Gert Aron has been building things most of his life — first out of necessity, then professionally and after retirement, on a volunteer basis.
The 88-year-old Boalsburg resident has been involved in building ramps and low-rise steps for the elderly and handicapped since he retired from Penn State as a professor of civil engineering in the early 1990s. The work provided a change of pace from his professional career, a way to help others and a way to stay busy after retirement, he said.
“Once you retire, there are some people that continue as a consultant in their field. But I thought, well, after 24 years on the faculty and 10 years before that as an engineer here or there, it was time for something else,” Aron said. “Volunteering was very appealing.”
Aron’s first experience building things came far from Centre County and Aron’s native Germany. His family was Jewish, and by the late ’30s, Aron’s father, an attorney, knew his family had to flee Nazi Germany. It was a difficult task. The tough economic times of the Great Depression forced many countries to close borders or employ quota systems, restricting the flow of immigrants.
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One country that did neither was Ecuador. The government there allowed anyone in the country if they promised to start an industry or go into the nation’s virgin forest and help clear the frontier. Aron’s father decided on the latter. The family moved there in 1939, when Aron was 12, and started a cattle farm. Aron helped build a homestead and other buildings.
“You are on your own and you have to build anything if it’s needed,” he said. “I got fascinated with building things.”
He eventually got a correspondence degree in engineering in Ecuador. His family spent nine years on the farm before moving to Quito, Ecuador’s capital, where he worked some small engineering jobs and assisted a company upgrading Quito’s water system. It was not until 1953 that Aron came to the United States, earning engineering degrees from the University of Iowa and working in engineering firms before getting a doctorate and coming to Penn State as a professor of civil engineering in 1969.
He had already done some volunteer work before his retirement in 1991. His wife, Jean, has been very active in the local hiking community for years and Aron assisted on building footbridges on some trails.
After retirement, he first worked with Habitat for Humanity building homes, but decided he was getting too old to be climbing rafters. He decided on doing smaller jobs, like building ramps, and that eventually expanded to include low-rise exterior steps after an experience at his own home.
The house had exterior concrete steps of 7 and 10 inches and were getting harder to get up and down. Aron replaced them with a wooden set featuring three 5 1/2 inch steps, and got the idea for the low-rise stairs.
“This is something that people don’t think about,” he said. “They always ask for ramps, but in many cases, it’s more convenient to have staircases with 4-inch steps. Just about anybody who can walk at all can maneuver them.”
He and his crew have done about 200 projects over the 20-year span. He’s usually referred jobs from the Centre County Office of Aging. The people who help him build the projects are also retirement age, pulled mostly from a tennis group Aron played in, and between the ages of 60 and 70. A few, like Aron, are in their 80s.
Of all the projects he’s done, Aron said there was one in Houserville that he is especially proud of. Jean implied that he feels that way about all of them.
“He’s always in love with the last one,” she said.
This year alone, Aron and his crew have completed about 10 projects. While he is not able to do all of the physical work he did when he started building the ramps, he still goes out and does the initial measurements and design, gets the building materials and does work at his workbench, he said.
Helping others get around has done a lot to help him stay active after retirement.
“It’s very important to have something to do,” Aron said.