Monday, February 09, 2015
Passing of an Ethical Engineer
For almost as long as I have been writing this blog, my wife's father Benjamin G. Simons has lived with us. Ben passed away in our home on Saturday, Feb. 7, at the age of 89. There is a branch of engineering ethics that uses "moral exemplars"—basically, good examples—as models of how ethical engineers should live. Ben was one of these.
Ben was a brick. I use that word in two senses.
One sense is now archaic, but means something close to today's "cool dude." When a character in Mark Twain called someone a brick, it meant that they were a good, reliable, and even generous character, what in Yiddish is called a "mensch." Ben was born in 1925 in Kenefic, a town occupying one square mile in south central Oklahoma, to a couple who decided in the early 1930s to seek better opportunities when they moved to Fort Worth, Texas. Ben's mother trained him well: he was unfailingly courteous to women, always said "thank you" for favors received, and almost always used his native Irish stubbornness for good purposes. Following his graduation from high school in 1943, he joined the Navy as soon as he turned eighteen and served in the Seabees (the Navy's Construction Battalion) in the South Pacific theater until the end of World War II. He made some efforts in the direction of higher education, both with independent study in the form of International Correspondence School literature and formal academic training. In going through some of his old papers we found while cleaning out the family home in Fort Worth, I found a calculus exam he had failed. In the late 1940s, a college degree was not yet a necessity for someone who wanted to become a surveyor or civil engineering professional, and he found work in those fields in South Texas and various other locations, turning his wartime construction experience to good purpose.
Sometime in the mid-1950s, he joined what was then called the Texas Highway Department in Fort Worth and determined to live the American dream: he built a new house, bought a new car (a 1955 Olds, which now resides in the garage here), and after ten years of marriage, a girl was born in 1956. (That girl eventually became my wife.) From that time until his retirement in 1979, he worked at the Highway Department's Fort Worth offices and occasionally on field sites as a construction supervisor.
The grand civil-engineering project of that era was the Interstate Highway System promoted by President Eisenhower, who had seen the military usefulness of Germany's advanced autobahns during World War II and understood the unifying effect of a good transportation infrastructure for the U. S. Ben's career spanned the construction of Loop 820, the main ring road around Fort Worth that interconnects the east-west IH-20 and IH-30 routes with the north-south IH-35W, which goes all the way from Laredo, Texas to Duluth, Minnesota. He was one of those guys you see in old photos of large drafting rooms where white-shirted men wearing ties spent their days under fluorescent lights churning out penciled drawings on mylar that became blueprints for America. His title on retirement was Engineering Technician V, but most people back then would have called him a highway engineer.
And here we come to the second meaning of "brick," namely, a rectangular block of fired clay used in construction. There is nothing that remarkable about an individual brick, and nothing that useful, either. But as long as each brick meets its specifications for hardness and strength, you can use thousands of them to build truly amazing structures, anything from houses up to churches, roads, and aqueducts, as the ancient Romans knew. Ben was a metaphorical brick in the great, and possibly historically unique, burgeoning of engineering that the United States experienced in the 1950s through the 1970s. In 1950, there were no interstate highways, only two-lane roads connecting most cities, and television was just beginning to put small fuzzy gray images in the homes of a few million city dwellers. Digital computers consisted of rooms full of giant boxes of hot vacuum tubes, and even their developers thought the world market for computers would be saturated by the time a dozen or two were completed. By 1960, the interstate highway system was on the drawing boards of most states, 87% of U. S. households had at least one TV, and computer engineers were eagerly ordering a new device from Texas Instruments called the "integrated circuit."
For the next two decades, Ben stayed married to his wife (a monumental achievement only those closest to him could appreciate), raised two daughters, paid off his car loan and his mortgage, and stayed gainfully employed as a member of the Texas Highway Department's staff. At one point, in order to communicate better with a hearing-impaired colleague, he went to the trouble to learn American Sign Language, and we have a photo that shows him receiving a service award for this work. To the best of my knowledge, Ben never accepted a bribe, and none of the roads or bridges he helped design and build ever showed serious flaws.
To some, this might seem to be an unremarkable, even dull, life. But just as each brick's hardness and solidity contributes its small part to the integrity of the entire structure, Ben's small role in the story of American engineering in the mid-twentieth century was just as important as every other brick's role. Without millions of such bricks, many of them veterans who had seen just enough of foreign lands to be glad to be back home in America, this country could not have become what it became: the birthplace and home of many of the most outstanding engineering and scientific achievements of world history.
There is honor in fulfilling one's obligations to one's profession, one's society, and one's family, and Ben fulfilled his obligations. That such achievements are commonplace makes them no less honorable for that. Ben's life is history now. But his legacy of simply doing his job well and remaining faithful to his vision of right and wrong is one that deserves attention and emulation. Ben never founded a Fortune 500 company, or won the Nobel Prize, or even got promoted beyond the title of Engineering Technician V. But he did his job competently and well, and we engineers who follow in the footsteps of his generation should do no less.
Sources: I found the statistic on TVs in U. S. households at http://www.tvb.org/media/file/TV_Basics.pdf.