Chance meetings and opportunities can often change one's direction in life. For William "Billy" Sykes, this is certainly true.
Sykes, B.S.E.E. '75, is an engineer, attorney, patent attorney, inventor and business owner. Soon, he hopes to add another title: college mentor.
Sykes grew up in Norfolk on the corner of 48th and Colley Avenue. Right out of high school, he opened a surfboard shop in Virginia Beach. He made the boards himself. "I was surfing, and building and selling surfboards," he said. "It was perfect."
He ran the shop for a few years before the Vietnam War led to his first detour. Sykes joined the Navy Reserves in 1966 and went on active duty in 1968. He worked as a second-class electrician mate on a Navy destroyer based out of Norfolk.
When his military service ended, Sykes took advantage of the G.I. Bill to attend ODU. As a student, he lived at home and worked third shift at the railyard. "Working full-time and going to school full-time - I think there was something wrong with me," he joked.
Sykes has a vivid memory of Professor Bob Ash, who recently retired. "I think it was Dr. Ash who said - and this was during the hippie times - 'You know, you are the first engineer that's ever come to my class barefoot.' It was summer - and this was in the '70s," Sykes said. "There were a lot of people at ODU that were barefoot, but they weren't in engineering."
Sykes' first job out of school was as a nuclear engineer at the Portsmouth Shipyard. That led to a 30-year career with the Department of Defense.
A conversation led to another career, even before retirement. "A friend, a man who was my father's age, said, 'Billy, when you were young, you said you would like to be an engineer and an attorney,'" Sykes said.
So, Sykes became an attorney. Not in the traditional way, though. As an alternative to attending law school, the Virginia Board of Bar Examiners offers a self-study option called the Law Reader Program. Sykes worked every day, Monday through Friday, and spent every Saturday studying at a law library.
He took the exam three times. "When I put my mind to doing something, I can usually do it," he said. "I'm not the smartest guy, but I try real hard."
And then again, another conversation, another path.
Attorney William Sykes tried a number of cases, but one subject kept coming up. "I found myself filing lawsuits against pest control companies because of moisture problems in the crawl space," he explained.
"One of the gentlemen with one of the big pest control companies told me, 'Billy you're crawling under here [the home], and you are telling me there's ways that we could ventilate it and correct the problem. Why don't you come up with products that would help us instead of suing us?'"
So, Sykes designed and built a crawl space door that could vent moisture out. "I haven't filed a lawsuit against a pest control company ever since," he said. "They are our biggest customers."
The doors were so popular that Sykes created Crawl Space Door Systems Inc. "We are selling 45-foot containers full of them," he said.
Sykes was now an engineer, attorney, inventor and successful businessman.
To patent his crawl space doors, Sykes had to hire an official patent attorney. It was an expensive and time-consuming endeavor. Only an engineer or scientist licensed as an attorney can become a patent attorney. A rigorous exam is required as well. So, he studied and passed the patent attorney test. "That test was harder than the bar exam," he said.
When FEMA mandated that all homes with flood insurance have flood vents, Sykes reworked his crawl space doors into flood vents. And of course, he patented them himself. His is one of only three flood vents nationwide approved by FEMA and tested by the International Code Council (ICC).
Overall, Sykes has about 20 patents and even more inventions on variations of crawl space doors, flood vents and UVC germ eliminators.
Recently, he has been thinking about retirement and focusing on CS Products, a "Shark Tank"-inspired company he founded to help new inventors.
Sitting still is not an option though. He and his wife, Frankie, tried to spend a recent Saturday doing nothing. "That lasted about two hours," he laughed.
Not too long ago, he sat next to Tom Koller at an ODU football game tailgate party. Koller, ODU's director of corporate relations, suggested the Sykes visit the Engineering Makerspace and Invention Center (EMIC).
He told him, "You are really going to like this."
"And he was right," Sykes said.
Sykes was impressed with the 7,000-square-foot facility and with the students. He's been thinking about doing some mentoring and offering patent assistance.
"I think that I can really get in there and help them," he said. "If you could put engineering theory and practicality together, can you imagine what the students could turn out to be?"
Sykes recently gave a donation to the EMIC and provided the top undergraduate research project prize at ESPEX, ODU's engineering student projects expo.
He is humble about giving.
"You almost have to," he said. "If I didn't have a college that I could walk to, and that I could work third shift at the same time, I wouldn't have been an engineer, I wouldn't have been a patent attorney. I might have been an inventor, but I would not have been as successful as I am."