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  Harold Michael J&C Article

Former Head of Civil Engineering at Purdue Dies at 79

By John Norberg
Journal and Courier

Harold Michael, retired head of the Purdue University School of Civil Engineering, a man considered a "giant" in his, field, who worked quietly for the Lafayette area community, has died. He was 79.

He was attending a conference of the Institute of Transportation Engineers in Las Vegas this week and died there Tuesday. He was past president of the organization.

"We have lost a true champion"said Vincent Drnevich, who succeeded Michael as head of Purdue Civil Engineering. "He was really loved by our faculty and staff and students and considered one of the kindest, wisest gentlemen we all knew."

"He was a giant in the discipline of civil engineering," Purdue President Steven Beering said. "He brought national and international acclaim to Purdue through his prolific and astute research and because of his vast knowledge of transportation infrastructures.

"He was also a true gentleman and a dear personal friend," Beering said. "I was privileged to be his colleague, and I will miss him dearly."

Born in 1920, Michael's list of achievements and projects seems endless. He graduated from Purdue in 1950 and received his master's in 1951, becoming part of the civil engineering department.

From 1956 until he retired from Purdue in 1991, he was associate director and then director of the Indiana Joint Highway Research Project, which looks at all highway and transportation issues in the state.

He was active in the National Strategic Highway Research Board, holding several positions including membership on the executive committee.

In 1975, he was elected to the National Academy of Engineering.

He was the first, current and only head of the West Lafayette Traffic Commission, and from 1965 to the present was the first, current and only chairman of the Tippecanoe County Technical Highway Commission, an advisory agency of the Area Plan Commission.

Michael served as head of Purdue's School of Civil Engineering from 1978 until 1991 and helped in development of the U.S. interstate system and was invited all over the world to work on traffic issues.

"Harold has had a tremendous influence in our community and state and the world," Drnevich said. "He traveled worldwide working on transportation issues. Purdue is considered one of the premiere locations for transportation research, and Harold had a great deal to do with that."

Internationally Known

Michael's international reputation is exemplified by people like Chang Chia-Juch, who received his Ph.D. from Purdue in 1978 and is now Republic of China vice minister of transportation and communications.

In Three Tigers and Purdue, a book to be published this fall about the university and Pacific Rim students, Chang said, "Harold Michael was very prominent... a leading expert in his field. I went to Purdue because that's where Harold Michael was."

West Lafayette Mayor Sonya Margerum said Michael was a great help to local groups meeting with state highway officials.

"It was always helpful to take him to Indianapolis with us when we had those meetings," she said. "Most of the engineers there had gotten their degrees under him.

"His range of knowledge about traffic and streets and roads was really legendary," she said. "He was a worldwide expert in traffic, and yet he was always very willing at traffic commission meetings to listen carefully to petitioners who had some special traffic concern."

At one of those meetings in the early 1970s, he presented information based on transportation statistics And studies and then listened quietly while members of a neighborhood group, who didn't know his background, told him his information was wrong.

Once at a county transportation meeting, a civil engineer representing a businessman differed with Michael on a proposal and gave his own technical analysis of the situation.

"I taught you better than that," Michael told his former student.

"He was a person who contributed for many years to the community in a quiet way," Margerum said.

"He was an extremely important person and yet very self-effacing," said Tippecanoe County Area Plan Commission Executive Director Jim Hawley. "He was one of the foremost traffic engineers in the country and helped write some of the basic text for traffic engineers. He was a delightful individual who served the community quietly and with a lot of class."

Gordon Kingma, president of the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce from 1986 to 1992, remembered once being in Washington, D.C., with an Indiana chamber group.

Kingma told federal officials he wanted to talk to a top, national expert about traffic in Lafayette.

He was told he would be introduced to one of the leading experts in the world later that day. The expert turned out to be Kingma's longtime friend, Michael.

At Tippecanoe County highway meetings, "Whenever a request came through for some- thing like an entrance to a business, Harold always thought, I wonder how this will affect our local people,'" Kingma said. "He was a guardian of our traffic interests."

Active In Other Roles

Michael also was active in Rotary and Redeemer Lutheran Church in West Lafayette.

As a member of the Purdue Class of 1950, he played an active role in fund raising for the Class of 1950 Lecture Hall.

"I saw him two weeks ago," class president Jim Blakesley said. "He was very active and planning to go overseas."

Born in Columbus, Ind., Michael grew up on small farms during the Great Depression. He was drafted into World War II in 1942 and was sent to officers' candidate and then survey school where he got his first taste of civil engineering.

He landed in Normandy a few days after D-Day and in 1994 returned with his grandson for the 50th anniversary commemoration where he had the opportunity to talk with President Clinton.

After the war, Michael went to Purdue on the GI Bill. He was 30 years old when he graduated and went out into a country that was exploding with opportunity.

"That was an exciting time," he said in the book, A Force for Change, the Class of 1950. "Highways were really developing after the war.  There was no money to spend on them during the war, and they were in such bad shape they had to be rebuilt. The first year of the interstate system was 1956. They were looking for engineers to do this."

With all that work to do, Michael never completed his Ph.D. and became unique in the late 20th century, heading a major university school without a doctorate. In 1992, he was given an honorary Ph.D. by Purdue. His death came as a shock. "I had lunch with him Friday," Drnevich said. "We had a nice conversation. It was my chance to say goodbye. But I didn't realize it at the time."