman Joe Donnelly. This activity resulted in Fred being recognized as co-inventor, holding product patents on design of these devices well beyond his 70th birthday. Through his quiet and persistent manner Fred Beckman found his mission and made a difference.

Today and tomorrow please join me in remembering the good that was born from his vision and for this seedling program that has molded the designs of countless tools, toys, and vehicles from the hands of people that design at the University of Notre Dame.                 Thanks, Fred

Since Fred Beckman’s arrival on campus, as a student in the 1930s and as a young professor in the 1940s, a positive and relevant difference has always been felt at Notre Dame. That visionary difference has taught, guided, enabled, and reveled in student success stories spanning nearly sixty years. This legacy matters and should be celebrated.

I know because I’m one of Fred’s students.

I just thought you should know.

Still looking forward,


Paul Down, FIDSA
Industrial Design Program Coordinator
University of Notre Dame

A Memorial Mass will be held Thursday, November 4th at 11:00 a.m., at the
chapel in Ryan Hall, followed by a luncheon at the Morris Inn.
In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to:

            The Frederick Beckman Memorial Fund
            c/o Carol Hennion
            Office of Development
            1100 Grace Hall
            Notre Dame, IN 46556

Our thoughts and prayers are with the Beckman Family.