Three Durham professors look back on 115 years of service
With the end of the spring semester, The Durham School of Architectural Engineering and Construction not only bid farewell to graduating students, it also had to prepare for life without three of its cornerstone faculty.
Tom Sires, Ken Merkel and Terence Foster combined for 115 years of service to the University of Nebraska system – Sires for 52 years, Merkel for 38 and Foster for 25 – and have been key components in UNL’s architectural engineering and construction engineering programs.
Sires, professor of construction engineering, served as a mentor to both students and junior faculty members, including Merkel and Foster. Sires is a former interim director of The Durham School. He has taught classes and done research in many different areas of engineering, including statics, dynamics, strength of materials, hydraulics, soils technology, asphalt paving and engineering numerical methods.
Merkel, professor of architectural engineering, started in UNO’s industrial systems program in 1978. He was also instrumental in the development of master’s programs in architectural engineering and engineering management. He earned seven academic degrees, including a master of industrial engineering from UNL. Merkel’s career includes research and professional work in the areas of project management, manufacturing operations, operations efficiency and indoor/outdoor firing range construction and operations.
Foster, professor of construction engineering and associate director of The Durham School, brought more than two decades of experience as a senior corporate executive to UNL in 1991. His teaching included courses on statics, dynamics, mechanics of materials, structural materials and design, fluid mechanics, thermodynamics, construction business methods, advanced CAD and computational analysis.
They’ve had a “big impression” on each other, according to Merkel, and often collaborated and consulted with each other with a deep mutual respect.
So, perhaps it is also fitting that these three stalwarts retired after the spring semester.
Separately, we asked Sires, Merkel and Foster about their long careers and let them tell their own stories:
Obviously, the three of you have worked a long time together at The Durham School. What memories do you have of each other and the work you may have done in collaboration?
Sires: “I was on the hiring outfit that brought in Ken Merkel and was chair of the committee that hired Terry Foster. Getting those two guys, that’s certainly one of the biggest feathers in my cap. When I started, we were the College of Engineering and Technology. Ken was the first guy I knew who was hired as a full professor and ran one of our technology divisions. I knew he was going to be great for us.
“And Terry, he’s an engineer’s engineer. The minute I met him, we just clicked. He was everything – his B.S. and M.S. are from MIT, a Ph.D. from California-Berkeley, and he’s both a civil engineer and nuclear engineer and he got a Fulbright. He has professional engineering licenses in 10 different states and he’s really well known in the engineering community. I saw him and thought, ‘That’s the guy. That’s what we (the College of Engineering) want to be’ and I got him hired.
“He and I taught some courses together, like engineering statics, and we wrote a lot of papers – if I’d say it was 50, I’d be undercutting it. On all of them, in the upper right-hand corner, you’ll see a ‘T-squared’. That stands for Terry and Tom. That’s how we signed our work, and we still do. We’re going to keep doing that stuff.”
Merkel: “Tom was involved in the original hiring process that brought me to the College of Engineering. One of Tom’s characteristics that made a big impression on me was his deep and abiding concern for the welfare of the students, especially their learning needs related to mathematics and basic hardcore engineering courses. If you were a student and came within Tom’s sphere of influence, you went away with much more knowledge of mathematics than when you entered. Over the years Tom has helped many, many students survive the difficult processes involved in completing an engineering education.
“Terry came after I had been here for a while. I was then, always have been, and now remain deeply impressed by his sheer technical intellectual ability. Terry has an outstanding grasp of engineering essentials and has always projected a rigorous understanding of the mathematical, physical, and scientific fundamental principles which are the basis of the engineering disciplines. I have always thought of Terry as being kind of an engineering wizard.”
Foster: “Professor Sires chaired the search committee that hired me. He and I resonated during the search process due to our interest in the quantitative aspects of engineering and their scientific underpinnings. Dr. Merkel showed me ‘the ropes’ in the university system and saved me a lot of time and energy I would have spent in discovering them on my own. Both Tom and Ken were instrumental in me becoming a full professor as a result of their encouragement and support.”
How did you come to UNL and The Durham School?
Sires: “They say I’ve been here 52 years, but really, it’s been 55. I was a high school math teacher at North High (in Omaha) in 1960. … James Q. Hossack, at UNL, knew I was up at North, he knew I was a flight engineer in the Air Force during the Korean Conflict and asked, ‘How’s your meteorology?’ So I took over that class in 1961 as an adjunct. Then I stayed teaching that course until they actually hired me as a junior faculty in 1963. That’s the start of my full-time employment at the university.”
Merkel: “I was employed with General Electric as a mid-level engineering manager and ran myself through a mid-career review. When it was completed, it was quite clear that I wanted to leave industry and spend the rest of my working career as an academic. About that time, I read an advertisement for a position as department chairman and professor in the College of Engineering. I applied, was hired, and have ever since enjoyed the finest working career any person could ever be privileged to have.”
Foster: “A colleague of mine, Jim Goedert, ran into my wife, Mollie, in Omaha and told her that the School of Engineering Technology (then a part of the College of Engineering and Technology in Omaha) was searching for a person with a Ph.D., PE licensure, and major industrial experience. The position was a perfect fit for me. I met Tom Sires, and the history began to unfold 25 years ago.”
What are your favorite accomplishments and memories of your UNL career?
Sires: “MESA (Math, Engineering and Science Achievement, and Sires was director of the Nebraska MESA program) is one of them. Even though I got fired as interim director, our (The Durham School’s) connection with the university in Lincoln is one of them. They’re probably my two favorites.”
Merkel: “Most of my favorite accomplishments have completed their degrees and are now out in industry, vigorously working away at their engineering careers while trying to live balanced lives and sniffing as many roses as they might encounter along the way. My memories are centered around those graduates, my many, many excellent academic colleagues, and a plentiful host of other very rich experiences at the university.”
Foster: “I have been able to participate in the College of Engineering’s transition from a combined engineering and technology unit to almost a pure engineering unit. My development of the construction engineering degree program added to this upward transition. I have mostly taught engineering mechanics and structural design courses in which the students felt I remembered too much from my academic training. In addition to work in engineering, I have been a courtesy professor in the Aviation Institute, where I taught aerodynamics. My scholarship has focused on construction and theoretical structural engineering along with decision support systems using IT.”
What will you most miss about The Durham School?
Sires: “The kids, strictly the kids. They are just terrific and they want to be engineers. A lot of times, there’s just one prof, one teacher who is stopping them. You know, you don’t get along with everybody. Sometimes, I know, once in a while there’s a guy and you just don’t click. Engineering is a real specific thing and there’s some real tough obstacles. Some way, you had to get around those things. I was known as the guy who, if you’re having trouble, come on in and we’d fight it through together or we’ll find somebody to fight it with us. I did a lot of that stuff, and I really, really liked that.
“I’ve always had a little table outside my office, and I would hold court just about every day. Kids would come down and we’d do problems together. I might still do that. That would be fun.”
Merkel: “Being there amidst all the action. That place is a beehive of energy, growth, learning, and accomplishment by just about everyone involved.”
Foster: “The Durham School is a vibrant unit offering three degree programs on the two UNL campuses. In this environment, I thrived on the intellectual stimulation, especially that provided by Prof. Sires with his determination to seek correct answers to problems and Dr. Merkel’s high standards of perfection in the content and format of student work products. Chairing the College P&T Committee, serving as interim chair of the Construction Systems Department, and being associate director all provided me with wonderful leadership opportunities.”
What do you see as the future for The Durham School?
Sires: “We turn out great kids, great engineers. I’m the only professor in the College of Engineering without a Ph.D. At one time, you could actually do that. In the history of the college, even some of the deans didn’t have a Ph.D. Engineering is going through a real metamorphosis, and it’s going to be even greater. I’m not sure where we’re going to end up, but I think it’s going to end up that to be a professional engineer, you’re going to need a doctorate. You’ve got a lot of guys in industry who have a baccalaureate. There are buildings, infrastructure, highways and things we need to rebuild and the people doing that are going to need a lot of practical experience, but they’re going to need to be able to design that. In the future, you’re going to have to be a Ph.D. to become a professional engineer. That may sound weird to say, but I see that coming, and I see The Durham School leading that in some way.”
Merkel: “Up, up, and away.”
Foster: “It has been exciting to participate in the progress of the College of Engineering since 1991 and The Durham School since 1999. With the new faculty and staff coming in behind me, I am confident that the growth in quality and quantity of this unit will be exponential.”
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