Virgil Cobb-Bourgon's "circle of fate" leads to generous gift to AE
Virgil Cobb-Bourgon’s rise from growing up underprivileged in the Great Depression to creating a million-dollar endowment for the Department of Aerospace Engineering is an inspiring story. His early years of experiencing adversity proved to be motivational in his achieving financial independence, while his entrepreneurial drive enabled him to realize his dreams.
Not one to focus on the past, Cobb-Bourgon said his story of growing up in a poor home with abusive parents was bittersweet. When he was nine years old, his parents left him and his 12-year-old sister at home. After several days alone, the pair walked across town to the home of their grandmother, who took in Virgil’s sister but sent him away, alone and hungry. A few weeks later, they were both placed into separate foster care facilities. Eventually, the siblings were reunited in the Edgewood Center for Children and Families, which Cobb-Bourgon says was a place that “made me feel like I mattered,” and the trajectory of his life began to change for the better.
At age 17, Cobb-Bourgon made $1.86 per hour as a tool designer at Douglas Aircraft to support himself while paying his way through UCLA. After earning a BS in engineering in 1961, he continued working for Douglas Aircraft Missile and Space Systems. Two years later, he returned to UCLA after being awarded a full scholarship from Douglas, and he received his MS in engineering in 1964. The following year TRW Space Technology Laboratories hired him. There he worked on the service and command modules of the Apollo Saturn V vehicle, doing his part to put the first man on the moon. He also worked as a program manager on the Air Force Advanced Minuteman Strategic Missile program, supporting the U.S. strategic defense effort during the Cold War with the USSR.
While at TRW, Cobb-Bourgon decided to save and invest in real estate, attending UCLA night classes to become a licensed California real estate broker. Simultaneously, he developed a sophisticated software program to perform financial analyses of income-producing real estate.
In 1971, Cobb-Bourgon’s life took another dramatic shift as the Apollo program was winding down. “It was a defining moment for me,” he said. “Although my position was secure, I felt like I was treading water, questioning my future in the aerospace industry.”
At this point, Cobb-Bourgon decided it was time to make a risky, life-altering change.
“I took a deep breath, quit my job at TRW, sold my Porsche, and pulled in my belt,” he said. He co-founded Syndicated Equities, Inc., which initiated a long career in the world of real estate investments and development.
Using his analysis software, Cobb-Bourgon evaluated and then purchased a newly built beach duplex. He and his wife lived there while upgrading it. An initial $3,000 investment on a $53,000 purchase in 1971 resulted in an $875,000 sales price 32 years later. The equity from the sale of that property was parlayed into a condominium with a spectacular view on the 37th floor of the Hawaiki Tower on Oahu.
Recently, Cobb-Bourgon gifted that condo to the University of Illinois.
After completing a small one-year “testing the waters” conceptual propulsion project with AE faculty Phil Ansell, Cobb-Bourgon and the U of I created the CLAM endowment—the acronym derived from four names: Cobb-Bourgon, Liebeck, Ansell, and Merret. The last three earned aerospace engineering degrees from Illinois: Robert Liebeck (BS ’61, MS ’62, PhD ’68), Phil Ansell (MS ’10, PhD ’13), and Jason Merret (BS ’99, MS ’01, PhD ’04).
How did this UCLA graduate come to connect with the U of I? Cobb-Bourgon credits “the circle of fate.”
“A few years ago, mostly retired, I needed a mental challenge. I had an idea for a so-called flying car. I named it RAPPER, which stands for Robotic Aerial Platform Plus Earth Rover,” he said. “I was discussing the RAPPER project with an aerospace buddy from the ’60s who was a U of I alum, when he mentioned our mutual friend, Bob Liebeck.”
Cobb-Bourgon said he met Liebeck in the ’60s when they both worked at Douglas Aircraft. “Over time we lost touch, but we reconnected some 50 years later. We didn’t talk shop then; Bob was just another old buddy from the past. But soon after that reunion we would meet again to start something big, and the circle of fate closed when I gave Bob a call. It felt like magic when Bob told me he was already in communication with Phil and Jason, whose talents and achievements he knew well.”
About working with Cobb-Bourgon, Ansell said, “He truly is a visionary. He always seems to think of better ways to do things and overcome high-level challenges by integrating new technology. Virgil has the heart and soul of an innovator.”
Merret added, “Virgil challenges the team to take a critical look at past designs and practices to form a perfect combination of the old, new, effective, and unique.”
Cobb-Bourgon’s gift of the Hawaiian property funds two causes at Illinois. First, the $1-million CLAM endowment will support one graduate fellowship or assistantship annually in AE. Second, all funds over a million dollars will initially provide unrestricted support for RAPPER, then the design of flight vehicles for urban and regional travel that employ “green” electric propulsion technology.