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The Boston Globe

Obituaries

Bob Whitman, MIT professor and civil engineer

BOB WHITMAN

Bob Whitman’s passion developed at a young age when he was playing with friends in a creek, building miniature dams.

“I went home and asked my father what kind of person builds dams, and he said ‘a civil engineer,’ ’’ Dr. Whitman said in an oral history published by the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute in 2009. “And from that day on, I never really strayed away from the notion that I was going to be a civil engineer.’’

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Dr. Whitman, a former professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a longtime resident of Lexington, died of Parkinson’s disease Feb. 25 in the Brookhaven at Lexington retirement community. He was 84.

“I always enjoyed the challenge of getting concepts across to students, and the interplay between student and teacher,’’ Dr. Whitman said in the 2009 interview.

He joined the MIT faculty in 1957 as an assistant professor, his family said, and worked in the department of civil and environmental engineering until retiring in 1993.

“Bob was a tremendous role model as a faculty member, renowned for his ability to clarify the complexities of soil mechanics and earthquake engineering, and for his commitment to serve society at large through leadership in professional organizations,’’ Andrew Whittle, head of MIT’s department of civil and environmental engineering, said in a statement.

Colleagues said Dr. Whitman cared deeply about his students and the responsibilities of being a professor.

“He was respected enormously by his colleagues because of his ability to be an engineer of engineers,’’ said Rafael Bras, professor emeritus of MIT and provost and executive vice president for academic affairs at Georgia Institute of Technology. “He also happened to be one of the most caring, nice, dedicated individuals.’’

Dr. Whitman’s research focused on structural design and soil dynamics of earthquakes, an interest he developed late in his education. He also conducted research on topics ranging from building vulnerability to the stability of dams.

“He was a unique teacher. He would introduce a subject matter and get us excited to discover knowledge on our own,’’ said Mishac Yegian, a distinguished professor in the College of Engineering at Northeastern University who had Dr. Whitman as a doctoral supervisor at MIT. “He had a self-discovery mode of teaching.’’

In 1974, Dr. Whitman told the Globe that Boston would lose some of its old brick buildings if an earthquake as substantial as the one that hit the city in 1755 occurred again. The earthquake was felt over an area of 300,000 square miles.

“Some newer buildings with unusual geometry or unusual construction techniques might experience near collapse, or would even collapse,’’ he told the Globe. “But most modern construction is probably capable of standing up to a repetition of that event.’’

In 1969, Dr. Whitman and T. William Lambe coauthored “Soil Mechanics,’’ a textbook for geotechnical engineers.

“Of all the things I’ve done, I’m probably proudest of that book,’’ he said in the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute interview.

“There wasn’t necessarily anything startlingly new in our book,’’ he told the institute, adding that “what we really set about to provide was a good, clear, interpretation of what we thought was the best known science as of that time.’’

Robert V. Whitman was born and raised in Edgewood, Pa.

In 1948, he graduated from Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania with a bachelor’s in civil engineering. At MIT, he graduated with a master’s in civil engineering in 1949 and a doctorate in structural engineering in 1951.

In 1954, Dr. Whitman married Elizabeth Cushman, who is known as Betsy.

He attended the Navy’s Officer Candidate School in Newport, R.I., and served in the Civil Engineer Corps at the Naval Shipyard at Pearl Harbor from 1954 until 1956.

Elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1975, he served as president of Earthquake Engineering Research Institute from 1985 until 1987. In 2010, the institute awarded him the George W. Housner Medal for sustained leadership and contributions to earthquake engineering.

He also received the American Society of Civil Engineers Karl Terzaghi Award for contributions in the fields of soil mechanics and earthwork engineering.

“He didn’t boast of all his accomplishments,’’ said his daughter Jill Whitman Marsee of Puyallup, Wash. “We learned about them gradually, and he would sheepishly mention something with a small grin that he was obviously pleased about.’’

His children recalled growing up in a house filled with MIT graduate and international students, particularly on holidays.

The Thanksgiving dinner table had “multiple continents represented,’’ said his daughter Gwen Kaebnick of Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y.

Dr. Whitman’s family said he was a train buff, traveling extensively with his wife across the United States and Europe. Trains and model railroads fascinated him throughout his life.

Long committed to civic endeavors, Dr. Whitman served as a Lexington Town Meeting member for 37 years. He also was chairman of the town’s Zoning Board of Appeals, served on the Permanent Building Committee, and worked with the residents’ association at Brookhaven.

“He had a quiet way of synthesizing what was going on in the political discussion, and helped to move it forward,’’ Kaebnick said.

A service has been held for Dr. Whitman, who, in addition to his wife and two daughters, leaves four grandchildren.

“He was one of the brightest persons I have ever met,’’ Yegian said. “He had a deductive mind and very organized mind that was always so impressive that he could see the basic essentials of a very complex situation.’’

Michele Richinick can be reached at mrichinick@globe.com.

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