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Charles Poekel in 2010 under the lights at Florida Field. Photo/Shannon Kalahar

Wednesday November 14, 2012When UF Said 'Let There Be Lights' at Florida Field, Poekel Devised Plan

Charles Poekel in 2010 under the lights at Florida Field. Photo/Shannon Kalahar

Scott Carter
By SCOTT CARTER Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. On Page 84 of his master's thesis is where one story ended and another one began for Charles Axel Poekel.

The page is dated Aug. 27, 1938. Poekel's thesis titled "Design of Flood-Lighting for Football Stadia" was approved that day, signed off by four members of UF's College of Engineering, including Dean Joseph Weil.

Almost a year earlier in September 1937 Weil received a letter from Florida assistant athletic director Percy Beard, who was exploring the possibility of adding lights to Florida Field. The Florida football team needed a lighted field to escape the heat and to be able to practice at night, and Beard asked if Weil and his staff could "prepare an estimate of the cost of this installation."

Poekel, an electrical engineering graduate student at the time, had recently completed his undergraduate degree at UF and was in search of his thesis topic.

A light went off. Poekel went to work.


Poekel's thesis ended up as the plan UF used to install the lights that first lit up Florida Field, which was built in 1930 and expanded many times over the years. The first night game came several years later in September 1950 when the Gators hosted The Citadel.

By that time Poekel was settled for more than a decade in New Jersey, where for the next seven decades he would add numerous accomplishments to his life's story. His contribution to UF's football history received recognition in early 2010 when he returned to Gainesville for the first time in more than 70 years to be honored as the UF College of Engineering's Alumnus of the Year.

The reunion was special for those involved. When Cammy Abernathy, UF's current dean of the College of Engineering, asked Poekel why it had been so long since he had been back to UF, he responded, "I've been busy."

Poekel was thrilled to be recognized by his alma mater and received a special surprise when school officials took him to Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, took him to the 50-yard line, and flipped on the lights in his honor.

"I bet Thomas Edison wouldn't get this kind of treatment,'' Poekel told The Florida Engineer.

Photo: Poekel as a UF student in the 1930s and a diagram in his master's thesis.

Poekel was scheduled to return to campus earlier this month during the weekend of the Florida-Missouri football game. The College of Engineering planned to unveil a plaque at Ustler Hall the building that used to be old Florida Gym and where Poekel met Mary Alice Webster, his late wife of 63 years in Poekel's honor.

He planned to attend the football game, meet the first two recipients of a scholarship named in his honor, and celebrate his 97th birthday.

"We were really looking forward to it,'' said Charles Poekel Jr., his son and a New York City attorney. "One of the greatest things in his 90s was the reconnection with Florida. That really inspired him."

A few days prior to the trip, Poekel developed an infection that required a hospital stay. Then Hurricane Sandy blew ashore and cut off power at his Essex Fells, N.J., home for several days and canceled travel plans to Florida. Instead of celebrating his birthday at The Swamp, Poekel was forced to remain in the hospital, where he developed pneumonia.

The family was able to take the Poekel home but on Nov. 7 he passed away at 97, leaving behind a significant legacy besides his role in lighting Florida Field.

"I tell people he didn't live just 97 years, but 97 great years,'' Charles Jr. said. "You can't ask for much more than that. He battled really heroically. They gave him the strongest possible antibiotics and they weren't enough."


Poekel was just getting started all those years ago at UF.

While working at Curtiss-Wright Aeronautics five years after turning in his master's thesis, Poekel invented an anti-icing method to prevent propeller blades from icing on an airplane. He eventually earned a U.S. patent for his work and the invention became the industry standard for de-icing airplane propellers.

Poekel's creative ways ran in the family. He moved to Florida to live with his grandparents after his mom died when he was 11. His grandfather was well-known Danish yacht and boat designer T.S. Poekel.

Later in life Poekel designed equipment used in the development of the first hydrogen bomb while at Gould and Eberhardt Engineering in Hoboken, N.J. He married Mary Alice, a Florida State graduate, in 1941.

He also created and owned C.A. Poekel & Company, a real estate brokerage firm, Poekel Electric and Poekel Travel Bureau.

A lifelong boxing fan, late in life Poekel developed into a huge fan of Manny Pacquiao and continued to travel extensively well into his 90s. He loved to swim and was active in masonry, a skill he acquired during his time in Gainesville.

It makes sense that his favorite singer was Bing Crosby, whose song "Young at Heart" was a favorite of Poekel's.

"That really sort of captures the way he was,'' Charles Jr. said. "That's why it's tough on all of us. He didn't seem so old. He seemed so young at heart. He was always someone who sort of looked ahead and never looked back."

As Poekel rested in a New Jersey hospital on Nov. 2, a banner arrived from UF's College of Engineering.

"To our favorite Gator engineer,'' it read.

"He really loved to see that,'' Charles Jr. said. "This would have been the highlight of his life if he had made it down there for that Missouri game weekend. We want to continue on with his legacy and come down there in future years."

Maybe they can come watch a Gators' night game. That seems about right.


A memorial service for Poekel is scheduled for Nov. 24, the day of the Florida-Florida State game.

The family requests that in lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the "UF Foundation" to support the Charles A. Poekel Sr. Endowed Scholarship Fund, c/o College of Engineering Development Office, P.O. Box 116575, Gainesville, Fla. 32611.


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