Professor emeritus Tor Brekke, renowned tunneling expert, dies at 75
| 19 March 2009
BERKELEY — Tor L. Brekke, a University of California, Berkeley, professor emeritus of geological engineering in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and a world-renowned scholar in tunneling, died after several months of declining health on Friday, March 6, at his home in Berkeley. He was 75.
"He was very influential in leading important modifications and improvements in tunneling and underground construction and contracting," said colleague and friend, James K. Mitchell, Cahill Professor Emeritus of Civil and Environmental Engineering at UC Berkeley. "Tor and his family were very close to me and mine. We spent many Christmas vacations together in the Sierras. To the young people - and most of us older ones, too - he was always 'Uncle Tor' because of his good humor, vast array of interesting experiences and wise counsel."
Brekke was born on March 3, 1934, in Kristiansand in southern Norway. He graduated from the Norwegian Institute of Technology in Trondheim with a master of science degree in mining engineering in 1958, and a doctorate in geological engineering in 1963. From 1958 through 1960, in between earning his master's degree and returning to school for his doctorate, Brekke served as a private in the Norwegian Army Corps of Engineers, designing airfields and other structures.
After earning his doctorate, Brekke worked from 1960 to 1969 at the Institute of Geological Engineering at the Norwegian Institute of Technology as a research fellow and a university lecturer. He spent one of those years, 1967, as a visiting research associate at UC Berkeley's Department of Civil Engineering.
That year was a precursor to a longer career at UC Berkeley. In 1970, he returned to the campus as an acting associate professor of geological engineering in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, then became an associate professor months later and a full professor in 1976. He retired in 1993 as a professor emeritus.
Brekke was a chairman of the U.S. National Committee of Tunneling Technology, and a member of the Norwegian Academy of Technical Sciences and of the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences. He was also an honorary member of the Geotechnical Society of Colombia in South America. He was an honorary fellow of the Geological Society of America and a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), the Association of Engineering Geologists and the U. S. Committee of the International Commission on Large Dams.
"To generations of students, he was an outgoing, always sympathetic mentor on all aspects of their education and life in general," said Nicholas Sitar, professor of civil and environmental engineering at UC Berkeley.
Brekke's excellence as a teacher was well known, and the UC Berkeley student chapters of the ASCE and Chi Epsilon named him Outstanding Faculty of the Year in 1971. In 2008, he was the recipient of the Outstanding Educator of the Year Award, presented by the United States Underground Construction Industry in recognition of his exceptional contributions and dedication.
"Nearly 40 years ago, I walked into Tor's office to inquire about a class," said former UC Berkeley engineering student Gregg Korbin. "That chance meeting changed my life forever."
"Tor was very proud of the number of former students who subsequently advanced to top positions of leadership in the field and made a significant mark in the industry," said Korbin, now a geotechncial consultant. "He made a special effort to take his students into the field to show them real tunnel work: how shotcrete was applied or a road header worked. Owners, especially those managing complicated projects, loved to have Tor as their consultant, especially as a part of the design review board, as he kept them honest and focused on the big picture."
Brekke was a devoted Cal booster whom colleagues said never missed an opportunity to attend a football game. He was also a member of the Bohemian Club.
He is survived by his wife, Joyce Brekke of Berkeley, Calif.; sons, Tor Brekke and Gunnar Brekke of Kensington and Fremont, Calif., respectively; and two grandchildren. A private burial took place, and a memorial service was held on March 14 at Sunset View Cemetery in El Cerrito, Calif.