Remembering Fred Graham, PE, Standout Pittsburgh Civil Engineer

John F. “Fred” Graham, PE, passed away on March 14, leaving behind an engineering legacy in Pittsburgh that will live for generations. Fred Graham served his community through numerous public-works projects, served his country as a US Army veteran, and also served the many civil engineers who were fortunate enough to know him.

Fred GrahamWhether you worked for Fred, studied under him, or served in a professional society alongside him, it was clear that not only did he expect something to be done right, he also empowered those around him to do it right. Fred achieved this through building confidence and offering solid support. He was a true team leader, manager, mentor, and friend to the civil-engineering community. Fred was not afraid to make a stand for what he knew was right; he was proud not for what he accomplished (and he accomplished a lot), but because of the strength of the outcome of his projects and the great work of all those who help bring those projects to successful completion.

Indeed, Fred steadfastly maintained that his career had been so successful because he surrounded himself with talented people. Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald echoed this observation in his statement on Fred’s passing: “He often joked that he hired people smarter than him, although we know that Fred was one of the smartest people we knew.”

A Standout Civil Engineer and Supportive Mentor, Eager to Share Success

I was fortunate to have studied under Fred at Carnegie Mellon University during my junior year. I found that many of my introductory classes, while challenging, were too theoretical to be immediately relatable to engineering. I was thus excited to begin my first project-level class.

The University invited outside organizations such as the Port Authority of Allegheny County and Allegheny County Department of Public Works (DPW) to be our mock clients in order to give us real-world projects to attempt with only our developing engineering knowledge. Fred Graham was our project advisor, tasked with tying it all together for us. During his introductory remarks, he went over many of the Pennsylvania Turnpike and Allegheny County projects he managed, especially the 1992 Pittsburgh International Airport Midfield Terminal project.

Fred exemplified what it meant to be a people-focused civil engineer and a selfless support to those he taught and those privileged to work alongside him.

Throughout the class, Fred would try to give us as many real-world examples as possible, connecting our projects to his career experiences. Having overseen the building of the airport and accompanying Southern Expressway, he could almost always find ways to relate our studies to his experience, telling us, “At the airport, we solved the problem in this way…”

In an example of how he valued civil engineering that truly benefited the public, Fred spoke of how he sought to keep the airport design passenger focused. He told us how he fought for open concourses with skylights instead of the more utilitarian option that the airlines preferred. And perhaps his fondest memory was that of being able to throw a party before the airport’s opening to thank everyone who worked on the project, no matter their role.

Advancing Essential Infrastructure During Difficult Times

Fred was part of the Allegheny County DPW during a very challenging time. Most county-owned bridges were built in the 1920s and 1930s, and were at the end of their design lives during the Pittsburgh area’s industry contraction and local funding shortages of the 1970s and 1980s.

Federal bridge inspections and the availability of federal funding were relatively new and evolving in that era, and Fred was most proud of being able to obtain federal funding for needed work on Pittsburgh-area bridges. While many projects involved new bridge construction, Fred worked with the Federal Highway Administration to secure the option of having the federal government fund bridge rehabilitation as well as replacement. This helped Pittsburgh retain several of its iconic bridges—many of them the signature civil engineering achievements that inspired my career. And Fred was a champion of the ‘golden triangle’ concept, insisting that all of downtown Pittsburgh’s bridges be painted their distinctive gold.

Champion of Collaboration, Acknowledgment, and Technical Progress

While I was never able to experience working for Fred, my class could sense his management style in the way he advised our project team. As in a real-world project, Fred assigned his students specific roles such as project manager, discipline technical leader, and so on. Naturally, there would be some disagreements, but Fred was focused on making sure that the best ideas would be brought out, regardless of someone’s role. Fred would also help team members find creative ways to advance their ideas past obstruction or personalities.

When I entered the professional world and became involved with technical societies, it was impressive to chat with some of the senior engineers who had worked for Fred. Everyone would talk about what he meant to them, and how much he helped their career. Whenever someone would win an award, Fred would be the first one to wish them congratulations or attend their reception.

In addition to teaching, during his retirement Fred Graham also ran his own part-time consulting business. Fred even took on the role of marketing sensors for bridge monitoring, because he saw it as the way of the future. He did not fully retire until 2015, when deteriorating health gave him no choice.

Distinguished Professional Who Forged an Enduring Legacy

Fred Graham was named a Distinguished Member of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), served as an ASCE Board member and District 4 director, and won many awards in his life, most recently the Engineers’ Society of Western Pennsylvania (ESWP) William Metcalf Award in 2018. He was truly a life-long professional who created a legacy of service through engineering, teaching, and mentorship. In his class at Carnegie Mellon University, he remarked that he told his wife to never expect to become rich from his career, but to know that he was doing honorable work for the greater good. Fred Graham was true to this vision: over a long and distinctive career, Fred exemplified what it meant to be a people-focused civil engineer and a selfless support to those he taught and those privileged to work alongside him.

Todd Wilson, PE, MBA specializes in traffic-related civil engineering for transportation projects, and conducts various types of traffic studies and design plans, including traffic impact studies, safety audits, transit-oriented development projects, and parking studies. He performs traffic design and plan preparation for traffic control, signalization, signing, and pavement marking projects. Todd is active in numerous professional societies, including the Pittsburgh section of ASCE, for which he chairs the History & Heritage Committee.

Contact Todd Wilson, 412.399.5299, for information about GAI’s traffic engineering and other civil engineering services.

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