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LU to award honorary doctorate to metal detection pioneer Charles Garrett

Lamar University will award the honorary Doctor of Humane Letters to Lamar alumnus Charles Garrett, founder, president and chief executive officer of Garrett Metal Detectors Inc., at spring commencement May 14.

A resident of Garland, Garrett grew up in Lufkin and graduated from Lamar in 1959 with a degree in electrical engineering. Lamar honored him as a Distinguished Alumnus in 2003.

Paul Fregia, founder and president of Grandma Maud’s Inc. and a Lamar Distinguished Alumnus, will be the keynote speaker for ceremonies at 9:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. in the Montagne Center where Lamar will confer more than 1,550 degrees. Garrett will accept his honorary doctorate during the morning ceremony.

Garrett has a passion for treasure hunting, and his desire to create a better metal detector resulted in a business whose impact is felt around the world. The company he and his wife, Eleanor, began in 1964 as Garrett Electronics has grown into the world’s largest manufacturer of virtually all types of metal detection equipment, including hobby, law enforcement, security and military devices.

It provides walk-through scanners and hand-held detection wands at airports all over the world and has furnished security equipment to all summer Olympic games and most of the winter Olympics for more than 25 years. In 2010, the Garretts carried the Olympic torch to begin the celebration at the Vancouver Winter Olympic games.

Their metal detector business began modestly. With $1,000 they had saved, the couple purchased enough parts to build 25 new instruments and placed an advertisement in True West magazine. They offered two versions of the first Garrett metal detector: the “Hunter” and the “Sidewinder.” The first $145 “Hunter” went to a mail-order buyer from California – and Garrett Electronics was born.

From his first experiences with “treasure” as a child – burying a small container of old clothing buttons under his boyhood home in 1939 – to his first real treasure find – a gold watch and several coins unearthed in 1948 – the idea of buried treasure fascinated Garrett.

After graduating from Lufkin High, he enrolled at Stephen F. Austin State University to study forestry, but college was soon interrupted by service as an electrician mate in the Navy during the Korean War. The next summer, he married Eleanor Smith, who earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Sam Houston State University. Soon, the couple moved to mid-Jefferson County, where she began teaching school and he enrolled at Lamar State College of Technology to study electrical engineering.

While at Lamar, Garrett worked part time for the Texas Highway Department in its soils laboratory, gaining knowledge that would prove beneficial in metal detection. He also credits his training at Lamar “from top-notch professors” as a great aid in his career.

He and Eleanor honored one of them when they established the Professor Floyd Crum Scholarship in Electrical Engineering in tribute to the professor who had inspired him during his years as a Lamar student. The couple also established both the Charles Lewis and Eleanor Smith Garrett Scholarship in Engineering. In addition, Garrett contributes to his alma mater as a member of the College of Engineering Advisory Council.

After graduation from Lamar, Garrett moved to Dallas and a position as a circuit designer for Texas Instruments. In the early 1960s, the young engineer helped develop military specifications for TI’s space electronics division, including a power supply for the Mars Mission Mariner 2 Spacecraft and electronic flight scanning templates and controls for the terrain clearance radar of the F-111 aircraft. He joined Geotechnical Corp. in nearby Garland in 1962.

Garrett also visited ghost towns prospecting for treasure, but his disappointment with borrowed detectors sent him to his garage. In 1964, he began work on his first commercial metal detector. “My electrical engineering talents enabled me to design my first metal detector,” Garrett said. “In continuing the development of this product and promoting its use, my love for treasure hunting grew.”

He took his detectors into the field, spending countless hours learning how to use them effectively. This practical experimentation led to refinements that, over the years, gave the company an edge over its competition. Garrett has acquired several patents for innovative equipment and features, beginning in 1982 when Garrett Electronics was awarded the first U.S. patent for the use of a computer chip in a metal detector.

“When we entered the metal detector ‘industry,’ it was far from established; there were scores of small companies, each claiming to produce a detector that would ‘hunt deeper,’” Garrett said. He set out to not only create a superior product but also to provide factory support and first-rate customer service. It was the right formula. Of the more than 100 metal detector business that have started up since the Garretts have been in business, only a handful remain.

It is hard to go to any public place – courthouse, airport or other building – and not see the Garrett name emblazoned on a security detector in its trademark, eye-popping yellow. The effect of Sept. 11, 2001, on the company was dramatic as sales of Superscanners and walk-through detectors quadrupled in one day.

Garrett has served as president of both the American Metal Detector Manufacturers Association and the International Treasure Hunting Society. He has authored more than 20 books in his field of expertise and has sold more than a million copies. As a hobby, he collects and restores antique cars.

Lufkin High named Garrett to its Hall of Honor. A member of the Sons of the Republic of Texas and Sons of the Confederacy, he also was commissioned as an “Admiral in the Texas Navy” for his outstanding volunteerism and community service. The Garretts maintain a tree farm in East Texas and, in 2002, the Texas Forestry Association honored them with the Texas Tree Farmer of the Year Award. The couple has three children.