Winston Garth is Caltech through and through. He signs receipts with a formula instead of his name. He has a 3-D printed salt shaker. Every day, he records the weather, his solar panels’ output, the altitude of solar noon, and the azimuths of sunrise and sunset.
But Garth isn’t an alumnus. He found Caltech on the internet several years before he retired in 2008. Now, he has made Caltech one of the beneficiaries of his IRA.
“I figured this is where it would do the most good,” Garth says. “I have a good feeling about the way Caltech educates students. The people I’ve met have been fantastic.”
“On my very last trip when I was still working freight, I wore my regular jeans, but with a dress shirt and a tie. Some of the guys who didn’t know what I was doing thought I was an officer.”
—Winston Garth, retired Union Pacific conductor
Just as he has chosen to help others, Garth came to America with help. His family emigrated from British Malaysia in 1957, the year it became an independent commonwealth. “My parents didn’t know if things were going to go to heck,” he says. They thought it would be better if we left.”
The family took a freighter to California, bringing their piano and two cats. Because Garth’s mother had taught at a Methodist school in Kuala Lumpur, members of a church in Van Nuys knew of the family, rented a house for them, and got Garth’s father a job at J. C. Penney.
Garth was in middle school then, and he loved trains. Within a year, he was helping out at the railyard. But in high school, he discovered astronomy and archaeology. He felt torn—should he pursue college or nurture his technical interests?
“My heart was with the railroad,” Garth says. He would work for Southern Pacific—later Union Pacific—for four decades, first as a brakeman and then as a conductor.
Only the Vietnam War interrupted his career. He served as a paratrooper in Dak To in 1967 and 1968. He is a proud lifetime member of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Association.
In the early 2000s, Garth came across an online ad for a Watson Lecture at Caltech. He made the 70-mile round trip from his home in Santa Clarita. Hooked by what he heard, he attended the monthly talks for years.
“I got more and more interested,” Garth says. “The articles that come out of Caltech astonish me each time—it just doesn’t seem possible the human mind could be that creative. In all fields, from the STEM to the medical, I can’t believe that people are able to conceive some of these ideas.”
He created a gift that Caltech leaders can apply wherever they see the most benefi . But he hopes it might fund scholarships—or perhaps even a professorial chair in mathematics named for the Swiss polymath Leonhard Euler.
“He’s my idol,” Garth says. “By his mid-60s he was totally blind, but he did all the calculations in his mind and his students transcribed for him. It’s amazing, the base he set for future analysis.”