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Mentoring The Next Generation of Transportation Professionals

By Dr. Beverly Kuhn P.E., PTOE, PMP posted 01-25-2021 07:08 PM


As we start 2021, I am certain that each of us is wondering what the new year will hold for us.  Will we return to something resembling “normal” in the coming months?  Will we have the opportunity to visit family and friends, dine indoors, and travel with the seemingly carefree abandon of pre-COVID-19 life?  Will the definition of “normal” change forever?  How will our organization be impacted in the coming months?  It is difficult to say, but hope is on the horizon.  We are looking for a bellwether to chart the path forward.  

Within our organization, we are charting a new path through the One ITE initiative to help our students transition to full members as they graduate, encouraging them to see ITE as the bellwether for their careers in our profession.  As I reflect on the shift I took in membership when I graduated from Texas A&M University, I am reminded of the faculty who were de facto ambassadors for ITE and helped me understand the value that ITE membership could offer.  Sadly, we lost one of these outstanding leaders this month.  Neilon J. Rowan - or Dr. Rowan as he was called by all of his students - passed away on January 8, 2021.  Among his many achievements within ITE, Neil was president of the Texas Section in 1973, served the International Board starting in 1975, was named transportation Engineer of the Year by the Texas Section in 1978, served as ITE International President in 1981, and was named an ITE Honorary Member in 1992.   Those accomplishments only scratch the surface of his over decades-long career as an educator and researcher.  You can read his bio on the Honorary Members page here:

When asked to reflect on what Dr. Rowan meant to them, numerous individuals offered fond memories of one of the most well-loved professors to ever walk the hallways of the Civil Engineering Department at Texas A&M University.  

Paul Reitz, TxDOT
“Dr. Rowan was instrumental in mentoring, not only myself, but many engineers through Texas A&M University. His relatable and humble demeanor made it easy for students and colleagues, alike, to seek his assistance and he would eagerly give any help he could.  Always with a smile on his face, he enjoyed life to its fullest, whether in the classroom or on his ranch. His impact on our field is immeasurable and I am a better person for having known him. He will be missed!“

Kay Fitzpatrick, TTI
“Neil Rowan demonstrated his commitment to mentoring the next generation by opening his home to students, professors, and researchers once a year for an annual social. The intent of the social was to provide students the opportunity to talk to those in the business in an informal setting. I remember attending these socials in the early 80s during my graduate student years, especially the year where we had to take refuge in his house due to a tornado watch.”

Bill Stockton, TTI
“Dr. Rowan treated us as colleagues from the day we walked in the door as grad students in the old Civil Engineering Building.  His manner was to lean on the door frame of the office and just talk, with that unforgettable grin on his face.  He was giving advice, both about how to approach our academics and how to approach a career, but it never sounded like “advice” from a superior.  It is impossible to count how much wisdom he imparted from the doorway.  And, on a personal level, for nearly 50 years he invariably greeted me with, “well, Hello Willie!”  What a guy!”

Jim Cline, TTI
“One of the first classes I took as a freshman was Engineering 101.  Dr. Rowan showed us the original crash test movies (not videos!) of crash barrels.  Had me hooked from the start in the transportation field.  The chair of my committee took a new job and left the University.  Dr. Rowan stepped in to chair my committee, and I was able to finish on time. He was always available to help provide guidance and encouragement.”

Srinivasa Sunkari, TTI
“Dr. Rowan was the chair of my thesis committee and a mentor to me. When I was a graduate student, he was a source of encouragement and inspiration and always welcomed me and other students with his big smile. His response for all the mistakes I made working for him was, “don’t worry about it. It means you are doing something.” He will be missed.”

Tom Urbanik, Retired
“Dr. Rowan had a unique and engaging interest in students, former students, and staff that transcended education and life that was much appreciated by all who had the pleasure of knowing him.”  

Jon Epps, TTI
“I was on the Civil Engineering faculty from 1968 to 1982 with Neil and the others in transportation. Neil and the group were leaders in the field in the country at that time. They helped bring recognition to CE and TTI with the great work with students and the research programs.  Neil was always enjoyable to visit with and to work with.”

Ingrid Potts, TTI
“Dr. Rowan was my first professor at A&M. Having come from Ohio and, more recently, the Chicago area, I remember it being a bit of a challenge to understand him as he lectured with a bit of a Texas ‘drawl.” In particular, I remember struggling even with the word “yella.”  I also will forever remember him quoting, “We measure it with a micrometer, mark it with a piece of chalk, and then cut it with an ax.” That really hit home with me about how we try to get our measurements to several decimal points, but in reality, roads are built with “axes” so to speak.  And finally, I remember Dr. Rowan as one of the kindest souls I’ve ever known!”

What is repeated through many of these memories, and which likely resonated with every student who had the privilege to know Dr. Rowan, is his genuine concern for students and the value he placed on mentoring the next generation of transportation professionals.  He was a rare individual who impacted the careers of so many of us and whose passing leaves a mark on us all.  I remember his smile, his laughter, his pragmatic approach to transportation, his commitment to excellence, and his willingness to go to great lengths to ensure a student graduated.  He was always in our corner and served as a bellwether for our profession in countless ways.  As I begin serving ITE as its Vice President, I will strive to mentor our students and young professionals in a way that would make Dr. Rowan proud!