Monday, October 31, 2011

So Much to Give: The Legacy of Garman Kimmell

Written by John J. Dwyer
Friday, 14 October 2011
Published in The New American

It is a classic story of Americana, with all the excitement, dreams, struggle, disappointment, ingenuity, resilience, triumph, love, loss, and enduring lessons common to the most memorable of such tales. Also common to such sagas — particularly those of the Christian sort — the most enduring impact is still uncoiling with the long passage of years and the generations.

Those who knew Garman O. Kimmell, founder and builder of Oklahoma City-based Kimray, Inc., remember him best as a brilliant design engineer and a devout Christian man. He revolutionized the field of oil and gas production and made significant personal contributions to the field of heart treatment. But the technical nature of his inventions, coupled with a humble personality that eschewed personal glory, has consigned him to anonymity in previous American and even Oklahoman histories. That is the problem with history books — most of the men and women who possessed the noblest character and made the greatest contributions were too busy impacting other lives to get their own written about.

An American Boy

As with so many great American leaders across the fields of industry and business who were the children and grandchildren of immigrants in the 19th century, Kimmell took his cue on how to get ahead in America from his forebears. Kimmell’s father, for instance, was an imaginative capitalist. “As a young man, around the turn of the 20th century,” Kimmell’s son-in-law and current Kimray chairman Tom Hill recalls, “Garman, Sr., would pedal a bicycle from town to town in rural Maryland. He carried a projector and a sheet on the back of it. After setting up, he’d charge a few pennies for people to come see a movie.”

Garman, Sr. headed west with his family to Oklahoma during the early-20th-century oil boom when he was around 30 years of age. Though his small stature disqualified him from oil field work, he found work digging basements for houses in the red clay of a young and brawling Oklahoma City. He invested his earnings in city property during the boom, and gradually worked his way into a position as an oil and gas “land man” pulling together mineral interests for drilling projects.

“Garman, Sr. was the kind of person that if 15 people went to a farmer to get a lease, that farmer might run them all off with a shotgun,” says Hill. “But he could go and have a signed lease within 30 minutes. He was a likable, but trustworthy and genuine person.”

The younger Garman grew up in Wichita, Kansas, where his father had moved to pursue his business dealings, and reflected the older man’s imagination and zeal from childhood onward.

“He built these huge ‘war kites,’” Hill recounts of his father-in-law’s teenaged years. “They required two or three young men to hold them down, or he’d have to tie them to the bumper of a car. He would make runners to be blown up the kite string, flying several hundred feet up in the air. He hooked a big multi-cell flashlight to one of them, thinking it would be fun to have light up there. The heavy flashlight, however, came loose, hurtled toward the earth, went through the roof of a nearby house, and crashed down on the floor beside his neighbor who was reading the newspaper. His father fixed the roof and wasn’t angry with his son.”

Kimmell’s grandson David Hill, current CEO of Kimray, added to the story: One day, his grandfather “caught a neighbor’s cat and tied it into a nice silk parachute one of his friends had and sent him up the kite line glider, maybe 800 or 900 feet in the air. The kite line glider disconnected at the top, and the cat floated gently back down to earth, all very fine and dandy, except the cat wasn’t having a good time at all. Upon landing, apparently in a tree, he got hung up and he climbed up the lines and ripped that silk parachute to shreds. I don’t remember Garman being too worried about the ride the cat took, but I remember him being very disturbed about the loss of that silk parachute.”

Kimmell attended Wichita State University for two years before transferring to the University of Oklahoma because of its strong engineering program. As a student at OU, he and his fraternity brothers befriended a crow that had no flight feathers on one wing and could only hop around their fraternity. When school broke for summer, everyone wondered what to do about the crow. Kimmell suggested he could enable the bird to fly. Doubted by everyone else, he collected other flight feathers and glued them onto the crow, before taking him out onto the front porch of their fraternity house for release. The frat brothers tossed him in the air, and he flapped around, then hit the ground. Kimmell didn’t lose hope, and neither did the crow. The bird looked around, flapped his wings, then took off. He spiraled hundreds of feet into the air, so high that Kimmell and his friends could barely see him. Then he headed off in a beeline, never to be seen again.

Kimmell graduated in 1937 with a Master of Science degree in Petroleum Engineering, but “maturity” and responsibility did not abate his cheeky streak. Well past middle age, he collaborated with protégé and Audio Associates founder Greg Robertson on a recording project at his home, only to have a “small yappie” dog next door disturb them with constant barking. The two men placed a microphone near the dog and recorded his yapping at them. “Then we played the dog barking ‘a number of times louder’ back to him through one of my enormous public address horns,” Robertson recalled with a laugh. “He decided not to bark at us any more after that. It was kind of funny to watch this little dog back off and quit barking because a much bigger dog, that he couldn’t see, was roaring at him!”

For all Kimmell’s legendary discipline, focus, and single-minded perseverance, grandson David maintains, “To Garman, everything was play. Work, family, everything was a joy to him, because he approached it that way.”

New Name in the Oil Field

While still pursuing his master’s degree, Kimmell was hired by Black, Sivalls & Bryson, one of the world’s foremost designers and builders of oil and gas process equipment systems and plants. He worked there for over a decade, rising to the rank of chief research engineer before declining the company’s offer in 1948 of a further promotion and move to Kansas City, because he wanted to remain in Oklahoma City. He resigned from Black, Sivalls & Bryson and founded Kimray. Only a year later, however, his partner in the new enterprise veered from their agreement on a major project with a Texas client. “This won’t work,” he told the partner. “I’ll either pay you for your half of what I think the company is worth, or you pay me for my half.” It was back to square one for the rookie entrepreneur, as he shouldered 98 percent ownership of the budding oil and gas equipment and controls manufacturer.

Kimmell also faced a restrictive three-year non-compete agreement with Black, Sivalls & Bryson on designing new products. Kimray needed new products, however, so — with his father’s financial and managerial assistance — he purchased the rights to manufacture a valve from another designer. Unfortunately, the valve design, although patented, did not work. Kimmell redesigned the valve and in doing so the patent had to be updated twice to reflect the new designs. Kimmell continued to pay the patent owner according to the contract, even after discovering a patent that superseded by decades the one under contract. When Kimmell confronted the designer, the latter responded, “You’re right, the patent’s no good — but my contract with you is.” Kimmell agreed, and paid the designer the full value of the contract, though the man’s patent was worthless.

Tom Hill recalls hearing the designer later tell Kimmell, “Everybody else welched out, but you completely fulfilled your contract with me.”

“Garman basically revolutionized the field production of oil and gas,” says Hill. “When he started manufacturing at Kimray in 1949, most of the back pressure valves in the field were weight-loaded valves. This resulted in uneven pressure regulation at working sites, which could lead to big problems. Things were just mechanical back then,” he explains. “To have a piloted valve was just too expensive.”

So in 1950, Garman created the 3” SGT-BP, a three-inch pressure regulator that was piloted, rather than weight-loaded. A piloted valve was an enormous improvement over the traditional weight-loaded ones, since unlike those, it automatically adjusted the volatile flow of gas out of the ground to a constant rate and desired pressure, allowing easier and more accurate measurement of that flow.

The 3” SGT-BP stands as nothing less than a landmark in the history of oil and gas field production. A marvel of American ingenuity, it marked the first time an affordable product of this sort could succeed in the field. It cost only $105, and only $280 today. And as befits a true story of Americana, Kimmell first peddled it out of the back of a pickup truck. Over the next 15 years, his creative genius spawned a dozen more watershed products, all of which — along with their variations and derivatives — have had lasting impact on the oil and gas industry.

The multi-generational success of the 3” SGT-BP reflects numerous attributes of its designer’s character. One is simplicity, another endurance, in an age of planned obsolescence. “If you bought that three-inch gas back pressure regulator valve from us in 1950 and called us today needing a repair kit,” Hill says, “we wouldn’t even ask you when it was made. The repair kit we sell today fits every valve we’ve made for the last 61 years.”

Indeed, despite the company’s plethora of valves and regulators — Kimmell’s genius looms again — their parts nearly always prove interchangeable. “He built things like Tinker Toy sets,” explains Hill. “He used the same parts and made a new valve out of them. So you have all these variations of valves, but there may be only one or two different parts among them. It allows us to keep a much smaller inventory, perhaps only 10,000 parts for as many as 900 different valves.” Though materials and manufacturing processes have improved, Kimmell’s original designs approached perfection and have caused the 3” SGT-BP and his other valves to last for generations. Yet they possess such simplicity that workmen in the field can repair them on the line, then put them right back to work.

Multi-faceted Genius

Kimmell’s experiments weren’t limited to mechanical valves. In 1957, he invented an energy exchange glycol pump that eliminated the polluting of land around oil fields caused by the leaking of glycol. Hill estimates that Kimray now builds 99 percent of all the oil field exchange pumps in the world. The company’s glycol pumps, treater valves, oil dump valves, high pressure control valves, and pilots — totaling in the millions — now operate in almost every oil field lease on the planet, from the United States to Africa to Australia.

Kimmell also designed a method to estimate how much gas is held in an underground gas reservoir. He sent a device into the tubing and measured the pressures and took gas samples as the well flowed. It enabled him to calculate the reservoir capacity. But sitting on a well and opening a pipe to the atmosphere with gas blowing out at thousands of pounds of pressure per square foot to measure its capacity and output is dangerous work. The pressure can get loose and blow something off the top of the well that lands half a mile away. Kimmell nearly lost an eye doing it one time in Louisiana.

His body of work stretches far beyond his epochal contributions to oil and gas production to the medical field, electronics, audio products, the arts, and music. Nearly all his contributions possessed a common denominator: solving people’s problems.

In the 1960s, he developed a heart-lung machine and served as the technical physicist on the first open-heart surgery team in Oklahoma City. The device allowed heart doctors to perform lengthy open-heart surgeries. He created de-bubblers and oxygenators (from stainless steel canisters conscripted from his wife’s kitchen) for the blood as it was recirculating outside the body. Kimmell devoted thousands of hours of his own time toward these humanitarian pursuits — without remuneration. When asked why, he responded, “I guess the best answer is simply the philosophy expressed in the parable of the Good Samaritan: Here’s a chance to help people with congenital heart problems. My reward has been actually seeing the sick made whole, but I wouldn’t be in it at all if it weren’t for the dedication of those doctors. I may have gone the mile, but they’ve gone the extra mile.”

After all that, Kimmell helped daughter Kay make an accurate, detailed, one-quarter scale model of the open-heart surgery room for a science fair project. “It was fun to spend time with my dad making all the parts on his lathe, bandsaw, and drill press,” she says.

Kimmell considered the vena cava filter as one of his most significant inventions. He borrowed the idea from sludge valve baskets used down hole, or underground, in the oil field and applied that technology to design a delicate, wire, umbrella-type device that snags blood clots in people’s lower extremities and allows them to dissolve without limiting blood flow. Over 500,000 people have had this device implanted, and it has saved many of their lives.

For 30 years, Kimmell recorded, edited, and produced for radio the Oklahoma City Symphony Orchestra’s weekly performances, all at his own expense. He eventually did so on a state-of-the-art tape recorder machine that he and A. P. Van Meter designed and built. Years before most companies employed an intercom system, Kimmell designed his own for Kimray. He also designed and built amplifiers, mixers, photographic developing equipment, and even, according to Audio Associates founder Robertson, “A gadget to automatically plug and unplug holes on the golf course for the golf balls to go in.”

Keeping pace with, or ahead of, advancing technology, Kimray launched an Automation Division in 1988. It provided engineered solutions for the oil and gas industry’s growing need for electronic monitoring, control, and data acquisition.

Another Kimmell grandson, current Kimray President Thomas Hill, noted the interesting way in which Kimmell designed products: “He put nothing on paper until he worked it all out in his mind,” the younger Hill says, “and when he did put it on paper, he would do so on the reverse side of scrap paper or, if at a restaurant for lunch, a napkin. He drew the new invention by hand, in the proper proportion, notating the size, shape, and dimensions for each piece.”

“Some of the napkins we would get back from Garman had prints on them he had drawn at lunch and they were as good as the ones we got from the Drafting Department,” says retired Kimray machine shop manager Don Huffstutlar.

“I would imagine that most of our really great products started out on a napkin!” adds David Hill.

From there, Kimmell proceeded to his home shop and created wooden parts for his new design, making sure they all fit together and worked properly. “Next,” says Tom Hill, “he would take his drawings to Kimray, asking the men in the various shops which parts they wished to make. He would return home and make the remaining parts with his own hands and shop tools. Then, he and the others would assemble the product and begin testing it.”

Kimmell never lost this ability. Two days before he died at age 95 in 2008, bedridden and racked with pain, he looked up at the ceiling fan and asked Tom Hill, “Are those blades composite? I have designed a motor for ceiling fans which is continuously variable and instantly reversible.” One day before he died, again from his bed, he regaled Robertson about the little train system Kimray was planning to build to move parts around its many buildings. “He kept taking his little oxygen mask off to tell me,” Robertson remembers.

Stool of Success

Kimmell imagined, labored, and led atop what he called his three-legged “Stool of Success.” “The legs are all equal, or nearly equal,” he said, “or else they don’t sit level on the ground.” The first leg was shareholder value. “Shareholders own the company, they’ve invested their money, and they deserve to have shareholder value, some protection, and return on their shares.”

Customers comprised the second leg. “The customer buys your product,” Kimmell said. “They deserve to have a good product at a fair price that is designed to be easily taken care of, that will serve them well and last a long time.” Employees made up the third, but equal, leg of the stool. “They do the work for you,” he said. “They are the key people in your manufacturing process; they are your customer relations people. You have to take care of your employees, be fair with them, and pay them a good wage. If you do all that, you’re going to have a good company.”

Garman Kimmell was a man of truth. He believed in the future — in this world and the next — and he believed in equipping the young to succeed in both. He would no doubt be the last man to wish the truth about him to be misrepresented in a manner that would confuse or mislead the young as they grow into maturity to face a world full of danger and conflict.

Presenting Kimmell as a perfect man would lessen the opportunity for the rest of us to relate to him as a person and benefit from the lessons of his life. Some family recollections of the not-fully-refined elements of his character bring smiles, such as his preoccupation with current projects while dinner table conversation proceeded around and without him. “He was so focused,” Tom Hill remembers, “that you would think he was ignoring you, but he was just thinking about what was going on at work. He had to be a hard man to live with.” Hill remembers 35 years of frequent dining with the Kimmells, and how his father-in-law was late almost as frequently. This spawned the oft-repeated line by Garman when his wife would ask if he wanted his dinner reheated. “No, Vera, it is just fine,” he would respond, eating cold dinners many nights.

Daughter Kay has her own mealtime story from childhood. It occurred during a Kimmell family vacation to Tucson, Arizona. “My mother cut into a piece of pie only to discover a grasshopper,” she remembers. “My dad’s logical explanation of the current grasshopper plague and of it being cooked and purified didn’t convince my mom to go ahead and eat the pie!”

Some recollections do not bring smiles, such as memories of a father who worked late, missed family activities, or didn’t hug his children or impart terms of endearment to them as often as they might have wished.

“It was wonderful, yet difficult at times, being the daughter of a genius inventor,” Kay Hill recalls. “He worked long hours, especially at night when he could concentrate on his valve designs. Consequently, he had little time for interaction with his three daughters.” An air of wistfulness pervades her voice, but she adds, “My father gifted me with his belief in and example of organization, thriftiness, resourcefulness, generosity, loyalty, honesty, patriotism, hard work, and faith in Christ, and those have guided me through all my life.”

Kimmell would share openly with family members about his finances, his work, and his other projects, but personal feelings occupied a different realm. When the Hills set about recording the history of his life, they came to a certain difficult event. Kay asked him, “Daddy, how did you feel about that?” He never answered her question.

“Some people might think he was hard,” Tom Hill says, “but that’s not true. He just didn’t show his emotions.”

Wife Vera, the love of Kimmell’s life, whom he had adored since college, passed away in 1979, nearly 30 years before him. He lost her, his mother, and his father within a few years. Hill recalls how difficult it was for Kimmell even to visit his wife in the hospital as she slowly succumbed to cancer. Not surprisingly, he immersed himself in his work. “That generation took those hardships, stuffed them, and went on and did their work. People would say that’s unhealthy, and it probably is, I don’t know. But it worked for him,” said Hill.

Deepest Beliefs

Undergirding all that Kimmell was, and all that he did, lay a sturdy and dogged Christian faith. His devoutness worked itself out in many fashions, some of them described above. Another was his commitment to giving back, in multiple ways, to his local community for the opportunity and support that community gave him, and to making it a better place to live.

The worldview emanating from Kimmell’s faith led him to what grandson Thomas Hill remembers as a simple view of politics: “He believed that government’s responsibility was limited to what the Founding Fathers thought it should be, which was to protect us from people outside our boundaries and to regulate interaction between the states. Just about everything else should be left up to local government. He fought hard for that, putting a lot of his own time and money into people and processes attempting to maintain that.”

Hill adds that his grandfather believed in a strict interpretation of the Constitution. “He reminded us on a regular basis that it was our responsibility, that government rested on our shoulders, that if we were not involved in the process, if we did not stand up to be counted, if we did not put our money and effort into insuring that the right things got done, we would be the ones to blame if things weren’t done.” Apparently, Kimmell applied the general precepts for personal responsibility to his own life. None of his family or friends remembers him ever blaming anyone else for something he did or that happened to him.

He shared all these beliefs with The John Birch Society, and long supported them, to the extent of his ability to do so. He passed his passion for the JBS and its often-courageous stands on to his son-in-law Tom Hill, a faithful proponent of the organization, and his other kinfolk.

Anyone who knew Kimmell for any period of time cites his Christian faith as central to his identity. They remember that he taught Sunday school for over 60 years, and was a pillar for decades at the First Lutheran Church in downtown Oklahoma City. Kay Hill remembers how, when she was a girl, “On most Fridays or Saturdays he would be at his desk in the single car garage turned library and office studying for his Sunday school lesson.” He studied the Bible, not just in English but in its original languages. He strived to buoy his knowledge and understanding of the Scriptures with the most trustworthy study aids and commentaries.

“He spent a lot of time making sure that what he believed was scripturally viable,” says Thomas Hill. “That was very important to him.”

Kimmell did not just know the Bible, he devoted his life to living it, and in some ways the life he practiced was quite rare in modern America, even among professing Christians. For one, even as his and Kimray’s fortunes rose, he lived in the same modest Oklahoma City home for 65 years. Kimmell declined the opportunity to “move up” to the more fashionable parts of town. Why? “He felt like any increase God gave him was to give away, not to spend on himself,” says Robertson. “He was a great advocate in using what God gave you to help other people.” Amazingly, convincingly, here was a brilliant, successful man of means who really lived what he believed!

Were Kimmell here today, he would not approve detailing in public his charitable giving contributions. According to daughter Kay and others who knew him well, however, they amounted to a staggering amount, in the many millions of dollars. Befitting his personal philosophy, he spread his donations amongst local, state, national, and international organizations. The list of beneficiaries included Campus Crusade for Christ and dozens of its individual staff members; the Alliance Defense Fund; Cal Farley’s Boys Ranch in Amarillo; Character First; Child Evangelism Fellowship of Oklahoma; Christian Heritage Academy of Del City, Oklahoma; City Rescue Mission of Oklahoma City; Cumberland College in Tennessee; First Lutheran Church of Oklahoma City; the Heart Ministries home for girls; the Hope Pregnancy Center in Oklahoma City; the Institute for Creation Research; Joni & Friends evangelical ministry to the handicapped; Navigators; Novo Ministries gospel ministry to inner city children in Oklahoma City; Oklahoma City Jail & Prison Ministries; Oklahoma Baptist Home for Children; Patrick Henry College in Virginia; Reaching Souls International in Oklahoma City; Scope Ministries Christian Counseling; The New American magazine; and The John Birch Society. Upon his death, he bequeathed his entire estate to foundations that continue his gifting.

“It didn’t matter how much he gave away, God always gave him more,” remembers Tom Hill.

Kay Hill “had the privilege of helping him with his gifting for over 30 years. He believed that everything he had actually belonged to the Lord. The more he gave to spread the Gospel and help the poor, the more God poured into his hand. He said, ‘You can never out-give God.’”

Here again, Kimmell’s legacy lives on. Kimray’s company mission statement stands apart from the vast majority of others with its undiluted devotion to Christian principles:

Honoring the Lord in all we do by operating the company in a manner consistent with Biblical principles.

Serving our employees and their families by establishing a work environment and company policies which build character, strengthen individuals, and nurture families.

Producing a high quality, marketable product at a fair price in order to provide a return on the stockholders’ investment, share the Lord’s blessing with our employees, and invest in our community.

We believe that it is by God’s grace and provision that Kimray, Inc. has endured. He has been faithful in the past, and we trust Him for our future.

One of the most dramatic examples of carrying forth Kimmell’s Christian legacy — and boldly into the commercial marketplace — is the Character First organization Tom Hill birthed at Kimray in 1992. “Character First is how we have tried to promote the values of Mr. Kimmell into the future, and maintain those values in our company,” says Hill. Character First addresses the culture of organizations large and small by actively encouraging good character in each employee. The program has spread like wildfire, helping strengthen and, in some cases, save thousands of companies in 28 countries. (See book review, page 29)

Looking Ahead

Kimmell respected and learned from the past, but he built for the future. He told grandson Thomas at the end of his life that his chief regret involved not having additional time to accomplish more good.

Today, those who follow in Kimmell’s footsteps at Kimray continue his futuristic perspective. Three years after his death, the company he created more than 60 years ago shines stronger than ever. At the beginning of September, Kimray employed 725 people. As other companies in its own industry and most others decline and even fail amidst persistent national and global economic upheaval, Kimray grows; that employment number stands 125 more than the same date the year before, and twice what it was just seven years previous.

David Hill invokes another of the many powerful pillars of his grandfather’s legacy. While Kimray operates in countries around the world, employing their peoples, helping develop their resources, and enriching their economies, the components it manufactures are made by the same folks who have always made them: Americans in America. “Nothing is made offshore and everything is made in Oklahoma to boot,” says Hill with pride.

While Kimmell apparently loved few things more than drawing, designing, and building new inventions in his home shop, he seems to have reveled in sharing those experiences with young people whenever possible. He relentlessly lived out Moses’ ancient Old Testament admonition to Israel regarding God’s commandments: “And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up.”

“I spent countless hours out there with Garman in his shop,” Thomas Hill says, “standing behind the lathe or looking over his shoulder when he was working on the bench as he made parts and models, and put things together. The whole time he was working, he would teach my brother David and me what he was doing. For a man who was by everyone’s estimation a genius, he could explain things to a 5-, 6-, or 10-year-old that made it crystal clear, even some concepts he himself didn’t totally understand until after he earned a master’s degree in them!” From the fourth grade on, Hill adds, “Whenever anyone would ask me what I wanted to be, I would tell them, an engineer. And that was because of Garman.”

Kimmell didn’t limit his tutoring to the realm of engineering. “He was always explaining to us the principles behind what we were doing,” Hill points out. “Whether that was a principle of physics or engineering, or theology or philosophy, or politics, he was transmitting why he was making his decisions, why he believed what he did believe, why he was doing what he was doing. From an early age, we had the benefit of a wise man who had seen a lot.”

Perhaps it is appropriate that those grandsons who learned at the feet, lathe, and bench of Garman O. Kimmell sum up his life and legacy.

“Garman never sought the limelight,” says David Hill. “He never wanted to be on the front page of the paper. He never wanted to be the one to get the credit; he was always happy for other people to get it. I saw Garman my whole life operate behind the scenes, working diligently, mostly at night, when nobody else was awake. One thing remains consistent throughout all this work, and that is Garman freely gave of himself to help other people.”

“There aren’t any buildings named after him,” says Thomas Hill. “He didn’t hold office, they’re not going to build a library and name it after him, but there are thousands of people all over the nation and the world that Garman’s knowledge, genius, money, and time impacted, people who are where they are today because at some point in the past, Garman stepped into their life.”

Saturday, October 29, 2011

OU Society of Women Engineers receive awards at National Stilettos to Steeltoes Essay Competition

Ceara Parks is a junior civil engineering major from Monroeville, Pennsylvania.

Students active in the OU Society of Women Engineers traveled to Chicago to participate in the annual National conference Oct. 13-15.

Three students placed in the Schlumberger Stilettos to Steeltoes essay competition: Ceara Parks, first place; Lauren Haynie, second place; and Carly Young, third place. The students were awarded $1,000, $500 and $250 each, respectively.

Following is the first place essay entered by Ceara Parks:

From my cubicle, I hope to be securely suspended from the top of the world. Instead of having a small window to peak out of from time to time, I will be observing my team’s designs from a 360 degree panorama. Below me, the floor will cease to exist; instead, the only force saving me from plummeting to the ground is the tension of the cables holding my body in place. No one told me that the road towards becoming a bridge inspector would be easy. However, it’s the sensation of pursuing a non-traditional career that continues to drive my motivation into full throttle.

Raised in the city of Pittsburgh, PA, I have always been surrounded by the most magnificent bridges in the world. The city’s history was built around every bolt imbedded and every beam placed by the hard workers who risked their lives daily. Without the labor of these individuals, transportation around the Ohio River would not be possible. The impact of these vast steel structures has not only influenced the daily commuter’s ride to work, but they have also constructed the path to my future.

In today’s society, structural failure has growingly become ever more frequent. Not only is the public witnessing the collapsing of mines and buildings, but also the collapsing of the most significant bridges in our society. One day, I hope to save commuters from becoming the next victims of an engineering miscalculation. As a bridge inspector, I aspire to find a way to produce a durable and cost efficient material that will flex with the expansive and contractive forces on a bridge. With this material, the possibility of cracking due to loading will dramatically decrease; thus providing a safer environment for commuters every day.

Ever since I can remember, soaring to new heights has been my daily challenge; however, I had no idea that I would be on my way to living on top of the world.

Engineer to be honored at WaTER conference

October 12, 2011
By James S. Tyree, The Norman Transcript

NORMAN — An Australian environmental health engineer will be honored this month at the University of Oklahoma for his 30 years of trying to provide access to clean water for people in developing countries.

University of Queensland professor Ben Fawcett was chosen to receive the OU International Water Prize during the 2011 OU International WaTER Conference. The event is scheduled for Oct. 24-26 and will be hosted by the OU College of Engineering’s Water Technologies for Emerging Regions (WaTER).

Fawcett also plans to speak and deliver a presentation during the conference.

“I hope to focus the minds of delegates at the conference on the sanitation and hygiene needs of at least a billion people living in slums in the towns and cities of the developing world — a number that is expected to double by 2030 and that will probably triple, to one third of the global population, by the middle of this century,” Fawcett said.

He also plans to “highlight the terrible impacts of inadequate facilities and services, to draw parallels with and lessons from our own situation in Europe and North America 150 years ago to indicate some ways forward and to suggest some contributions that well, thought-out education can make in this work.”

The conference agenda includes several invited keynote presentations, 24 contributed oral presentation sessions, a poster session, a panel discussion, luncheon speakers and a banquet that includes Fawcett’s lecture.

The event will conclude with half-day workshops on the morning of Oct. 26. The first is a technical workshop that focuses on drilling and pump technologies, eco-latrine design and construction, and bio-sand filter design and construction.

The second workship on social entrepreneurship will have participants work in teams to develop a “super hero” who will solve water problems, and then take the characteristics of the super hero and transfer them to a socially conscious business.

Both workshops are free for conference participants who pre-register for the conference and workshop by Monday.

For more conference information or to register, visit

Kansas State Professor Najjar Receives Outstanding Faculty Member Award

Yacoub Najjar, professor of civil engineering, received the Thomas and Connie Paulson Civil Engineering Outstanding Faculty Award for up to two years. In addition to being a Thomas and Connie Paulson Civil Engineering Outstanding Faculty Member, Najjar has sat on the editorial boards of both the Computers and Geotechnics journal and the American Society of Civil Engineers' International Journal of Geomechanics.

Najjar's research focuses on the application of artificial neural networks and computational mechanics to advance the civil infrastructure. He also conducts research on the interaction of soil and civil structures, transportation, geo-mechanics, geo-synthetics and geo-environmental systems. He has been published in many journals, teaches several courses at K-State and has received several awards and honors, including the Midwest Section Outstanding Teaching Award from the American Society of Engineering Education in 2006.

Najjar received his bachelor's degree in civil engineering from Yarmouk University in Jordan, and his master's degree and doctorate in civil engineering from the University of Oklahoma.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Five OU educators inducted into state hall-of-fame

October 15, 2011
Transcript Staff
The Norman Transcript
Sat Oct 15, 2011

NORMAN — Five educators affiliated with the University of Oklahoma were inducted this week into the Oklahoma Higher Education Hall of Fame.

The 2011 inductees include Charles W. Bert III, David Morgan, David Swank and Daniel Wren from OU’s Norman campus and Joseph Ferretti of the OU Health Sciences Center.

The Oklahoma Higher Education Heritage Society sponsors the hall of fame that welcomed its first class in 1994.

Bert spent 41 years teaching in the College of Engineering and, on two occasions, directed its School of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering for a combined 11 years. He retired from OU in 2004.

Morgan has been a professor emeritus of political science since his retirement in 2000. He held the Henry Bellmon Chair of Public Service at OU and he remains active in the local political scene.

Swank was a longtime law professor who arrived at OU in 1963 as its legal counsel and assistant professor. He went on to serve as professor, associate dean and dean of the College of Law, as OU interim president and was a longtime faculty representative to the NCAA.

Wren arrived at OU’s College of Business in 1973 and went on to hold several positions within the college. He became a David Ross Boyd professor emeritus in 2000 and served as interim dean in 2005-06.

Ferretti retired this year as senior vice president and provost of OU’s Health Sciences Center to return as a George Lynn Cross research professor in microbiology.

The campus’ budget nearly quadrupled to $800 million under Ferretti’s 16 years of leadership.

This year’s other hall of fame inductees are Donna Branson, Robert Miller, Karl Reid and Ronald Tyrl of Oklahoma State University; Stanley Hoig of the University of Central Oklahoma; John Kontogianes of Tulsa Community College; and Donnie Nero of Connors State College.

Through the Oklahoma Higher Education Hall of Fame, the Oklahoma Higher Education Heritage Society recognizes men and women, both living and deceased, who have excelled in higher education and who have encouraged others to contribute to the economic development and quality of life in Oklahoma.

The Oklahoma Higher Education Hall of Fame also presents awards of merit to corporations, philanthropists and other distinguished supporters of Oklahoma higher education.

More than 150 leaders have been inducted into the Oklahoma Higher Education Hall of Fame since 1994.

OU football: Four days in Dallas

Posted by berrytramel
on October 11, 2011M at 10:40 pm

The OU-Texas game has become a virtual week for me. Wednesday through the weekend. You learn a lot about a city when you spend four days there doing a lot of different things. I went all the way northeast to Sherman, all the way west to Fort Worth. I drove on 10 freeways: 35W, the Tollway, the Bush Turnpike, 75, 45, 183, 114, 121, 30 and 820. I went to an OU engineers dinner and an OU Club of Fort Worth luncheon. And I saw a very interesting football game.


I mentioned this in my post-game report card, but it bears more discussion. I received a couple of reports about plumbing problems at the Cotton Bowl, of bathrooms being closed — or remaining open despite no water pressure for flushing. I still haven’t nailed down how extensive the problems were. I hope to write about it later.

But I’ve got to tell you. This might be the death of OU-Texas at the Fair. There’s a gorgeous stadium 20 miles to the west; Jerry Jones would salivate at getting OU-Texas. The Fair and tradition are great. But when the plumbing doesn’t work, if Dallas can’t patch up the ancient stadium, it’s time to walk away.

Dallas missed the boat when it decided not to play ball with Jones and get the Cowboys’ stadium on the fairgrounds. Ever since, Dallas has been scrambling to keep OU-Texas. Soon enough, Dallas will have spent more to put band-aids on the Cotton Bowl than it would have cost to get Jones to build his stadium in Fair Park. That’s a lack of vision and leadership. Now it’s too late. And Dallas gets to try to make plumbing installed in the 1930s for 50,000 work in the 21st century for 96,000. Good luck, Big D.

Truth is, the Cotton Bowl’s best friend right now is the stadium size in Arlington. Sure, you hear all the time about how JerryWorld can house 100,000 fans. But there are about 80,000 seats, with 20,000 standing-room tickets sold. That’s a recipe for disaster at OU-Texas. For better or worse, OU-Texas is a heavy drinking event. Pack people into tight conditions, with nowhere to go, and you’ve got trouble. The Cotton Bowl, through expansion after expansion, now crams 96,000 into the old stadium. And everyone has a seat.


Greater Dallas has done away with tollbooths. Just drive on the turnpikes, and cameras record your license plate and send you a bill. I have one word for such an Orwellian development: fantastic.

The Tollway and the Bush Turnpike are great time-savers; less traffic, travel at angles. But they always were hassles, if you stopped every four or five miles to pay a toll. Now, no stopping. Just zipping through the Metroplex. We traditionally have stayed the weekend at Las Colinas but had dinner on Friday night with family up near Plano. That trip has been cut in half by the Bush Turnpike, which goes northeast/southwest.

I don’t know what kind of bill we’ll get. I don’t know if it’ll be $10 or $100. But let me tell, it made for one pleasant trip.


For several years on OU-Texas week, I’ve spoken on Wednesday night at a dinner hosted by OU’s College of Engineering, for Engineering grads in Greater Dallas. My wife is a fund-raising for the college and puts on the dinner, so I always attended with her. One year, they asked me to take questions, and one thing led to another, now it’s a tradition. And it’s always fun.

The dinner at the Anatole Hotel included three OU vice-presidents. Someone asked me if I was free to answer questions about the recent sale of The Oklahoman. I said if I can stand up there in front of three vice-presidents and answer questions about David Boren’s role in realignment, I can answer questions about the newspaper sale. Funny thing, no one asked about the paper or realignment. Everyone wanted to talk football.

Friday at noon, I was part of the program in downtown Fort Worth, at the Petroleum Club. The OU Club of Fort Worth puts on a great luncheon every OU-Texas Friday. I went three years ago and heard Steve Davis deliver a fantastic speech. Last year, I was on the program with Uwe von Schamann, who told a superb story about his mother, which I retold with my annual Mother’s Day column last May. This year, I was on the program with Toby Rowland. Toby told a great story of how he got the job. How he dared not dream it possible, but it came to be.

We took questions, and strange enough, this time there were tons of questions about realignment. Which is understandable. This was one day after the Big 12 invitation to TCU. Lots of people with both OU and TCU ties; Friday was a day of celebration in Fort Worth.

Anyway, the luncheon and the dinner always remind me of what OU-Texas really means. Incredible excitement for alumni and fans. But also the university mission. The ties to alums in north Texas. The recruiting of general students in the Dallas area. OU has its biggest freshman class ever, 4,500 or so students, and one quarter are from Texas. On Thursday night, Boren hosts a dinner for high school seniors (and their families) from the Dallas area. It’s a prime recruiting event.

All the people clamoring for OU-Texas to be moved to campuses have no idea how much the game in Dallas fits in with university missions. This weekend is huge for donor connections, fan incentives and general student recruitment. OU-Texas in Dallas can’t be replicated in other ways. OU (and Texas) need the game in Dallas. Or Arlington. The argument that OU owes it to the state of Oklahoma to move the game to campus as some kind of economic stimulus just doesn’t hold. The university provides all kinds of economic benefits to Norman and the state. But OU also has to make decisions based on what’s best for itself. Playing in Dallas clearly is best for OU.


On Thursday morning, my wife had a donor visit in the Carrollton area. We were going to lunch in Sherman with Brooks Hull, now a vice-president at Austin College in Sherman and formerly an OU engineering fund-raiser. So the Dish dropped me off a Corner Bakery, where I got online and did my weekly chat.

During the chat, word came that the Big 12 had invited TCU. So I’m chatting online, answering questions about TCU, and also talking with the office about how we would respond to the story, all the while thinking, I’ve still got to go to Sherman, drive back to Dallas and get to work, not only on TCU, but all the OU-Texas stuff that still was due.

But it all made me marvel at how our jobs have changed. Here I was, sitting in a Corner Bakery, chatting on line, learning all kinds of stuff while doing so, and it made me realize how much more information we produce and process. When I say we, I don’t mean The Oklahoman. I mean most everyone in the business. We know so much more about what we cover. We report so much more about what we cover. For instance, OU or OSU football. Just in the newspaper alone, we print so much more information about the Sooners and Cowboys than in previous eras, much less the blogs and videos.

The day was wild. I went ahead to Sherman, had a great lunch, a great tour of Austin College (a prestigious Division III school) and a great trip with my wife. Traveling with her is my favorite pastime, be it on a beautiful beach or driving U.S. 75 through northeast Texas. But then it was back to the hotel, where I started cranking.


An 11 a.m. kickoff means most anyone can get home, if they want to. I wanted to, since the Dish headed home Saturday morning. So we left the pressbox about 7:30 p.m. Saturday and headed north. If you wait until Sunday to drive home, traffic is dicey. I know some people who left about 10:45 a.m. Sunday and made it back in about 31/2 hours. Others left sometime after noon and took five hours.

Not much traffic on Saturday night, once you clear downtown Dallas. But as we drove through Denton, I saw the lights of Apogee Stadium, the University of North Texas’ glittering new football facility. I checked my blackberry to see who the Mean Green was playing, and I couldn’t believe it. Florida Atlantic.

That’s right. The Sooners and Howard Schnellenberger’s team played in the Metroplex on the same date. I was dead dog tired and glad to be headed home. But I also had more than a twinge of regret. With a little better planning and some extra sleep, I could have stopped off in Denton and talked with the Colonel one last time.

This is his last season coaching the Owls. He’s 77 and been coaching since the ’50s. At Kentucky and Alabama and in the NFL and the University of Miami and Louisville and, for one memorable season, OU. That 1995 season remains the most vivid season in my career, just because Schnelleberger was such a hoot to cover. He wanted writers at practice and had us up to his office to talk football. He would say crazy things and talk big, and even though I never had much confidence he was going to lead OU football to greatness, I never once tired of writing it all up.

Soon enough, Schnelleberger was gone. That was 16 years ago, and Bob Stoops has taken OU on a great ride the past 13 seasons. But I always miss Schnellenberger, and I’ll never again share a city with him while he’s coaching football. Made me a little sad.

-------------Berry Tramel can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including AM-640 and FM-98.1. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter @BerryTramel.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Engineer to be honored at WaTER conference

October 12, 2011
By James S. Tyree
The Norman Transcript

NORMAN — An Australian environmental health engineer will be honored this month at the University of Oklahoma for his 30 years of trying to provide access to clean water for people in developing countries.

University of Queensland professor Ben Fawcett was chosen to receive the OU International Water Prize during the 2011 OU International WaTER Conference. The event is scheduled for Oct. 24-26 and will be hosted by the OU College of Engineering’s Water Technologies for Emerging Regions (WaTER).

Fawcett also plans to speak and deliver a presentation during the conference.

“I hope to focus the minds of delegates at the conference on the sanitation and hygiene needs of at least a billion people living in slums in the towns and cities of the developing world — a number that is expected to double by 2030 and that will probably triple, to one third of the global population, by the middle of this century,” Fawcett said.

He also plans to “highlight the terrible impacts of inadequate facilities and services, to draw parallels with and lessons from our own situation in Europe and North America 150 years ago to indicate some ways forward and to suggest some contributions that well, thought-out education can make in this work.”

The conference agenda includes several invited keynote presentations, 24 contributed oral presentation sessions, a poster session, a panel discussion, luncheon speakers and a banquet that includes Fawcett’s lecture.

The event will conclude with half-day workshops on the morning of Oct. 26. The first is a technical workshop that focuses on drilling and pump technologies, eco-latrine design and construction, and bio-sand filter design and construction.

The second workship on social entrepreneurship will have participants work in teams to develop a “super hero” who will solve water problems, and then take the characteristics of the super hero and transfer them to a socially conscious business.

Both workshops are free for conference participants who pre-register for the conference and workshop by Monday.

For more conference information or to register, visit

Monday, October 10, 2011

OU engineering students learn to deal with disruptive technologies

By April Wilkerson
April is a reporter in Oklahoma City. Contact her at 278-2849 /
Posted: 06:49 PM Friday, October 7, 2011

From left, University of Oklahoma engineering professor Jim Sluss shows students David Vreeland and Jeffrey Griffin a project on thermo-electric power. (April Wilkerson)

NORMAN – Most companies focus on what their customers want, and rightfully so, but that often makes it difficult to commit time and money to investigating ideas that one day may boost their bottom line.

The next generation of business leaders and entrepreneurs is being trained to think about disruptive technologies and project into the future what it would mean if their company got on board – or missed the boat – with an emerging technology.

Engineering students at the University of Oklahoma have immersed themselves in a disruptive technology curriculum, and over the summer, 18 of them spent a month in Arezzo, Italy, for a historical perspective on the subject.

Jim Sluss, OU electrical and computer engineering professor, said disruptive technology is something different than sustaining technology, which builds upon what is already in place, such as a better feature set or better performance. Disruptive technologies may be attractive initially only to emerging markets, but that can change.

“If these disruptive technologies are successfully developed and accepted by emerging markets, they start to move up the performance curve to the point where they become competitive with the sustaining technologies and ultimately knock those sustaining technologies out of the competitive marketplace,” Sluss said. “The big issue is that most companies that pay attention to their customers really well – which managers are taught to do – focus on the sustaining technologies because that’s what their customers think they want. By the time these disruptive technologies come up from the bottom of the market and erode their market share, it’s too late for them internally to catch up.”

An example of a disruptive technology was the personal computer, Sluss said. IBM, which was a mainframe computer company, set aside a separate organization to develop the PC. The PC then became disruptive in the marketplace. By the time companies like Digital Electronics Corp., which was the principal player in the mini-computer market, realized what was happening, it was too late for it to become competitive, he said.

Training students to think differently about disruptive technologies stands to make a difference. The trip to Italy helped students see how innovations from the likes of Galileo and da Vinci were met with social, cultural and religious resistance.

Jeffrey Griffin, a junior electrical engineering major, said the course is helping him add a new way of thinking to his work.

“It is no longer just looking at how do we make this technology or that technology, but rather, ‘What role is this going to play in markets that are already established?’ ‘How will it affect a business?’ It was different from other courses; I had to stretch how I was thinking,” Griffin said.

As part of their trip, students had to identify an emerging technology or come up with one of their own. Griffin chose unmanned aerial vehicles, which are now primarily being used in the defense sector, but one day may well have a commercial use, such as moving freight in airspace, he said.

David Vreeland, a sophomore electrical engineering major, looked at “computer vision” – how a camera hooked to a computer can be used to analyze what is in front of it.

Vreeland said the course is already helping him with leadership skills in college life, but he’s also using it to look toward his own future and where he’d like to work.

“We learned about leaders of companies … and how sometimes the best leaders could fail because they didn’t see a disruptive technology coming along,” he said. “I enjoyed that because it’s a look into the future about what may be going on.”

Sluss said the disruptive technology curriculum was developed by a friend who teaches engineering at West Point. The government approached him about training young military officers how to spot technologies that might be disruptive on battlefields of today and the future. Sluss said he saw potential in the course for his students.

“I thought it would be nice to look at it in engineering school, not tied to defense applications but more for commercial applications,” he said. “Most of our students will go to work in the industrial marketplace, so awareness of disruptive technology is important.”

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

OU graduate student awarded EPA fellowship

Published: October 5, 2011

Laura Brunson, a doctoral student in the School of Civil Engineering and Environmental Science, recently received a research fellowship from the Environmental Protection Agency for her work in water purification. (Astrud Reed/The Daily)
Research by an OU graduate student that helps reduce the fluoride levels in water, which causes bone deformations after prolonged drinking exposure, won a fellowship with the Environmental Protection Agency.

Environmental science graduate student Laura Brunson received the EPA Science to Achieve Results fellowship, which offers an approximate $120,000 stipend over three years for living and research, according to a press release.

“I didn’t really expect to win. You know, you set out to write a good application and try the best you can, but it’s really competitive and there are lots of people all around the country doing really awesome research,” Brunson said. “So, I was pretty excited. It’s good for me to know I can pay my rent, but it also helps my professor because these are expenses he would have had to cover.”

Brunson’s research looks at ways to remove fluoride from water in developing countries, primarily Ethiopia because of connections formed with professors there in the summer of 2009, Brunson said. She is currently working with them to locate a specific area with specific needs to test her filtration methods.

“Our philosophy is that you can’t just walk into a country and say, ‘Let’s go find a rural village for this project,’” Brunson said. “You really need to work with people living and working in Ethiopia and who know a community that needs help and would be good to work in.”
She also returned to Ethiopia in summer 2011 to work with the professors on locating a village, she said.

About 200 million people in the world, including 14 million in Ethiopia, drink water with high levels of fluoride, she said. It is also prevalent in China, India, the Rift Valley region of Africa and even parts of the U.S.

Too much fluoride can cause bone deformities and darkened teeth, Brunson said. These physical conditions can limits people’s marriage options, as well as their success in finding public jobs. Bone deformities also can cause pain and limit physical labor.

“What we’re trying to do is come up with less expensive technologies that can be produced locally rather than be manufactured and then shipped,” she said. “There are a couple of techniques that some communities are using, but there’s something wrong with all of them – they produce a lot of waste or only remove fluoride up to a certain concentration … or it’s difficult to get the chemicals needed.”

Brunson tests new methods in her lab, particularly a filtration system using an aluminum coating, she said. She also experiments with filtration columns, both in Ethiopia over the summer and in the lab right now. By doing this, she can see if lab results are consistent with actual community results and whether her methods are indeed viable ones.

“It’s not a perfect system, but it’s a good method of estimating without having to build a 1000-liter system that would be incredibly expensive and would require lots and lots of water to test,” Brunson said.

Brunson was a business undergraduate at OU and now teaches a class in social entrepreneurship with the business college, she said. She earned her Master’s in environmental science from OU as well.

When applying to graduate programs, Brunson had a vague idea that she wanted to work with water but did not know in what specific area, she said. She consulted with professor David Sabatini, who was creating the OU Water Technologies for Emerging Regions Center at the time, and realized water sanitation was something she could be passionate about.

“This award recognizes Laura’s unique abilities, contributions to date and future potential as an international leader in her field,” Sabatini said in a statement. “We are so fortunate to have her as part of the WaTER Center team where she is making significant contributions to improve on lives of those living in poverty in Ethiopia.”

The center was founded in 2006 by Sabatini to find methods for providing clean drinking water around the world, according to its website.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

International students develop bonds with U.S. host families

Published: October 3, 2011
Spending time at a U.S. university doesn’t always bridge the gap between college life and a U.S. family experience, but OU’s exchange students are trying to find that missing piece with host families.

OU’s Friends to International Students program offers exchange students the opportunity to develop relationships with volunteering American families they don’t live with. Families serve as hosts for one semester, but can continue for the full academic year, according to the program’s website.

Benedikt Kaczmar, a German aerospace engineering graduate student, said he got involved so he could get a closer look at real American culture.

“I really like my host family, and the fact that we are several exchange students in the same family, we all get really close very rapidly,” Kaczmar said. “Also, I love having a host little brother to fool around with.”

Kaczamr said he decided to join a host family, the Robertsons, because he wanted to experience special family events such as Thanksgiving or Christmas.

“I know I don’t have to attend to all activities they offer us. This way, it’s not too time consuming, and I have great experiences.” Kaczmar said. “For Halloween we’re going to go pumpkin-carving and trick-or-treating.”

And in some host families, the perks don’t stop with shared holidays.

“I wasn’t expecting it, but they drive us every week to Walmart and offered to drive us everywhere. They also offered us a welcome gift with a lot of OU school material, candies and even postcards,” Kaczmar said.

For Cyrielle Guillaume, a French foreign language student and Amélie Plot, a French law student, the experience was about more than a few gifts.

“When we arrived, they gave us everything their previous host students left: microwave, toaster, plates, silver wear ... a whole kitchen basically,” Plot said.

The two French students even had the chance to contact their host family before arriving at OU.

“A friend of ours was already in the family last year. She told them we would come, and they contacted us as soon as she left. After corresponding all summer, we had dinner with them the day right after we landed,” Guillaume said.

Guillaume and Plot’s family hosts dinner and movie nights a couple times a month.

“They try to implement movie nights. We did a western-pizza night last week,” Plot said. “We didn’t want something too time consuming and this is just fine. We see each other twice a month, more would be too much.”

For one host parent, planning things like dinners and movie nights are just part of giving back to the international community.

Mary Price, Friends to International Students board member, has been hosting students for four years and was motivated to be a host after she was an exchange student in France.

“I was so impressed by the kindness that was shown to me. I wanted to repay this kindness,” Price said.

Host families can choose the nationality of the students they want to host.

“I have family from Germany and France, so I chose mainly French and German students,” Price said.

She said she tries to stay in touch with the students she has hosted and continues to maintain those relationships.

“One of them calls us when she has problems because she knows we can help her; one of them is like a son to us. We love them all and they love us,” Price said.

There are many reasons people decide to become a host family, but many desire to discover new cultures and meet students from across the world.

“[The Robertsons] told me they will try to visit all their host children during a world trip. I’m looking forward to see them then,” Kaczmar said.

LINK: To host an exchange student, complete the Host Family Application here or email Diana Tiffany at

Monday, October 3, 2011

Drought causes foundation headaches in Oklahoma

The exceptional drought across Oklahoma has wreaked havoc on the state's clay-rich soil, which causes problems with concrete slab building foundations. The expensive repairs can put a big dent in a homeowner's finances.

Published: September 25, 2011

Oklahoma's red dirt is as much a part of the state's cultural fabric as agriculture, oil fields and strange weather. But it can be a curse to house foundations in times of drought.

“We like our red dirt here,” said Gary McManus, associate state climatologist. “But it doesn't do us any favors whenever we start to go into this type of a drought cycle.”

The exceptional drought strangling Oklahoma's soil has contributed to foundation problems across the state this summer, experts said. The result is a large number of home and business owners facing repairs that are about as expensive as it gets with building maintenance.

The clay that makes Oklahoma's dirt red is more reactive to water than many soils across the planet.
“When that clay starts to lose moisture, it contracts, and when it rains again it expands,” McManus said.

The expanding and contracting soil puts stress on foundations, underground water mains and other structures at the mercy of the first several feet of soil.

When the soil is affected by extreme conditions like this year's drought, the compression is just as extreme. And calls for foundation repair estimates pile up as the state gets hotter and drier.

“It's an incredible spike, to be honest with you,” said Doug Denison, owner of American Leveling, a local foundation repair company. “This is one of the top three (spikes) in the 25 years I've been doing this. ... On average we're taking between 30 and 55 calls to look at properties every day. Normally, it's probably 10 or less.”

Cracks, stuck doors
The first ways damage to the foundation shows itself can be cracks in floors, walls or exterior siding and with doors that don't close or jam, said Professor Gerald Miller of the University of Oklahoma's College of Engineering, who specializes in civil and geotechnical engineering.

During a drought, it's a sign the soils at the edge of the building have dried out and compressed, which puts pressure on the foundation causing it to bend.

“You can think of it like you took a piece of paper and bent down the edges, that's what the slab would do,” Miller said. “You're going to get distortion in the structure.”

Miller said homeowners can try to water the edge of their house just like a plant during a drought, and it can keep the soil from compressing. But that's not a guaranteed prevention method, and over watering or poor drainage can cause their own issues.

Houses with basements don't tend to have the same problems because the foundation is far enough underground that the soil isn't affected as much by the weather.

To fix or not to fix?
Repairs of around $10,000 are not uncommon, and costs can spiral much higher for difficult repairs or more extensive damage. Foundation problems are not covered under homeowners insurance policies.
Some repair companies offer financing, some with no interest for a year or so. Homeowners can dip into their home equity for a loan or refinance. But some homeowners with limited equity and limited flexibility who face a particularly expensive repair could think walking away from the house and mortgage is a practical, but scary, option.

Most houses with wood frames wouldn't suffer damage as severe as a collapsed wall if repairs aren't made, Miller said. But doors can stick and cracks can form to the extent it affects house's functionality, and it's possible a longer wait means a more expensive repair.

And the decision to repair the foundation or not is a factor in the future sale of the home. Even a good and long-lasting repair can push down the eventual sale price, with or without an accompanying repair warranty that has numerous exceptions in the fine print.

Louis Lackey, 45, of Oklahoma City, had repairs made to the foundation for his home near Lake Hefner last week. The previous owners had work done in 1997, and Lackey had to make repairs to a house he used to live in as part of the agreement when he sold it.

He noticed telltale cracks in his ceiling and exterior this summer and knew what was ahead. In Oklahoma, it comes with the territory.

“I knew having to fix it was pretty much inevitable,” Lackey said as a crew noisily worked away in his backyard.