David F.Putnam's Slant on
Science (and Life) Keene State's endowed chair in Chemistry honors
a Keene visionary and community leader.
Keene State and Markem grew up together. Fred Asahel Putnam (known as F.A.), David Putnam's grandfather, founded his business in 1911, the same year Wallace Mason became Keene Normal School's second president. F.A., a farm boy from Newport, New Hampshire, was a natural inventor and self-taught chemist from the entrepreneurial era of Thomas Edison. F.A. left grammar school and apprenticed in a machine shop as a teenager. He constantly tinkered and learned. In 1911, he founded Markem Machine Company, which developed special inks and equipment for marking shoe leather, and his business quickly became the industry standard.
F.A. and his wife, Maude, often summered at Lake Sunapee, passing through Keene along the way for a meal at the Crystal restaurant on Main Street. In those days, three trains a day ran between Keene and Boston. Keene's accessibility to urban markets didn't escape F.A.'s notice, and in 1918, he moved his business to Keene.
F.A.'s son, Claude, a dashing young man and born salesman, heir to the family business, had married in 1913. The next year, Claude and his wife, Louise, welcomed their first child, David Frederick Putnam. They lived in Melrose, Massachusetts, a short train ride from Boston. Claude and his family, including 14-year-old David, followed F.A. to Keene in 1928, moving into a house at 101 Court Street as Claude took over from his father in managing the new factory on Emerald Street.
David F. Putnam graduated from Keene High in 1932, where he excelled in physics and built his own three-tube radio receiver, which could receive KDKA in Pittsburgh. He set up his own station at 101 Court Street and got his ham radio license. David attended Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, for one year, and then entered Dartmouth College, majoring in chemistry. He was the first in the Putnam line to go to college.
During the Depression, Markem kept all of its employees working at least three days a week, even when company profits plummeted. Things began to turn around in 1935, when Markem was asked by RCA to develop a permanent orange ink that could print on metal radio tubes. David, then a senior at Dartmouth, helped develop the special ink, and before long the RCA assembly lines began running on all three shifts using the new Markem product.
David Putnam graduated from Dartmouth and came directly to Keene and Markem, where he spent his time in the ink laboratory boning up on solvents and polymers and pigments. In the summer of 1936, he also met a young actress from California, Rosamond Page, who was an apprentice with a summer stock company in Keene. It took a certain amount of romantic maneuvering, but the two married in 1938 and began a lifelong love affair and partnership.
David and Ros Putnam were a dynamic pair who embraced Keene and the fledgling college on Main Street as enthusiastically as they loved their own growing family of six children. That ham radio license came in handy during the Hurricane of 1938, when David was able to set up at Keene High School (now the Middle School) and establish communication with the outside world. As the years went on, David and Ros were instrumental in the creation and support of the Historical Society of Cheshire County, Ashuelot River Park, Monadnock Music, and many other community institutions. At the College, the Thorne-Sagendorph Art Gallery, Putnam Lecture Hall, Science Center, and many other efforts bear their imprint. He served on the City Council, the Planning Board, the Conservation Commission, and many ad hoc committees. Ros took up causes related to the arts, including the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, and David enthusiastically joined her. Their children remember long discussions at the supper table about community causes and projects.
As the head of Markem for nearly three decades, David was able to take the company from a successful small business that could sit back and wait for customers to find it, to a strong, international company known for its creativity and responsiveness. He encouraged his employees to get involved in their own communities, too. His son James Putnam recently described his father this way:
"My father's slant on science was all about innovation. He was always an early adopter, from his ham radio days to being one of the first to use a PDA. At Markem, we raced to adopt new technology. He always believed that things could happen; he had that spark. During the 1940s and 50s, the company moved into the pharmaceutical industry by figuring out how to print on glass ampules and syringes. Dad invented the ink that would stick on those surfaces. In the 1960s and 70s, we had to develop an epoxy ink to mark electronic components, a new challenge.
"He also saw the importance of world markets, and he helped expand the company from local to global. He was a great listener and an exquisite planner who thoroughly believed in detailed strategic planning. He embraced the idea of Keene State as a public liberal arts college. When Judith Sturnick became president of the College in the 1980s, he challenged her to be the best – and to adopt a planning process and stick to it.
"My father called Keene State his best secret weapon. He knew the presence of the College helped him recruit people to Keene, and he often worked through the chemistry department and technology labs to find interns and promising talent. Melinda Treadwell is the best example of that paradigm. In fact, she inspired me to lead the cause in our family and make our contribution to Keene State. Even though my father went to Dartmouth, he was so rooted here, so connected to this community.
"David Putnam encouraged all of the sciences, not just chemistry. He was an optimist. He set high goals. He also learned to empower other people and to take time off to brainstorm and see the big picture. In the early 1970s, he and my mother started spending two months a year on their sailboat, the Faith and Hope, in Europe, while others ran the company.
"My mother is a great judge of people, which is behind the success of any operation. Mother was always open to unusual people, creative people, and could understand their personalities – she has that gift. She and Dad collected people – they formed bonds of friendship that lasted forever with so many people. It was a collaborative effort, just as their relationship with Keene State was a collaborative effort."
When David F. Putnam received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Business and Industry Association of New Hampshire in 1999, at age 85, speaker Thomas S. Burack introduced him this way:
"Visionary leaders and great sailors have many traits in common: an ability to peer over the horizon and chart a future course, the intuition to be able to steer around the shoals and anticipate changes in the weather, the fortitude to ride out rough seas and high winds, the skills and warmth to foster morale among the crew, and the willingness to share the blessings of the ocean with others. In every respect, such has been the life of David F. Putnam."
On the morning of August 24, 2009, as faculty and staff convened for President Giles-Gee's opening address for the fall semester, an observant person might have noticed something new at the Science Center. The Appian Way entrance bore this name in brushed silver letters: David F. Putnam Science Center. President Giles-Gee began her remarks that morning with the exciting announcement that the Putnam family of Keene, in honor of David F. Putnam (1914-2006), had created the David F. Putnam Endowed Chair in Chemistry, and the Science building itself would be named in honor of the Keene industrialist and philanthropist to acknowledge his enormous contributions to the College.
Especially for students and alumni of Keene State's science programs, David Putnam's life and work will resonate in the halls and classrooms. The way he lived and thought about life illustrates some of the finest qualities of a scientific mind: curiosity, a love of innovation, and a meticulous sense of organization. For David Putnam, his winning combination of vision and hard work helped him take Markem Corporation from a local niche printing company to a progressive global business. Keene State encourages those same qualities in all of its students as they strive for excellence. We offer this glimpse into the life of David F. Putnam.