The first impression one is likely to draw of Morton Collins Jr., EG '58, is that he's a down-to-Earth kind of guy, a straight shooter, friendly and self-effacing. After a short conversation, it's clear that his head's in the clouds--literally and figuratively.
He's a visionary at recognizing and orchestrating those points where science, finance and infrastructure converge. He's as comfortable with bits, bandwidth and biotech as he is at the controls of the Chinese-red Waco biplane he hangars nearby his Princeton, N.J., home or piloting his Cessna Citation jet that travels "faster than stink."
Mort, as he likes to be called, traces his lifelong passion for flying back to the 1940s in Linwood, N.J., just across the bay causeway from Atlantic City. Back then, during visits to his aunt's house, his immigrant father would walk with him to nearby Bader Field, and they would watch military pilots practice takeoffs, bombing runs and landings.
His father, a native of Konigsberg, East Prussia, met and married his German-born mother in Atlantic City. When Mort, the Collins' only child, was 2, his mother died from a streptococcal infection. From then on, his father lived during the week with a sister in Atlantic City, working as a billing clerk at a natural gas company. In the evenings and on the weekends, he worked as a bayman, harvesting shellfish from Scull's and Lake's bays.
Living in Linwood with his Aunt Gladys and Uncle Russell Hay, Collins says he and his father spent large periods of time together--from Friday evenings until Sunday--either on the bays, on nature walks or at movie matinees.
Linwood in the '40s and '50s was a blue-collar town where Collins attended Belhaven Grammar School. While in the third grade, Collins overheard his teacher and aunt discussing his exceptional academic abilities. These abilities, along with his "can-do" attitude, were to prove essential as fate took another cruel turn. Two months shy of his 12th birthday, Collins' father was injured while moving a boat and died during related surgery.
"I was devastated by the loss of my father," Collins says, "but, what choice did I have but to deal with it." He dealt with it by maturing quickly. Seven months later, his aunt with whom he lived died from cancer, and with no relatives capable or willing to care for him, Collins became a ward of the state.
Placed in a Linwood boarding house, he lived on his father's Social Security benefits. Adaptable and self-reliant, the youngster continued to attend school while caddying at the Linwood Country Club and working at Fischer's Flowers. When he wasn't in school or working, he was dreaming of clouds, building airplane models or flying wire-controlled gas engine airplanes.
At school, a new figure entered his life--Kenneth Frisbie, AS '30, principal at Belhaven.
"He would ask me if I had time after school to stop by his office," Collins recalls. During these meetings, Frisbie would encourage the sixth grader to attend college--an alien concept to the son of an immigrant clerk. With Frisbie's guidance, Collins entered Pleasantville High School well prepared for its college preparatory program. In the summer, he used his two-horsepower sneakbox to work the bay, clamming and netting softshell crabs, earning enough to buy a broken-down '47 Ford Club Coupe--which he fixed up even without the proper tools.
One day, Frisbie drove Collins to his future alma mater, the University of Delaware, for a placement interview in the College of Engineering. Collins was accepted, but had little money. Frisbie told him, "When you get to the point where they ask for money, tell them you don't have any." The University found him a job in the dining hall to help pay for his room and board and "floated" him a loan.
Collins did well his freshman year and pledged Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity the second semester. Between his freshman and sophomore years, he organized his buddies to form a cooperative to sell the shellfish they harvested. At the end of the summer, he had enough money to pay off the tuition he owed and finance half of the upcoming year.
As a sophomore, Collins asked Walter Coppock, EG '28, a vice president of Sun Oil and fraternity alumnus, if he could get him a job at the refinery; he was told the company only hired students after their junior years. Coppock later called with a job at the Sinclair Refinery in Marcus Hook, Pa.
The job offered Collins an excellent income and valuable experience. He moved into the Chester, Pa., YMCA and worked in quality control at Sinclair, where he collected, labeled, distilled and analyzed gas and liquid samples.
At summer's end, Collins had enough money to pay off the expenses of his entire upcoming junior year. "I learned at that job what was important in refineries and how they functioned," he says. This understanding would soon springboard his career.
Heavily recruited by chemical engineering colleges, Collins chose Princeton University for graduate studies. He became a junior faculty member while in the process of receiving his Ph.D., which was awarded in 1963. During this time, Princeton had computerized, and when a professor suggested that Collins use the computer to solve a difficult non-linear equation, Collins quickly recognized the potential of computer science.
"I sort of pioneered an early form of using the computer to simulate processes rather than build a large pilot plant and have junior engineers 'crawl all over it' to determine the process fundamentals needed to design a commercial plant," Collins says. He developed ways to simulate refining systems using mathematical models to approximate unknown parameters and determine which were important. He then superimposed the financial aspects on the design to optimize the return.
Collins then worked on weapon systems, calculated statistics for opinion polls and, after building a successful company, sold it at a substantial profit. This enabled him to pursue other interests, namely flying lessons, which he took as an "intellectual experience." For him, the thrust, lift, gravity and drag forces are practical applications of static physics in the "Ultimate Free Body System." Soon, he formed a company for the sole purpose of purchasing a plane. He recruited the head of RCA labs, the chief of surgery at a local hospital, two engineers and a psychologist to buy shares with him in a new Piper Cherokee 180.
In 1968, with a business plan and the guidance of an investment banker, Collins began a corporation that became known as DSV I (Data Science Ventures), one of the first venture groups for early-stage, start-up companies. The plan was to concentrate DSV on the world of electronic data processing. In two years, DSV brought investors a tenfold return on their money.
As Collins's travel demands became more varied and strenuous, his taste in planes became more refined. He moved up to a twin-prop Piper Aztec and several larger Beechcrafts, among others.
After his first marriage ended in divorce in 1968, Collins remarried. Twenty years later, overwhelmed by the loss of his second wife, Eva, he withdrew from his business dealings. Months later, Collins was invited to a matchmaking social, where he met Donna Tartaglia. A two-year courtship led to their marriage in 1992.
Collins has continued to develop successors to DSV I. In each case, he has been able to recognize the most promising combinations of technological growth, finance and infrastructure. He has either identified or created companies that were "ahead of the curve" in fiber optics and biotechnologies. He takes great satisfaction knowing that a company he helped to shape saves lives.
Collins says good luck, hard work, common sense and a good idea are his keys to success. He also says he believes that to be effective, an individual needs to organize and lead. "A good leader knows how to delegate, not abdicate," he says.
Today, Collins has more time for leisurely interests. He and Donna recently took a 30-day, around-the-world excursion, visiting many of the Earth's cultural landmarks. "Now, I'm getting the liberal arts experience I missed earlier in my life," he says. His continued enthusiasm for flight is evident in his home office, where a canopy of 118 aircraft models hovers over his desk.
Holding a warm spot in his heart for the University of Delaware, he says, "Everything that matters from the standpoint of all things cultural and material, I learned there. I still get tears in my eyes when I look down the Mall."
Collins has continued to demonstrate his affection for his alma mater by serving as the fund-raising campaign chair for the renovation of Colburn Laboratory, and today he serves on the Department of Chemical Engineering's Advisory Committee and the College's Campaign Steering Committee.
Collins also acknowledges the deep appreciation he feels for the grammar school principal who recognized his talents and pointed him toward a path to success. Years ago, he mailed a newspaper article to Kenneth Frisbie. The letter was returned with" no forwarding address" stamped on it, and they lost contact. Only recently, he learned Frisbie died in July 1999.
Collins says, "...At the time, what he did for me did not seem so remarkable. It was just one more experience in life for someone with no perspective. I now feel very differently about the whole matter."