There are power couples, and then there are brainpower couples such as Apostolos Kizilos and his late wife, Betty Ahola Kizilos. During their 58-year marriage, they forged impressive careers together as Honeywell scientists in the 1960s before veering off into organizational development, poetry and Christian activism.
After childhoods spent 5,500 miles apart, their improbable partnership began by accident when they met in an advanced calculus class. Something — fate? — persuaded her to skip the regular class and take the harder course.
Tolly, as everyone calls him, grew up 3 miles from the ancient stone columns of the Parthenon in Athens. Just as he turned 6 in 1941, the Nazis swarmed into his Greek homeland. A civil war between fascists and communists followed that German occupation during World War II.
“Survival became a game; I remember the hunger and suffering,” Kizilos, 83, said from his Wayzata home. “It was pretty bloody and pretty scary. I remember the mortars, and the shells, and the airplanes coming down and strafing the neighborhood.”
Betty Mae Ahola grew up a world away amid the pines and lakes of northern Minnesota — the second daughter of an Ely dentist and granddaughter of Finnish immigrants. At 10, she dreamed of a boy across the sea.
Their paths first crossed in that calculus class for engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1950s. One of the only women studying physics at male-dominated MIT, Betty continued her pioneering ways after they were married and moved to Minnesota. Gauging electrical measurements of tellurium, she was the only woman among 60 scientists at Honeywell’s research center in Hopkins in 1960.
“Femininity rears its lovely head only on rare occasions at the Honeywell Research center,” according to the opening line of a 1960 profile of her in the Minneapolis Star. She was 23 at the time and photographed in her lab coat.
Three years and two kids later, she told the “Women’s Section” of the newspaper in 1963: “Women aren’t supposed to be intellectuals. Even in high school, girls interested in science fields are kind of neglected by boys. They are thought to be too brainy.”
At the time, she was taking graduate-level electrical engineering courses at the University of Minnesota — juggling her time as a mother of sons ages 1 and 3 with a third son coming in 1964. The newspaper also quoted her as urging industry to be more flexible so women’s work schedules could dovetail with their kids’ school hours.
She acknowledged that “one can meet one’s husband in the science fields, although I wouldn’t advise her to go into it for that reason.”
Tolly’s divergent career as a scientist-turned-poet started with a lucky break in Greece. He was thinking of going to Caltech because MIT required a one-year U.S. residency. But he bumped into an older student from his Greek high school who attended MIT and helped Tolly secure a larger scholarship.
“Who knows what would have happened had I not seem him in the schoolyard that day?” he said.
Armed with his mechanical engineering master’s degree from MIT, Tolly landed a job at a heat-transfer facility in the Rust Belt city of Massillon, Ohio. “Not exactly Silicon Valley,” he said in a 2017 oral history.
That led to an offer from Honeywell’s thermostat division in Minneapolis. Betty joined the firm’s research center. During more than a decade as an engineer at Honeywell, Tolly earned six patents — some in aircraft control and fluid mechanics. But he grew troubled by some of the company’s military weapons manufacturing.
“I was against the war in Vietnam,” he said. “I spoke up; I was a very difficult guy at times.”
In 1970, at age 34, he secured a Bush Foundation fellowship worth $18,000 — or nearly $118,000 in today’s dollars. The family headed to the University of Iowa, where Tolly earned a master’s in fine arts. He has self-published eight books of fiction, nonfiction and poetry.
Tolly returned to Honeywell in the 1970s, working on organizational development and employee empowerment. Some of his insights on participatory management were published in the Harvard Business Review.
“Tolly is a true Renaissance man and an example of an immigrant who chose Minnesota and has made his mark in his new country,” said Armand Peterson, a retired Honeywell engineer who has researched company history.
Like her husband, Betty published books of poetry and shared a deep Christian faith and artistic flair — making original icons of Jesus that hang in St. Mary’s Greek Orthodox Church in Minneapolis. Some of her artwork was used on bags for church food-shelf drives.
“She did this for 19 years, the last four years while breathing oxygen from a machine,” said Tolly, her caregiver in her final years.
He said the latest example of his hope to “act the way Christ wants us to act” was a letter to the editor of Barron’s business weekly, urging reductions in the nation’s wealth and income disparities.
“It shouldn’t take 30 days of work by the average employee to make the same income that the average CEO makes in one hour!” he wrote.
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at email@example.com. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: tinyurl.com/MN1918.