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An Engineer in the Woods, Installment 37: Growth of An Engineer; Part 1 – Howie, I Think Just a Little Different

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Of the 1,000 or so regular readers of this blog, only a few of you told me what you wanted me to write about once I ran out of pet stories, but of those few thoughts that I received there were two ideas that made me think.  One of the college friends of my kids wanted me to write about my cars.  I have been driving for 42 years, and in that time, I have owned 25 cars or so.  Each of them has at least one story – some have several  stories and there are a couple car stories that involve borrowed cars. There are few stories about what my children did to cars, and even worse ones about things I have done.  A dozen or so police officers and four judges get honorable mentions.  It would probably take me close to 3 years to write all of my car stories.  You might not get bored reading them, but I would definitely get bored writing them – so a car series is “no”, at least for now.

The other idea that gave me pause was from my friend Larry.  Larry and I first met through my mom and her volunteer work for Silver Cross Hospital, then through Rotary, and our latest collaboration was on the Board of Directors of the Joliet Chamber of Commerce.  Larry, though my senior by several years, has been my successor in volunteer officer positions a few times.  No particular reason, just the way things worked-out.  He asked me, “Why do I always follow you into these leadership positions?”  I had a smart-assed answer ready for once, “They want to see if someone can be even worse than me.  So they give you a chance.”   Of course that’s not true.  Larry is a very professional, thoughtful and thorough leader and more of a “classic” leader than I am.  All I do is think quickly and if you know me, you have probably observed that I love looking at controversial topics from different perspectives and that I think just a little different.  
I have watched Larry in those volunteer Board meetings occasionally studying me with a kind of sideways glance.  I know what he was thinking, “This kid is weird.  Why is that?”  I think he answered his own question with “Engineer.”  So, his simple question that he wants me to answer in this blog series is, “What made the young Howard into an engineer?”  I think I can have some fun with that, but I will take it a little further and write about how an engineer grows with life experiences.  

The start of the story is easy, because I have already discussed some of it in previous blogs about the house, so read on…

I’m not an author or (obviously) a home improvement expert or pet trainer.  I’m an engineer, more specifically a civil engineer, and within that field I am primarily a water resources engineer, although I have picked-up several additional specialties over the past decades.  My dad was an engineer.  His dad was an engineer.  Dad’s brother and brother in-law were engineers.  Mom’s brother and brother in-law were engineers. My brother was an engineer.  My younger sister’s husband is an engineer.  My wife is an engineer.  I’m an engineer.  Other than a brief interest in law and politics during junior high and early high school, I have always wanted to be an engineer.

I had a HUGE sandbox as a kid (not the one in this pic, my water features were much more complex).  I built channels, and dams, and aqueducts, and reservoirs, and arches – then I flooded the sandbox with water and watched what happened.  At five I did some of the same hydraulic experiments that I performed 18 years later in Hydrosystems Lab as a graduate student at the University of Illinois.  I wasn’t being smart when I was a kid, just curious.  I was going to be an engineer.


The sandbox didn’t just make an impression on me, it made an impression on my friends and family.  A few years ago, I was at a charity event that was also being attended by one of the kids I grew-up with, Tom.  He is now an associate judge on the Twelfth Judicial Circuit Court of Illinois and lives just a few blocks from me and from where he was raised, which was two doors from our house in the woods.  That’s the funny thing about my neighborhood – there are at least a half dozen of the “kids” (now in their late 50’s) that I played with that have moved-back as adults.  Two of us still live in the same houses!  None of us stayed in our parents’ basements after college, we each became established elsewhere, and at some point decided that we wanted to move back.  Tom is part of that pack.  His first comment to me as we were standing in line at the bar in the Renaissance Center was, “I still remember flooding your sandbox.  Now you get paid to do that!”

I also had an HO scale two-level train track with a mountain, tunnels and bridges that Dad and I started together.  Different kind of engineer (choo-choo), but as I grew, so did the track as I added more bridges and tunnels, experimented with super-elevated curves and track slope, and taught myself about electrical control wiring.  I didn’t know that I was doing anything special, I just wanted the trains to go faster without flying off the track and I wanted to make sure that there were no “dead spots” in the electrical system.  I only realize that that was engineering when I think about it in retrospect.  What I do remember is that my friends enjoyed seeing the trains go fast.  I enjoyed the process of making them go faster.  I think just a little different.

In first grade we were asked to draw a picture of what we wanted to be when we grew up.  It was 1969, the height of the space race and the first moon landing.  Many of the students drew rocket ships and astronauts.  There were firemen, policemen, cowboys, doctors, and nurses, always favorites.   There were happy apple-eating teachers drawn by the suck-ups (that’s probably what Kristen drew).  There had been three Super Bowls, so there were boys who wanted to be football stars.  Vietnam was raging and some of the kids had brothers in the armed forces, so there were soldiers, and sailors and pilots.  What did 6 year-old Howie draw?  I remember it because it became family lore.  I also found it when we were cleaning out the basement 5 ½  years ago, Mom had saved it in the back of a filing cabinet.  The artwork was even worse than I remembered, and it was yellow, crumbling, faded, and barely discernable -  so I pitched it.  Below is a 30 second sketch from my memory of that picture…

A 58-year-old’s artistic interpretation of a 6-year-old’s drawing  
(the original did not have labels)

Ummm…yeah.  Larry is right.  I am a little weird.  I think just a little different.

My seventh-grade science fair experiment was studying the effects of soil erosion and fertilizer runoff in a terrarium that I built.  Really what I did was for fun.  Over the summer I built a concrete-lined stream and a plastic jug bottom reservoir in a ten-gallon aquarium filled with topsoil and plants that I had transplanted from the woods around our home.  I aerated the pond, built an airlift pump to recirculate the water through the stream, fertilized the plants, and watered with a spray watering can to simulate rain.  It was fun, not really an “experiment.”  The pond turned green, then brown and the snails and creek chubs that I put in it died.  After I had been enjoying my created environment for several weeks,  school began and I learned about the Science Fair at Troy Junior High.  I created a diary of what I had done and observed, gave the terrarium a title that I have since forgotten, and won a blue ribbon (also found in the back of Mom’s filing cabinet).  At twelve I had no idea what I had proven (though I know now).  All I learned was, “Don’t put fertilizer and mud in a small pond.” I was going to be an engineer, and it was “fun” because I think just a little different. 

At age 9, I earned my first two paychecks from Robert E. Hamilton Consulting Engineers after completing a flood survey with my brother in Frankfort, and construction staking for a road project as one of our “family picnics” in Crest Hill.  By age 13, I was on a surveying crew every summer, I added “Draftsman” to my resume at 16, at 18 I ran one of our surveying crews, at 22 I was a 50-hour a week “part-time” wastewater treatment systems design engineer for a firm in Champaign while I worked on my Master’s degree, at 25 I was a 70-hour a week construction inspector and wastewater treatment systems design engineer for Robert E. Hamilton Consulting Engineers, PC (now Hamilton Engineers, Inc.), at 30 I was a Vice President, at 43 I became President, and at nearly 58 I’m tired…  But I’m getting way ahead.  How did it start?  It started with our House in the Woods, and that’s next month’s story.

Try thinking just a little different today.  The world is a beautiful place!