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Letter to a Young Engineer

Monday, July 13, 2020

This letter from Distinguished Professor Emeritus Dr. Ralph Haas is an exerpt from the book Letters to a Young Engineer, which will be provided to all 2020 Engineering Graduates.

“A Fork in the Road” is the title I chose for this letter to a young Engineer. It is based in part on a Convocation Address I gave to Engineering graduates at The University of Alberta in June, 2018. My Alma Mater for a Bachelor’s Degree many years ago was the U of A and then I became a “new” graduate at U of A with a DSc (Hon) in 2018. My life as a young engineer was followed by six decades as an educator, researcher and practitioner. It has been one of good fortune and opportunity to observe and participate in an incredible amount of change in our profession, and indeed in our society. You will face even more changes in your career over the coming years.

So why the title of A Fork in the Road? To start, Yogi Berra, the great baseball Hall of Famer, is reported to have said “when you come to a fork in the road take it”. Steve Jobs, Co-Founder of Apple, and Beverly McLachlin, Retired Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada effectively said the same., as I will point out.

As for Yogi Berra, some thought it was just a Yogi’ism, but he became a successful manager of The Yankees after his playing days; Steve Jobs was a genius in creating devices that people wanted, and Beverly McLachlin wrote seminal judgements for the Supreme Court. They all really talked about opportunity and decision time.

A personal example is my first job after high school, which was unloading box cars of farm and construction materials. One night, in the town pool hall, a buddy told me they had just fired a guy from the survey crew – the next day I had a new job. Now I understand what Steve Jobs meant in a commencement address at Stanford University when he said “Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition”

Another personal fork in the road, 8 years later, was a decision to go to University. I well recall the opening welcome for frosh when the Associate Dean of Engineering, Professor Gads, warned that only one out of every three of us would eventually graduate – that scared the heck out of me, but I did make it and with the encouragement of Dean Govier went on to do graduate work.

Then came a fork in the road which changed my life and career. It started with a Sunday morning call from Dr. John Ruptash, Dean of Engineering at Carleton University in Ottawa – who said I hear you are looking for a job and I am offering you one – I asked if I could think it over, and he replied sure call me back tomorrow morning.

A month later my wife and I with two small kids, pointed our 11year old Chevy east, and headed for Ottawa – that could not have been a better decision, and Dr. Ruptash, who I found later had actually been a gold medalist in Engineering at Alberta, was a superb mentor.

After three years in Ottawa I joined the University of Waterloo, did my PhD and embarked on another stage of being a teacher, researcher and practitioner over the next decades. Those years involved a great array of activities, initiatives and very importantly many many undergraduate and graduate students who can justifiably take pride in their achievements; me too! As I write this letter after more than two decades of supposedly being retired, I continue to do research, supervise students and stay involved with the Transportation Association of Canada, 

The US Transportation Board, The Royal Society of Canada, and others. In fact, I was the founding Director of The Center for Pavement and Transportation Technology.

Another personal fork in the road was whether I could contribute something meaningful to the University of Alberta in recognition of my own positive experience as a student and in subsequent years as an alumnus. The initiative undertaken was a partnership betweenmyself and Stantec to create an endowment in support an early-in-career professor. It epitomizes in many ways chief Justice Beverly McLachlin saying “There’s always another page to turn, and you turn it”

Now, do my personal examples mean that I always made the right decision – not at all. I recall in that sense, one of the longest serving Deans of Engineering in Alberta, Dr. R.M. Hardy, A prominent geotechnical expert, who was reputed to have made many mistakes – but not the same one twice. You too will come to many forks in the road. You will make mistakes, but hopefully also not repeat them.

I would like to finish with a personal perspective that if one has any kind of a legacy it should be based on being, above all, a decent person. All the better if you add generosity, integrity, courtesy and contributions to your community, society and your profession. I hope this will be an integral part of your future, as proud alumni of this great University.

Ralph Carl George Haas

Ralph Haas is the Norman W. McLeod Engineering Professor and Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Waterloo, and past chair of The Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

A Member of the Order of Canada, Dr. Haas is also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, the Canadian Academy of Engineering, the Engineering Institute of Canada, the American Society of Civil Engineers and the Canadian Society of Civil Engineering. In 2002 he received the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal and in 2012 the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal. The University of Waterloo officially named “The Ralph Haas Infrastructure and Sensing Analysis Laboratory” in his honour in 2014.

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