Tau Beta Pi Sculpture
Story by Kevin Hyde, April 22, 2009
The new sculpture at the J.B. Speed School of Engineering makes a striking first impression on those entering the school. But Bernie Dahlem, the engineering alumnus who was a driving force behind the sleek, polished-black statue, wants it to have a lasting impression on those leaving.
Mounted on a pedestal directly in front of the J.B. Speed Building on Eastern Parkway, the 6-by 8-foot sculpture is a fabrication of the “bent,” the official symbol of the national honor society Tau Beta Pi. The society is the engineering equivalent of the liberal arts’ Phi Beta Kappa.
A bent is what some would call a railroad trestle — the load-bearing part of a bridge that will support a train track as it crosses a ravine. Railroad engineering was a significant part of the engineering practice when Tau Beta Pi was founded in 1885.
According to Dahlem, who earned his bachelor’s (1951) and master’s degrees (1972) in civil engineering from Speed School and received an honorary doctorate in 1996, the new bent is meant to show Speed School’s pride in having a chapter in the prestigious society. But it also serves as a daily reminder to students about the importance of personal integrity.
Engraved on the back of the sculpture, which is titled “Integrity,” is a statement from the “Eligibility Code of Tau Beta Pi,” adopted in 1926. It “essentially says that if an engineer does not have integrity, he has nothing,” Dahlem said paraphrasing it.
“In today’s world, integrity is sorely lacking,” he said. “Almost daily we read where someone whom we would expect to have strength of character is going to jail. We hope this quotation will have an impact on our students as they prepare themselves for their life’s work.”
The statement’s placement on the back of the statue is symbolic, Dahlem continued. As each graduate walks down the front steps of Speed School one final time, it will be the last thing he or she sees and takes from academic life into professional life.
Project grew from beginning
Speed School Dean Mickey Wilhelm said the “Integrity” sculpture project grew in scope and complexity over the years.
“We began this project five years ago, and it has been in continuous, evolutionary development ever since,” he said. “It is indeed gratifying to see the finished product. I think that it certainly accomplishes Mr. Dahlem’s original goal — to inspire Speed School students and graduates to practice their profession with integrity. It’s truly an impressive life lesson.”
Geoffrey Atherton, an architectural designer with UofL’s Office of Planning, Design and Construction, designed the sculpture. Speed School originally consulted him about moving a long-time fixture in the J.B. Speed Building lobby — a brass bent symbol imbedded in rock — to the front of the building.
But Atherton quickly convinced Speed officials that the lobby piece would “disappear from the site” and recommended “something real creative” that commands more attention.
“They loved the idea,” he said.
Atherton, who likes to do cubist-influenced abstraction, went to work on a design. After considering several different materials, project leaders determined that granite was the most workable and contacted Terry Fewell of Fewell Monument Co., in Scottsburg, Ind. He showed Atherton some samples of the stone.
“I saw this polished black,” Atherton recalled. “I thought maybe this is something that would work. Terry came up with some costs of having this cut and fabricated in India — the only place this black granite is available. The black portion is a little more than 6 feet wide and 8 feet tall. It’s very difficult to find a piece of granite that large. That took about a year to find.”
It took “engineering” to install the statue
Atherton and Fewell worked with a group in India to get the granite cut and shipped. Fewell Monument assembled the piece in Scottsburg and then installed it, using a process — the “ice trick” — that would make any engineer proud.
“This piece has stainless steel pins between the base into the bottom of the sculpture,” Atherton explained. “Because of the enormous weight of the art — approximately 21,000 pounds — it needed to be lowered very slowly into place so the pins and holes would line up. There’s no room for error.”
To do this, Fewell Monument positioned the sculpture on a large piece of dry ice that was placed on top of the base. Dry ice is frozen carbon dioxide. It doesn’t melt, but goes straight from solid form to gas form through a process called sublimation. As the dry ice turned to gas, the sculpture slowly lowered onto the base.
“The ice trick is one used by the monument company when installing very large pieces of stone or monuments when it needs to lower them very slowly into place,” Atherton said. “It also allows for getting the crane straps off.”
The entire sculpture project was paid for through donations, anchored by a large gift from Dahlem. Brasch-Barry General Contractors, which 1971 Speed grad John Brasch owns, donated and installed the brick sidewalk around the sculpture. Henderson Services, owned by 1973 Speed alumnus Bruce Henderson and 1969 UofL business graduate Rodney Henderson, donated the lighting.
“The whole thing came together in a good way,” Atherton said. “The end result is outstanding. Sometimes it was a struggle, but it was a beautiful process overall.”
Dedication planned for April 24
Everyone involved with the new sculpture will be honored at noon, Friday, April 24, during an official dedication and celebration event that will take place next to the sculpture. (Watch the ceremony live Friday.) Students and guests can attend a picnic with a menu of hotdogs and hamburgers afterward.
For Dahlem, who spends half of the year in Florida, the trip back to Louisville for the celebration will be his first opportunity to see the sculpture in person.
“I have seen photographs and a video of its installation,” he said. “It looks great and I am anxious to see it up close.”
The back of the statue reads: “We consider that true integrity is the sine qua non for membership in Tau Beta Pi, that it transcends in importance scholarship, activity, and every other qualification. Without private and public integrity, we believe that no organization is worthy of existence. Under integrity, we include honor and high standards of truth and justice.” It comes from the “Eligibility Code of Tau Beta Pi,” adopted in 1926.