Autobiography of Pete J. Balsells

I was born in Barcelona , Spain, on February 11, 1928 to Peter Gual Balsells and Anita Jofre Pla. My father was born in Bellprat, province of Barcelona, and my mother was born in Tremp, province Lleida. There were three children in the family; two sisters, Maria and Ann, and I. Maria presently lives in Barcelona while Ann resides in California. My parents had very modest means and, after marriage and by pooling their resources, they started a dairy that they continued to operate until they lost the business during the civil war in 1936 to 1939. Because Barcelona was being bombed by the Franco regime, my parents sent my older sister and me to live with our grandparents in Bellprat, where I lived from age 8 to 11.

After the Civil War, in 1939, my parents restarted the dairy but in 1941 my father got involved in a very serious accident that caused his death. My mother, in an effort to salvage the dairy, took me out of school and got me involved in the business at age 13. My mother tried desperately to maintain the dairy but it was too much for her and I did not like the hours and the work. Finally, nine months later she sold the dairy. She then started a food market that provided livelihood for the family.

When I was 14, I became a tool and die maker apprentice and served an apprenticeship from age 14 to 18, working during the day and going to school at night. In addition, there were many other duties that I had to perform to help support the family, as the wages of an apprentice were insufficient to pay for the expenses that I incurred. My mother, a very enterprising person, went to different markets outside of Barcelona to buy foodstuffs that she and I distributed to different stores, thus adding to the income for the family.

In 1946, my aunt on my mother side, who was residing in New York, offered me an opportunity to study for a short period of time in the United States. Those were extremely difficult days for the family, but my mother, thinking that it would be a greater opportunity for me, allowed me to leave. I was 18 years old. Leaving Spain in those days was extremely difficult and rare.

In April 1947, I arrived in New York en route to the University of Colorado at Boulder, where I enrolled in the College of Engineering to study mechanical engineering. I had studied English at different times but my knowledge of English proved very poor, so for the first six months, I devoted myself to attend English classes to pick up the language. However, because of my economic situation, I also had to work. Slowly, as my language skills improved, I was able to take more advanced engineering courses until I was able to carry a normal curriculum while working part-time in the afternoons and weekends to pay for my schooling. In the summer months, my skills as a tool and die maker proved to be invaluable as I was able to obtain employment at a good pay and that enabled me to save enough money so that I could reduce some of the working hours during the school year.

While attending college, I met a fellow student, Joan Charlotte Bartheld, who was studying aeronautical engineering. We dated for 3 ½ years and in December 1951 we got married. We both graduated from the School of Engineering in June of 1952. My wife, Joan, graduated with the highest honors in the School of Engineering: one of two women in the School of Engineering.

Upon graduation from the University of Colorado at Boulder, we headed for Los Angeles, California, looking for work. Because of the severe restrictions put on foreigners in the defense industry in the United States, work was extremely difficult to obtain for me, and two months later, we moved to the State of Ohio where both my wife and I worked from 1952 to 1956. At the same time, I taught engineering courses at the University of Dayton. Those years proved to be the background that I needed to begin my professional development. While attending the University of Dayton, I developed a series of fire extinguishing valves for the purpose of starting a company in California, and key to such valve development for fire extinguishers was a special seal made from Teflon and stainless steel.

After arriving in California, I went to work for a company, designing valves and regulators, which happened to be my specialty. I was put in charge of developing valves and regulators for the Atlas Missile for sealing liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen. In those days, there were no seals available to seal at those temperatures, but the seal that I conceived at the University of Dayton proved to be invaluable. We tested the valves at -260°C and it worked. From that moment on, I was in the seal business.

In 1958, with my wife, Joan, we started Bal Seal Engineering Company. Our financial means were very modest and we rented a Quonset, which is a metallic pre-fabricated building, for $40 a month. I purchased a lathe and went into fabricating seals. My experience in tool and die making, design of valves, teaching, and the continuous support of my wife, Joan, proved to be invaluable in succeeding in the business. Initially, the business grew very slowly because it was necessary to overcome many breakthroughs: developing equipment, developing means for making the seals, testing the seals, marketing the seals, producing catalogs, advertising - all in one. But with perseverance, hard work and dedication, slowly we made headway and slowly we moved from place to place until today, we are located at Foothill Ranch,California in a 13,000 m2 facility . It has been and continues to be a very rewarding experience. It's been a lifetime adventure, which was made possible due to the basic principles that my parents and grandparents taught me, the dedication of my wife and her family, and working together. I am blessed with an extraordinary family with two daughters and a son, and five grandchildren.

Aware of my roots, as more of my time became available, I joined the Casal dels Catalans de California and in 1992 I became its president, a position which I held for several years. In 1994, together with the School of Engineering at the University of California, Irvine I conceived a program of engineering fellowships for Catalan students. Such fellowships are financed by an endowment from the Balsells family plus yearly contributions from myself, from the University of California, Irvine, and from the Generalitat de Catalunya . In addition, as part of the agreement, the University of California Irvine assists students beyond the first year in providing funds to pursue projects or to be teaching assistants so they can continue their work and pay their expenses beyond the first year. The success of these fellowships is due in great part to the effort of Professor Roger Rangel of UCI, who has devoted a great deal of time and effort to make it a success, for which I thank him very much.

In 2000, I made a contribution to the public library at Santa Coloma de Queralt, Tarragona, of approximately 800 books on U.S. and California culture, as well as large quantities of magazines, and videos and computers. This way, I leave a token of California in the city where my grandparents and my father and to a certain extent, myself, have roots. In the summer of 2000, I visited Santa Coloma de Queralt and was the pregoner de festas of Santa Coloma de Queralt, at the invitation of the mayor and other city officials

I have also sponsored various students to study English at Pacific Language Institute in San Luis Obispo, California prior to entering university or prior to pursuing other studies. This has also been very rewarding since it made it possible for such students to obtain a higher level of education, which will improve their skills in furthering their education better.

In 1995, my wife and partner of 43 years passed away and in the year 2000, I lost my mother at the age of 93. I am extremely grateful to her for allowing me to leave Spain in those very difficult days so that I could have a greater opportunity.

My family and my Catalan roots have always been an integral part of who I am, and I visit Catalonia from time to time as it permits. Coming to the United States has been an exhilarating experience for me, whereby the typical rags to riches is possible through perseverance, hard work, innovation, dedication, honesty and integrity, and the adventure continues.


Pete Balsells

Summer of 2000 (updated 2007)