Loss of a legend
ASU engineering and the transportation pavement industry share memories of Matt Witczak
Matt Witczak believed the true measure of a professor is not the publications and citations accrued, but the support extended to peers and students.
By that human measure, Witczak was exemplary. Across 47 years at two universities, he devoted himself to the education of more than 5,000 civil engineering students, including service as graduate advisor to 70 of them.
Consequently, the news of Witczak’s death on January 18 sparked an outpouring of tribute from the many people who knew and deeply admired him.
“Matt was a renowned researcher and a highly sought-after industry consultant,” says Sandra Houston, an emeritus professor of civil and environmental engineering in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University. She also was the person who recruited Witczak to ASU, and says she felt fortunate to have participated in bringing such high-caliber talent to the civil engineering program.
“His leadership drove, what is today, the most advanced and impactful research on pavement design and analysis. But he devoted so much of his time to mentoring younger faculty members and students. He was genuinely caring toward everyone around him,” she says. “We were all fortunate to have Matt’s presence in our lives, and we were very saddened to hear about his passing.”
Witczak was a professor of civil engineering at ASU from 1999 until his retirement 2011. He came to Arizona after more than a quarter century of teaching and research at the University of Maryland. Earlier in his career, Witczak was a special projects engineer for the Asphalt Institute, an international trade association. He also served as a combat engineer and intelligence officer in the U.S. Army.
“I had the utmost honor to have him as a mentor and work with him at both ASU and Maryland,” says Kamil Kaloush, a professor of civil and environmental engineering in the Fulton Schools. “He was an inspiration to me as well as many others through his mentorship, scholarship and research contributions in the field. He truly changed our lives and career paths for the better.”
Witczak co-authored the world’s foremost textbook on pavement design and analysis. He also helped lead the development of widely influential guidelines on airfield design and management. His expertise took him to more than 75 countries on behalf of the United Nations, the World Bank, the US armed forces as well as many institutes, associations and corporations.
“We were all inspired by his passion for life and work, as well as his strength and never-ending generosity. The memories of great moments we had together are the best way to celebrate his life and his legacy.”
Ram Pendyala, who works in the field of transportation and serves as the director of the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, one of the seven Fulton Schools at ASU, noted that Witczak earned the highest respect of both the research and industry communities. “His passing is a huge loss to the transportation profession, and we will greatly miss his wit and wisdom,” Pendyala says.
Over the course of his career, Witczak received multiple distinguished awards from the Asphalt Institute, the Association of Asphalt Paving Technologists, the National Asphalt Pavement Association, the Transportation Research Board of the National Academies as well other professional bodies and technical journals.
“Matt was truly a giant in the pavement design and research field,” says George Way, chairman of the board of the Rubberized Asphalt Foundation and a retired chief pavement design engineer for the Arizona Department of Transportation. “I am confident that the legacy of his accomplishments will continue forever.”
Witczak acknowledged that he had many opportunities to leave academia for lucrative commercial work. But “the interaction with bright young minds and the desire to better understand my technical discipline always led me back to being a professor,” he said.
While at ASU, Witczak founded the Advanced Pavements Laboratory to conduct comprehensive research that has become recognized for its national and international importance. He also led creation of the Arizona Pavements/Materials Conference as a means for academic and industry professionals to discuss advances in design, construction and technology.
Bob McGennis, a technical manager for asphalt at the HollyFrontier corporation, met Witczak in 1980 and stayed connected with him throughout his 40 years in the roadway construction industry.
“I remain in awe of Matt as a person, researcher and engineering educator,” McGennis says. “Like many others, the arc of my career was positively influenced by my association with him. It was my very good fortune to have known him.”
In 2017, the Arizona Pavements/Materials Conference organizing committee established the Dr. Matthew W. Witczak Endowment in his honor to provide scholarships, fellowships and other resources to enhance the academic experiences of those pursuing a career in pavement engineering. Pendyala believes the endowment will carry forward Witczak’s legacy through the education and training of the next generation of pavement professionals.
During his final lecture at ASU, Witczak reminded civil engineering students to stay connected with the academy in their roles after graduation because “higher education is not completed with a university degree. Rather, it begins with one … [and] we need to reduce the technological gap between the current state of the art and the current state of practice.”
He also extended his best wishes and highest hopes to each of them during their professional journeys, saying: “You are indeed the future of the world’s infrastructure.”