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Donald Frey, Ford Mustang Designer, Dies at 86

Engineer came to Northwestern in 1988 after an illustrious industrial career

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March 24, 2010 | by Megan Fellman

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Donald N. Frey, 86, a Northwestern University engineering professor who, along with others, came up with the concept and design of the Ford Mustang, a car that became an American icon, died March 5 at Evanston Hospital.

Mr. Frey, professor of industrial engineering and management sciences, enjoyed a long and illustrious industrial career -- with Ford Motor Company, General Cable Corp. and Bell & Howell Company -- before joining Northwestern in 1988.

Mr. Frey was an elected member of the National Academy of Engineering and, in 1990, received the National Medal of Technology from President George H.W. Bush.

"It is sometimes easy to get lost in abstraction -- having Don at Northwestern grounded us in reality," said Julio M. Ottino, dean of Northwestern's McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science. "It was always good to have someone around who had carried a project to the very end." (Additional quotes at bottom.)

At Northwestern, Mr. Frey taught graduate courses in innovation and entrepreneurship and information systems as well as Engineering Design and Communication to first-year engineers "to keep my foot in reality," he said. Mr. Frey also mentored several doctoral students.

To reward McCormick undergraduates for interdisciplinary innovation and creativity, Mr. Frey established the annual Margaret and Muir Frey Prize in 2001. Named for Mr. Frey's late parents, the prize recognizes design creativity in the best senior capstone projects -- projects that are designed by a student or team of students and are related to known problems or credible new products or processes.

In Mr. Frey's mind, the roles of innovator and educator were indivisible.

"I teach from experience," he said in a Northwestern magazine article in 2004. "I have a lifetime of industrial innovation. For me, teaching and innovation depend on one another. I don't know how to separate them."

Mr. Frey's industrial career began at Ford in 1950. He became vice president and chief engineer at the company in 1964. While at Ford, he was project manager for what would become the icon vehicle of an era, the original Ford Mustang. In April 1964, the car made its debut at the World's Fair in New York.

He resigned from Ford in 1968 to become the president of the General Cable Corp.

In 1971, Mr. Frey was appointed president and chief executive officer of Bell & Howell, a position he retained for 17 years. In 1975, while at Bell & Howell and as a director of 20th Century Fox, he was responsible for the first high-volume integrated manufacture of videocassettes for the Hollywood movie industry. In 1985, under Frey's leadership, Bell & Howell produced the first successful CD-ROM-based information system, initially designed for General Motors dealer service operations. He retired from the company in 1988 and then joined Northwestern.

During World War II, Mr. Frey served as an officer in the U.S. Army (1942-1946). He received his doctorate in metallurgical engineering at the University of Michigan, where he had also earned his bachelor's and master's degrees.

Mr. Frey lived in Evanston. He is survived by five children and a number of grandchildren.

ADDITIONAL QUOTES

"For more than a half-century Don Frey demonstrated repeatedly that he was a true engineer," said Stephen Carr, associate dean for undergraduate engineering at McCormick. "Don saw the important technical challenges, made the key innovations and assured that the enterprise would be a success as a result. Listening to him describe Scottish immigration into the Midwest, the Ford Mustang project, game hunts in Eastern Europe, the GT40 saga at LeMans, to name just a very few, are treasured moments."

"Don was an extraordinary engineer and businessman," said William J. White, professor of industrial engineering and management sciences at Northwestern, who was Bell & Howell's chairman and CEO from 1990 to 1998. "During his time at Bell & Howell, he successfully repositioned the company from the shrinking microfilm and movie projector business into the emerging electronic era. At Northwestern, Don was a valued colleague who successfully used his industry experience to support his effective teaching style."

"I never could have started a company without my many lessons from the ‘Professor of Reality,'" said Gregory B. Olson, the Walter P. Murphy Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at McCormick.

"Don Frey enriched our department in more ways than seem possible for any one individual," said Barry L. Nelson, chair of Northwestern's department of industrial engineering and management sciences. "He taught students at all levels and was particularly influential in the Master of Engineering Management Program. His Ph.D. students went on to careers in industry and academia. As a true titan of industry, Don provided a touchstone to practical reality in an academic department, yet he was a scholar in every sense of the word. He provided useful advice and provocative conversation to all who encountered him."

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