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WALTER SPAULDING DOUGLAS 1912-1985 BY THOMAS KUESEL WALTER SPAULDING DOUGLAS a distinguished engineer of national and international repute, died at the age of seventy- three on March 15, 1985. He and his wife Jeannie hac! been living in Rhocle Island in their home high on a rocky prom- ontory jutting into his beloved ocean waters, where they had enjoyed many happy years of sailing with a host of longtime friends. On his retirement in 1977 as chairman of the board of Parsons Brinckerhoff Quade & Douglas, the firm to which both he and his father, Walter J. Douglas, had at separate times given the family name, he moved from PlainfielcI, New Jersey, to his erstwhile summer home in Jamestown, Rhocle IslancI. Douglas had remodeled the house primarily to ac- commodate Jeannie's "green thumb" activities joined the board of the local hospital and the Newport Yacht Club, and set about enjoying life with his family and indulging an inter- · ~ est in coating. Walter Douglas was born on January 22, 1912, in Cran- ford, New Jersey. His early education culminated at Phillips Exeter Academy in 1929. He then followed his father into the civil engineering profession anct received a B.A. from Dartmouth in 1933 and an M.S. from Harvard in 1935. Dur- ing those early days, jobs were scarce, but Douglas secured one with the Nashville Bridge Company in Tennessee. He 125
126 MEMORIAL TRIBUTES labored in the company's shops and drafting rooms, detail- ing steel, in particular, reinforcing barssome of which he later had to carry on his shoulder in the field, causing him to grumble that he "never should have detailed them so heavy!" In 1937 Walter Douglas obtained work with the original 1939 New York World's Fair, where he rose rapidly from as- sistant design engineer to engineer in charge of design. He also became the chief engineer responsible for cost forecasts and for the administrative detail associated with an organi- zation of more than one hundred individuals in various dis- . . clpllnes. It was there that he became well acquainted with various key people of the Parsons Brinckerhoff firm who were also working on parts of the fair. In 1939 Walter joined Parsons Brinckerho~. Two years later he was called to active duty in World War II with the Navy's Construction Battalion, the Seabees. Walter Douglas served in battle areas of the Pacific, rose to the rank of lieutenant commander, and later served as acting commander of his battalion. In his future career, he drew assiduously on his wartime experiences as a com- mander and in construction under difficult conditions. On his return to civilian life and Parsons Brinckerhoff, Douglas completed a series of engineering and management assignments of ever-increasing scope. Not surprisingly, sev- eral of them were of a military nature. He handled the engi- neering connected with the construction of several of our early postwar military air bases in France and Spain, as well as the key air force bases in Iceland and Newfoundland. These projects were followed by the design and construction of America's first underground bases first, the so-called Underground Pentagon in the East and, later, the huge North American Air Defense (NORAD) headquarters com- plex deep in the Rockies. On the international scene, in addition to his work in Europe for the firm, Douglas obtained and directed far- reaching assignments in South America. For example, in Co-
WALTER SPAULDING DOUGLAS 127 lombia and Ecuador he accomplished nationwide compre- hensive transportation planning, including the economic and financing studies necessary for its implementation. Meanwhile, Douglas's business career with Parsons Brinck- erhoff continued to progress dramatically. In 1952, at what was then a relatively early age, he had become a partner and a senior vice-presiclent of the firm's Parsons Brinckerhoff Corporation. He soon assumed responsibility for the firm's financial administration, establishing and implementing goals for the firm that kept it advancing in size, capability, and prosperity. The company again includect the name Douglas, becoming Parsons Brinckerhoff Quade & Douglas, and Walter finally assumed the positions of senior partner and chairman of the board, which he held until his retire- ment in ~ 977. But before that retirement in 1953 came BART! Al- ways a profound analyst and innovator, Walter Douglas be- came the father of the renaissance of metropolitan mass transit. The firm's final report (essentially authored by Doug- las, who was a superb writer), "Rapid Transit for the San Francisco Bay Area," became a landmark in the struggle of modern society to resolve its growing problems in moving vast numbers of its people. The report dealt particularly with urban and suburban en- vironments, areas that had been hampered and engulfed by the proliferation of the private automobile, the consequence of the public's love affair with it as the principal means of transportation. The seeds sown in this early work germi- natecl and grew steadily for the next two clecacles; they re- sultecl in the actual building of BART, a seventy-five-mile rapict transit system costing about $~.5 billion a modern trailblazer in which Douglas again played a key role. Douglas and his associates were pioneers in applying total systemwide analysis on a large scale, which specifically in- cludec! the use of areawide land planning. In the resultant restructuring of metropolitan transportation, Walter lee} the
128 MEMORIAL TRIBUTES way for his firm and his profession in many urban and sub- urban areas including Atlanta, Georgia; Pittsburgh, PennsyI- vania; and Caracas, Venezuela. Nor were all these achievements without well-deserved rec- ognition. In 1969 Walter Douglas was awarded the lames Laurie Award of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), essentially for his outstanding work and leadership in the fielcl of urban transportation. In 1975 he was again honored by ASCE, this time as one of the "Top Ten Con- struction Men of the Past Half Century"; in 1975 he was hon- ored by the Newcomen Society; and in 1977 he received an award from the National Society of Professional Engineers for "distinguishecl service to the engineering profession." In 1967 Walter Douglas was elected to the National Acad- emy of Engineering. Later he received the first award for "Outstancling Service" from the Building Research Board (BRB) of the National Research Council for "clistinguishec! service on the Federal Construction Council." Perhaps his most cherished aware! came in 1970 from his peers in the Moles, the fraternity of tunnel ant! heavy con- struction engineers and constructors. They honored him with their nonmember award for "outstanding achievement in construction." Even after his retirement, there was more recognition: In 1984 Douglas was elected! to the American Public Transit Authority Hall of Fame in Washington, D.C. Walter Douglas was renowned in his profession as a pro- found as well as pragmatic engineer of integrity and cour- age. Although he did not try to master all the intricacies of each technical discipline, he did maintain ant! enhance an excellent working knowledge of those disciplines that were applicable to the problems presented to him for his solution. He earnestly believed that almost any such technical prob- lem, however complex and forbidding it might at first ap- pear, could be brought to a workable solution by an intense concentration of fundamental knowledge and diligently ap- plied analysis, accompanied by an endless perspicacity- which he possessed in abundance.
WALTER SPAULDING DOUGLAS 129 Walter Douglas had, and constantly practiced, the ability to concentrate on a chosen subject to the exclusion of all else. This largely explains his widespread reputation for absent- mindedness and "apparent forgetfulness" and the famed trail of "lost" hats, plans, and other items scattered in his wake around the world. Incidentally, the treasured experi- ences of some of his associates whom he drove about in his car are almost legendary in this respect! When a project was in trouble, Douglas's action to rectify the trouble or to fight the necessary battle was immediate and total, regardless of the cost. His courage, intelligence, and perseverance would usually bring success to the bene- fit of the job itself as well as that of the firm. Douglas moved easily among important people, many of them high public and private officials. From such associations he added to and enhanced his philosophy of operating. He once questioned a top official of a major bank about why he (the official) had so quickly changed his previous position. "Walter," said the banker, "l always keep an open mind, and ~ reserve to myself the right to change it but only if some- thing better is proven to me." Douglas adopted that philoso- phy and often quoted his banker friend. He insisted that practical alternatives be studied and reported, even if not specifically required by contract or client, to try to protect and provide the client and the project with all available facts and with an optimum solution. Douglas devoted much time and effort to community ser- vice. For many years, he served as trustee and as guardian of the grounds of the Crescent Avenue Presbyterian Church in his hometown of Plainfield, New Jersey. Douglas was also a member of the board of governors, and later president, of MuhIenburg Hospital. He followed a similar course in retire- ment when he served as trustee of Newport Hospital in Rhode Island. Ocean sailing was Douglas's favorite pastime, and he was an excellent seaman. He and his wife, Jeannie, often accom- panied by friends, would cruise for days at a time. In this
130 MEMORIAL TRIBUTES situation, he continued to apply his principle of opting for the best alternative solution even seemingly at the last min- utemuch to the excitement (anct later reminiscent enjoy- ment) of his shipmates! Walter never failed to make the best move; he was a good captain of his ship and a grand host. We will miss him and so will the engineering profession. Walter Douglas left his mark, however; his trail, although difficult to follow, is clear for all who decicle to try.