Philanthropist Lives on Through Successful Entrepreneurs
John M. Thalheimer ’55, a beloved Lehigh alumnus, successful entrepreneur, business owner, and philanthropist, passed away on Dec. 19, 2016. John graduated from Lehigh in 1955 with a bachelor’s degree in metallurgical engineering. As an undergraduate, he was a member of Sigma Alpha Mu fraternity and remained a lifelong supporter of the university.
After graduating from Lehigh, John joined the family business, Thalheimer Brothers, a Philadelphia-based company that processes and recycles nonferrous scrap metal. John’s father and two uncles started the company in 1939 with John becoming the sole proprietor in 1969. He sold the business in 2012 but, according to wife Joan, “never fully retired.” Thalheimer Brothers still operates under his name and has grown into one of the largest nonferrous scrap metal processing companies in the United States.
In 2005, John and Joan committed a generous gift to the university to establish the Joan F. & John M. Thalheimer '55 Student Entrepreneurship Ventures Endowed Program Fund. The endowment has provided funding for more than 100 Lehigh students to pursue independent entrepreneurial projects through the Joan F. & John M. Thalheimer ’55 EUREKA! Ventures Competition. The Thalheimers pledged an additional gift to supplement the fund in 2015 to honor John’s 60th reunion and to recognize the leadership provided by vice chair of the board of trustees Kevin L. Clayton ’84 ’13P, who was serving as interim president at the time.
“John always said that someday he was going to do something significant for Lehigh, because his four years at the university had a huge impact on the businessman that he became,” explains Joan. “I convinced him that it was far better to make that gesture while he was alive so that he could see the joy and impact it would have.”
Through the years, support from the Joan F. & John M. Thalheimer ’55 Student Entrepreneurship Ventures Endowment has launched the careers of many young entrepreneurs, including Zachary Bloom ’09 and Rick Arlow ’09. Bloom and Arlow won the grand prize in the 2008-09 Student Entrepreneurs Competition for a device they invented that provides a more efficient method of opening airways for individuals in emergency situations. The one-minute procedure is minimally invasive and based on the design of a viper’s fang. It provides an alternative for first responders performing this procedure outside of a hospital setting, thus offering a new life saving tool. After graduation, the duo patented the device, and both have pursued careers in medical product innovation.
Another Lehigh alumna who has achieved tremendous success since receiving the Joan F. & John M. Thalheimer ’55 Grand Prize is Lisa Glover ’13 ’14G. Glover developed KitRex, a 3-D cardboard dinosaur that individuals can build themselves. Her product came to fruition after creating a life-size cardboard dinosaur for the technical entrepreneurship master’s program in 2014. The dinosaur became an instant success on the Lehigh campus, earning Glover media attention and the inspiration and drive to further develop her product. She launched several kickstarter campaigns to raise funds to transition KitRex to a flat-packed kit for customers to construct their own 3-foot dinosaur.
Glover’s achievements are a wonderful example of how the Thalheimer Awards, along with the curricular and co-curricular opportunities at Lehigh, offer students the confidence and resources to become innovators and entrepreneurs. Her toy design company, Architrep LLC, is focused on foldable 3D puzzle-crafts. Glover continues to develop and design products in the toy industry. She has sold more than 8,000 toys to individuals and retailers in 49 states and 42 countries. Glover’s KitRex was selected by White House staff as the mascot for the 2015 National Week of Making.
“John and Joan’s key contributions to support entrepreneurial education years ago were the catalyst for the preeminent entrepreneurial experiences and curriculum offered to students at Lehigh today,” explains university President John Simon ’19P. “The Thalheimers were Lehigh’s entrepreneurship pioneers. We will remain forever grateful for their support of idea generation, which has ultimately led to company formation for many students. Their legacy will live on through the many successes of our graduates.”
A more recent recipient of the Joan F. & John M. Thalheimer ’55 Grand Prize is Briana Gardell ’14 ’15G, who created a science kit for children that includes ingredients to make their own paintballs. The product is made from a biodegradable substance that resembles a water balloon. Gardell named her product Goblies, which are composed of dyes made from food-based ingredients. The young entrepreneur tested 26 prototypes before finalizing the functioning product that she entered in the EUREKA! Competition. Gardell ultimately won the grand prize.
Support from the Joan F. & John M. Thalheimer ’55 Endowment enabled Gardell to further refine Goblies by providing her with dedicated workspace through Lehigh’s Baker Institute for Entrepreneurship, Creativity & Innovation, which operates a student accelerator housed in the Ben Franklin TechVentures business incubator. Concurrently, Goblies was the focus of her startup project in the full-time technical entrepreneurship master’s program where she developed the business model and technology. After graduating, Gardell sought a patent for her product and launched her company through a kickstarter campaign. Goblies kits are now sold online and in select stores.
The Thalheimers returned to the Lehigh campus annually to meet the students who were fortunate to receive support through their endowed fund. “Each year, when we attended the awards dinner, it was heartwarming to see how far Lehigh took the entrepreneurial concept and program, especially with the Baker Institute, expanding the possibilities for young startups,” says Joan.
Thanks to the generosity of the Thalheimers, the Lehigh entrepreneurship ecosystem has been forever elevated, and there are many more students like Glover and Gardell who are experiencing success as young entrepreneurs.
“John and Joan Thalheimer have truly fostered an entrepreneurial spirit at Lehigh,” says Lisa Getzler, executive director of the Baker Institute. “Their dedication and generosity have made Lehigh a sought-after choice for students wishing to pursue an education focused on developing entrepreneurial skills. We will remain forever grateful to John and Joan for their generosity and will miss John dearly.”
John is survived by his wife and two daughters, Gwen and Emily.
Story by Jill Spotz