Carnegie Mellon University
January 06, 2016

Elio D’Appolonia: Influencer in the Field and the Classroom

Elio D’Appolonia: Influencer in the Field and the Classroom Elio D’Appolonia: Influencer in the Field and the Classroom Dr. Elio D’Appolonia, an influential former Carnegie Mellon civil engineering professor and a pioneer in his field, died peacefully on Wednesday, December 30, 2015. He was 97.

D’Appolonia, known by many as ‘D’App’ was born on April 14, 1918 in a coal mining region of Crow’s Nest Pass, near Canada’s Coleman, Alberta. In his teens, D’Appolonia — later an ardent Penguins fan — dreamed of a career in hockey.

It wasn’t until he began working with his father at his construction company in Coleman that he was drawn to engineering.

D’Appolonia earned his bachelor’s degree in 1942 and his master’s degree in 1946 in civil engineering from the University of Alberta. He earned his doctorate in structural engineering from the University of Illinois in 1948.

That year, D’Appolonia moved to Pittsburgh to become a faculty member at the Carnegie Institute of Technology, where he helped to initiate many of the key features of the civil and environmental program at Carnegie Mellon today. He was interdisciplinary in his approach to the field.  He first taught structural engineering and researched the characteristics of titanium. Later he taught soil mechanics and foundations.

“He helped to define and develop the multidisciplinary, creative problem-solving nature of civil engineering at Carnegie Mellon that remains a hallmark of our program,” said David Dzombak, Hamerschlag university professor and CEE department head. “A structural engineer with classical mechanics training, he found the emerging field of geotechnical engineering an intellectually rich area in need of a combination of mechanics knowledge and creative engineering problem solving.”

In 1956, after eight years of working closely with students to define their interests and career paths, D’Appolonia founded his own geotechnical consulting firm, joining with several of his former students in the enterprise. First named E. D’Appolonia Associates, the firm later became E. D’Appolonia Consulting Engineers, or EDCE.

It didn’t take long before D’Appolonia became internationally renowned for his business acumen, approach to solving engineering challenges, and his leadership in the field, especially for geotechnical engineering. D’App also became a renowned mentor.  Numerous of his students and employees went on to become leaders in the world of geotechnical and environmental engineering.

“He is widely recognized as one of the leaders who moved geotechnical engineering  ahead significantly from the 1950s through the 1980s,” Dzombak said.

D’Appolonia’s firm, which over the years developed into a group of companies  providing services related to geotechnical engineering, construction and other environmental services, became a place where many Carnegie Mellon graduates worked. At its height, the company had more than 600 employees and numerous international offices.

Although he stopped formal teaching in the 1950s, D’Appolonia remained a frequent visitor and guest lecturer in the CEE department well into the 1990s. To honor his accomplishments, Carnegie Mellon bestowed upon him an honorary doctorate in 1983, at which time he delivered Carnegie Mellon’s 86th commencement speech.

He also received an honorary doctorate from the University of Genoa in Italy in 1988 after delivering his lecture Monitored Decisions for the American Society of Civil Engineers’ 24th Terzaghi Lecture — a prestigious geotechnical lectureship for which distinguished engineers are invited to speak — at the organization’s annual convention in 1988.

The ASCE also awarded D’Appolonia the Thomas A. MIddlebrooks Award in 1969. Among his other awards and recognitions are the William H. Metcalf Award for Outstanding Engineering Achievements from the Engineer’s Society of Western Pennsylvania and a spot in the National Academy of Engineering.

D’Appolonia was also a founding member of the Geoprofessional Business Association, a network and resource for geoprofessional firms.

In 2012, CEE announced the initiation of the Dr. Elio D’Appolonia Graduate Fellowship Fund to help continue his legacy of innovation and interdisciplinary thinking in the department. The fund was started with the generosity of the Devendra (Dev) & Kshama Shukla Foundation, and continues to grow through the generosity of alumni friends and former colleagues of D’Applonia.

“The creative spirit of Dr. D’Appolonia will live on in the department forever through the D’Appolonia Graduate Fellows,” Dzombak said.

D’Appolonia, the second eldest of five children, is survived by his wife, Violet Mary D’Appolonia. They had five children: Kenneth, Michael, Linda, Mark and the late David. He is also survived by 11 grandchildren and 26 great-grandchildren.