PLAINFIELD – Union County College has an expanded presence in the City of Plainfield with its newly acquired property, the former Thul Auto Parts building. During the Nov. 22, ribbon-cutting ceremony, more than 40 students and staff members joined Union’s President Margaret M. McMenamin in celebrating this significant event. For the first time in more than 20 years, the College is now expanding the opportunity for more people in the Plainfield area community to further their education.
Dr. McMenamin spoke about the college’s mission statement to “transform the community, one student at a time.” She was joined by Union County College Board Chair Victor M. Richel, who also addressed the audience and spoke about his excitement for the possibilities that the new property represents for serving the members of the Plainfield community.
Also in attendance were Union County Board of Chosen Freeholder Vernell Wright, and three members of the Thul family, brothers Larry and Jim along with their mother, Louise Thul. Jim Thul spoke about the importance and significance of the property, and the role the Thul business had in American business as well as the lives of the community surrounding it.
The Thul property is no ordinary plot of land. In acquiring the acre-sized lot and two-story building on Roosevelt Avenue, the college owns the former site of a landmark family business that helped bring national attention to the City of Plainfield.
McMenamin sees the acquisition of the Thul property as evidence of the college’s long-term commitment to Plainfield. She said, “Our increased presence in the city will be transformational for Plainfield and its residents.”
The college expects to have the former Thul building in move-in condition by spring 2014. “Timing is the key,” says Facilities Director Henry Key, “When we begin renovation of the lower level of the Lessner Building in Elizabeth, we’ll move the American Sign Language and Paramedic programs back to Plainfield.” Both departments are currently occupying the Lessner Building, having left Plainfield after the September 2011 fire in the Plainfield Campus’s Annex building.
The Plainfield Campus is currently comprised of the 12,000 square foot Logos Building and the Annex Building, which is currently not occupied due to the September 2011 fire. The Logos Building houses a lecture hall, three Allied Health laboratories, a biology laboratory, three computer labs, a library, an academic learning center and administrative and faculty offices. Once the renovations are complete, the Annex Building will again house the cafeteria, book store, student lounge, conference and multipurpose room, and more faculty offices.
The $1 million purchase of the Thul property also has historical significance. The 80-year-old college is moving into ground where a 100-year old business thrived for three generations.
Nicholas Peter Thul is the patriarch of the Thul business. A machinist by trade and a mechanical genius by reputation, Nicholas Thul first began the business of fabricating automobile parts in 1913 at the Thul company’s first shop on Howard Street in North Plainfield. That was the same year that Henry Ford began producing Model T cars in Michigan on a moving assembly line.
“My grandfather began his business by rebuilding engines and repairing automobiles,” said Jim Thul, the third of four brothers from the third generation of Thul owners. “Since there was no parts aftermarket, he began fabricating a wide range of replacement parts in his machine shop.”
Nicholas Thul’s company rose to prominence when his son Frederick joined the business. As a World War II veteran who attended the Newark College of Engineering, Frederick managed the financial operations. Says Jim of his father Frederick, “He was organized and pragmatic, the consummate businessman. He made sure that all three of our enterprises—the engine rebuilding, the machine shop, and parts distribution—were running efficiently. My grandfather (Nicholas) was the creative force behind the company—the thinker, the dreamer, the doer. Together they made a great team.”
The Thul team attracted a national clientele. In its heyday, Thul fabricated steel tubes used for nuclear reactors. “The Nautilus submarine and the aircraft carrier Enterprise have reactor components that we machined in Plainfield.”
Thul also fabricated parts for the first MRI machine for human scanning. Jim says, “The Fonar Corporation developed the machine, which is now in the Smithsonian Institute.”
The company recovered from a devastating fire in 1945, operating out of alternate locations to fulfill government contracts. In 1962, the company assumed ownership of the Germershausen building on the corner of Roosevelt and East 3rd Street. This would be the site of Thul Auto Parts—the property that the College purchased.
Nicholas kept working until the day he died in 1974. Frederick’s four sons—Rick, Nicholas, Jim, and Larry—became the third generation to manage the Thul businesses.
Frederick passed away in 2010 and a year later the auto parts stores closed. The Thul Machine Works plant continues to operate on an adjacent two-acre site.
Like McMenamin, Jim Thul recognizes the transformational qualities of higher education in Plainfield. “If you want to help Plainfield, you need a magnet and there is certainly no finer magnet for the people than the opportunity to seek out a better life through education.”
This year marks the 100th year of the legacy that Nicholas Peter Thul began in his two-car garage at 22 Howard Street in North Plainfield. As Union County College expands its Plainfield Campus onto property that had been the Germershausen building and the site of Thul Auto Parts, it does so by paying tribute to Nicholas and Frederick Thul and their legacy of American ingenuity and enterprise.
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