Visionary, mentor, and pioneer are just a few words that describe Dr. Jack E. Cermak, a well-respected engineer who was referred to as the “U.S. Father of Wind Engineering.” Adorned with awards and accolades, his achievements shaped an emerging industry on a global scale. Just two weeks shy of his 90th birthday, Dr. Cermak passed away peacefully in his sleep Aug. 21, 2012, in Fort Collins, Colo.
Cermak began his distinguished career with early contributions at Colorado State University (CSU), including defining the tools and methods on which modern wind engineering is founded. Most notably was his work with Alan Davenport and Les Robertson. This brought the field of wind engineering and its relevance to building design to the international spotlight with work in 1964 on the World Trade Center Towers in New York City
Born Sept. 8, 1922, in Hastings, Cermak spent his adolescent years working on the family farm and excelling in school. His fascination with wind began at an early age when he would observe wind-induced vortices swirling in the snow. He attended public school from 1928 to 1940 and was a Joint-Honor Scholar in the Civil Engineering Department at Colorado A&M College from 1940 to 1943. From 1943 to 1946, Cermak was a Sound Ranging Officer in the U.S. Army and retired as Lieutenant Colonel.
In 1949, Cermak married his first wife Helen Carlson. They moved to Fort Collins shortly after and adopted two sons, Douglas and Jonathan. In between a busy family life, Cermak embarked on a variety of academic pursuits. From CSU, he earned a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering in 1947 and Master of Science in Hydraulic Engineering in 1949. In 1959, he received his Doctor of Philosophy in Engineering Mechanics from Cornell University and a NATO Postdoctoral Fellow at Cambridge University in 1961.
His love for learning was evident throughout his 50-year career at CSU, leading to numerous advancements in research, environmental science and fluid mechanics. In 1959, he founded the Fluid Dynamics and Diffusion Laboratory and later established the Fluid Mechanics and Wind Engineering Program. He then served as Director and Professor-in-Charge until 1985 and held the post of chairman of Engineering Science at CSU from 1962 to 1973. One of his projects included a wind-tunnel study that showed the geographic features of San Francisco’s Candlestick Park. His team investigated the cause of troublesome wind gusts wreaking havoc on the playing field and presented remedial solutions.
Cermak’s impact on the lives of his students was immeasurable. Ashan Kareem, Ph.D. class of 1978, remembers vividly his first encounter with Cermak, “Upon arrival, his secretary ushered me into his small office located in the main campus of CSU with stacks of files reaching to the ceiling. I could not see Jack, and after a little peeking through the little openings, I noted a person sitting and writing something on a note pad. He did not notice me because we could barely see each other. I looked around and noticed there was no open space on the walls due to a many certificates of honor. The secretary then returned and told Jack that I was there. He then stood up and we had a very cordial conversation”.
The scholarships that Jack received to further his own education encouraged him to endow the Jack E. Cermak Wind Engineering Scholarship, which is awarded to outstanding fluid mechanic students, as well as an endowment for the annual Jack E. Cermak Outstanding Adviser awards given to one faculty member from each college and graduate school at CSU.
While everyone respected Cermak, thought highly of him, and while he was self-effacing when it came to his accomplishments, he was not reserved. He had a very clear vision of his work and allowed no barriers to lie between him and his goals. He had a reputation at CSU of getting exactly what he wanted, sometimes at the cost of some bruised egos and stepped-on toes along the way.
Over the years, he continued to garner prestigious recognition and in 1986 was named the University Distinguished Professor at CSU as an influential advisor to 49 Ph.D. students. In 1997, the Department of Civil Engineering at CSU formally celebrated Dr. Cermak’s 50 Years of Education.
He served as the first president of the Wind Engineering Research Council for 10 years (1976-1985) before it was renamed the American Association for Wind Engineering (AAWE). Then in 1988, the National Society of Professional Engineers selected the Fluid Dynamics and Diffusion Laboratory for the Outstanding Engineering Achievement Award.
Responding to the needs of the commercial sector for a wind-tunnel testing facility, Drs. Cermak and Jon Peterka, another engineer and CSU faculty member, co-founded Cermak Peterka and Associates (CP/A) in 1981. The enterprise was based on Cermak’s pioneering research, resulting in the development of unique wind-tunnel facilities capable of simulating motion in the atmospheric boundary layer.
On top of being an outstanding scholar, Jack E. Cermak was a kind spirit who made a lasting impression on those who knew him, and he will be deeply missed.
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