Carnegie Mellon University
April 03, 2015

Max Clark ('64) Remembers: Fifty years later

Max Clark ('64) Remembers: Fifty years later

Max Clark in Hong KongMax Clark in Hong Kong

Today, Max Clark (BS '64) lives in Shanghai and works as an "outside professional" with CDM Smith, the company he's been with for the past 46 years. During his professional career, he has worked in 30 countries on almost 50 projects in water resources development and wastewater systems. But back in 1968 when he first joined CDM, he had no idea he would ever work overseas. "That never entered my mind," Clark confessed. "And yet I was in Ankara, Turkey about 5 months later."

Clark joined the 6-month-old project in Ankara when the engineer in the project proposal could not go. "And of course, I was not in the proposal," he said. Nonetheless, the company sent him to Turkey to create a master plan for a water supply and wastewater system for the capital city. He helped develop a system of 5 reservoirs and transmission mains with operating rules and all other requisite parts. The team projected that the population of Ankara (then 1 million people) would grow to 5 million by 2020, which has turned out to be a rather accurate projection.

But before Clark worked as a project manager or a team leader or a project engineer or a technical specialist on projects all over the world, he was just a student in the Civil Engineering department. When Clark was here, Carnegie Mellon was still the Carnegie Institute of Technology. Despite this difference in name, one important aspect of the school was exactly the same: "They're constantly challenging you," Clark explained, "developing your self-reliance and your confidence that you can take a problem that just looks impossible or overwhelming and tackle it as well as any other human being - to do a credible job and be able to defend yourself and explain how you did it and be honest and have some integrity."

While he was at Carnegie Tech, Clark had an interesting relationship with civil engineering. Early in his collegiate career, he wrote a letter to the Dean of Freshmen in which he requested to leave engineering in favor of physics. Clark had not realized that the Dean of Freshmen was a professor in the Civil Engineering department. "He took considerable umbrage at what I had said," Clark remembered, laughing.

Fortunately, Clark's involvement with engineering was far from over. The Department Head and Professor Tom Stelson went out of his way to talk Clark out of leaving engineering and set him up with a part-time job helping with research in civil engineering. As Clark worked on real-world projects alongside PhD students, he realized that he found the work rather interesting. That sentiment drew him back to engineering. Later, on the advice of Professor Stelson, he pursued graduate study in water resources at MIT and eventually started work for CDM.

But the foundation for Clark's future success was laid at Carnegie Tech. "There were professors who were very good at thinking outside the box at that time in Civil Engineering," he commented. He explained that in a Sanitary Engineering course, he was instructed by Professor George Bugliarello to write a paper answering the question, "What is life?" Clark figured he would go to the medical school at the University of Pittsburgh and look up some papers to try to determine what creates and sustains human life. But the endeavor did not work out quite the way he planned.

"It was an eye opener for me. I felt there was a body of fixed knowledge out there, that human beings have been creating knowledge for thousands of years and I just had to go out there and learn it," Clark recounted. Of course, as Clark cheerfully pointed out, actually learning everything is not as straightforward as it might sound. "Nobody has learned everything, you know, for the last thousand years or anything like that, but it's something to strive for. What you don't realize is that the amount of knowledge in the world doubles every five or ten years now, or it has in my lifetime. It's like Moore's Law applied to ‘what do we know?' It just keeps expanding."

His attempt to define life led Clark to a valuable lesson he has carried with him through his career as an engineer specializing in water resources. "We have to worry all the time about food and clean water and safe drinking water and clean rivers. All those things that were the subject of the course were all necessary and all important and at the same time, we had to admit that there will always be things that we don't know."

Lessons like that term paper on life must have prepared Clark well. Remember his first overseas project in Turkey? Well, it turned out about as well as anyone could hope. "I got to go back 25 years later to Ankara and they were doing the next generation of planning. They had pretty much followed everything that we proposed. It was pretty gratifying."

Fifty years after graduating, Clark returned to Carnegie Mellon for Ceilidh Weekend, partly to attend the awards ceremonies, but mostly just to visit the school that meant so much to him. He tries to return whenever he gets the chance. Just remembering the day he graduated and thinking about the profound impact CMU had on him brings tears to his eyes. "I've always felt that it was the best four years of my life."