Michigan Man Jack Underwood is an engineer through and through
Jack Underwood always wanted to earn a degree in engineering, but life kept getting in the way.
“I had a real passion for chemistry, so originally I thought I’d get a degree in chemical engineering,” Underwood said. “But I took a couple of those classes at Eastern Michigan University, and I realized rather quickly that I didn’t want to do that.”
Underwood instead earned a bachelor’s in computer technology from EMU in 1986, while he was a member of U-M’s ROTC. He served in the U.S. Air Force for five years as a B-52 pilot before he took a job at Michigan Medicine as a network engineer.
“The guy who hired me told me that if I could fly a B-52, I could probably learn how to do computer networking,” Underwood said.
For decades, Underwood prioritized raising his family and focusing on his career. He left U-M to work in industry for about ten years, first as a systems engineer at Anixter, Inc. – which distributes communications, electrical wire, and cable products – and then as an Area Manager of Field Engineering Operations at AT&T. He returned to Michigan Medicine in 2006, where he is currently the Network & Communication Support Services Manager.
While at Michigan Medicine, Underwood led the IT staff during the design and construction of its $52 million data center, which broke ground in 2008.
“My primary role was to meet with the facilities engineers, including electrical engineers, as the customer representative,” Underwood said. “I would explain our needs and requirements for the data center, and then they would work with their various contractors and engineering firms to design the facility.”
Underwood then served as the manager of the data center from 2009 to 2017.
Despite all his success, Underwood never let go of his original dream of obtaining an engineering degree. His father was an electrical engineer, so he’d learn how to solder and tinker with electronic circuits as a child. His father taught him how to make an electromagnet by wrapping wire around a bolt and running a voltage through it, and he built an intercom system out of old telephone wires so Underwood and his friend next door could talk without leaving their houses. His father also showed him how to build a crystal radio.
“That got me really passionate about radio, and that’s why I focused on electromagnetics,” Underwood said. “I really wanted to understand how it all works.”
While Underwood considered different university engineering programs, U-M was always his ultimate dream. His mother was a registered nurse at U-M’s University Hospital in the early 1960s, and she inspired his original interest in chemistry. His great-grandfather, Arthur A. Limpert, was a model ship builder for the Department of Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering during the 1930’s and 1940’s.
“There’s a big mural on the wall in West Hall, and my great-grandfather is pictured in the middle of it with one of his model boats,” Underwood said.
Some advisors attempted to discourage Underwood from pursuing U-M, but he ignored them. He took several required preliminary courses from Washtenaw Community College, and in 2015, he was accepted into U-M Engineering.
Once in ECE, Underwood focused on electromagnetics, but he also became fascinated by the courses offered in microelectromechanical systems (MEMS).
“To be able to design something that is so tiny, literally nanometers in size, and it actually works, is amazing,” Underwood said. “The multidisciplinary nature of it is also fascinating. Like I designed a machine that could interface with fiber optic cables for communications, which actually applies to the field I work in. So the applications are really interesting.”
In addition to his decades-long career at Michigan Medicine, Underwood was born at the U-M hospital, and his high school graduation was held at the Crisler Center. But he had never been to the Big House – until April 29, 2023, for Commencement.
“It was overwhelming,” Underwood said. “Everyone was really enjoying the opportunity even when it started to rain.”
There, Underwood officially received his BSE in Electrical Engineering from the University of Michigan. He didn’t know the students he sat next to during the ceremony, but it didn’t matter. They offered to take photos of him and cheered for him to pose in celebration. He greeted the ROTC cadets and congratulated them for making second lieutenant. And as the university procession filed up the aisle, President Santa Ono paused and shook Underwood’s hand.
“That was so special to me,” Underwood said. “It felt like a true culmination of everything I’d worked toward for decades. Now, I’m ready to put this degree to good use.”