UC Berkeley News
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UC Berkeley Press Release

Noted civil engineer dies at age 87

– Ben C. Gerwick Jr., a civil engineer and University of California, Berkeley, professor emeritus known for his pioneering contributions to deep foundation construction and for making heavy construction engineering a part of scholarly research, died at age 87 on Dec. 25.

He died at his Oakland home of complications from a lung infection.

Ben C. Gerwick Jr.
Ben C. Gerwick Jr.

In 2000, Gerwick was named among the 125 "Top People of the Past 125 Years" by Engineering News Record, the most widely read magazine in civil engineering. The list also included UC Berkeley professor emeritus T.Y. Lin, Thomas Edison, Henry J. Kaiser, Frank Lloyd Wright and R. Buckminster Fuller.

Gerwick helped develop the use of prestressed concrete in bridge piers, foundation pilings and marine structures. His concrete foundation work included North Sea oil platforms, high-rise buildings, the Bay Area Rapid Transit system and bridges such as the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and San Mateo-Hayward Bridge in California, the Columbia River Bridge in Oregon, and an over-water extension of New York's La Guardia Airport.

Karl Pister, a UC Berkeley professor emeritus who served as dean during a decade of Gerwick's tenure in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, recalled Gerwick's sound understanding of the science of engineering. Using this knowledge as a superb clinician, Gerwick developed innovative methods enabling heavy construction, particularly in extreme environments, said Pister.

Gerwick was born in Berkeley on Feb. 19, 1919. He earned a B.S. degree in civil engineering from UC Berkeley in 1940 and served in the U.S. Navy from 1940-1946, finishing his military duty as commander of the USS Scania.

In 1946, Gerwick joined a San Francisco-based marine and construction company started by his father in 1926. It was in the '50s that he developed an interest in innovative applications of prestressed concrete, especially in marine, deepwater and Arctic regions.

He joined UC Berkeley's Civil Engineering Department in 1971. Gerwick co-founded its construction engineering and management program and was instrumental in developing the ocean engineering interdisciplinary program.

In nominating Gerwick in 1989 to receive the Berkeley Citation, the campus's top honor, then- civil engineering professor Weston Hester said that Gerwick's original study of techniques for placing concrete under water had become "a classic reference ... used by almost every major public works agency in the United States and many worldwide."

Robert Wiegel, a UC Berkeley civil engineering professor known as the "father of coastal engineering," worked closely with Gerwick in UC Berkeley's Ocean Engineering graduate program. He also assisted Gerwick with several projects involving huge concrete offshore platforms in the North Sea, where Gerwick evaluated potential defects and made several major modifications. "He would go through the drawings and could spot where they might have problems," Wiegel said.

Gerwick's knowledge of the Arctic led to his appointment to the Arctic Research Commission during the presidential administrations of George Bush and Ronald Reagan.

Gerwick also was drawn to an international group designing a new causeway and bridge over the Jamuna River in a poor South Asia region of Bangladesh that suffered from serious flooding and storm surges, Wiegel said.

Gerwick earned numerous honors over the years, including the distinguished Engineering Alumni Award from UC Berkeley's College of Engineering in 1990, and the Outstanding Projects and Lifetime Award from the American Society of Civil Engineers in 2001.

He served with several professional organizations around the world, and in 1974 was elected to the National Academy of Engineering, the highest honor that can be accorded an engineer.

Gerwick authored more than 200 technical papers and two books, including the widely used textbooks "Construction of Prestressed Concrete Structure" and "Construction of Marine and Offshore Structures."

Although Gerwick retired from UC Berkeley in 1989, he remained active on campus and in his engineering consulting business.

In addition to his work, Gerwick was fond of nature, tending a garden that bloomed year-round, and of hiking, fishing, bird watching, picnics, literature and the symphony. Friends referred to him as gracious, dignified and a real gentleman.

He is survived by his wife, Ellen Chaney Gerwick of Oakland; children, William Gerwick of La Jolla, Calif., Beverly Brian of St. Joseph, Mo., Virginia Wallace of Bainbridge Island, Wash., and Clifford Gerwick of Indianapolis; stepchildren, Elizabeth Lynch of Lafayette, Calif., Richard Lynch of Danville, Calif., Diane Chamberlin of San Pedro, Calif. and Carolyn Thompson of Bishop, Calif.; and seven grandchildren. His first wife, Martelle Beverly Gerwick, died in 1995.

Contributions may be sent to Ben C. Gerwick Fellowship Award Fund, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of California, Berkeley, 760 Davis Hall, Berkeley, CA 94720-1710.

A memorial service is planned for Feb. 3 at the First Congregational Church of Berkeley, 2345 Channing Way, at 2 p.m.