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Geotechnical engineering yields a rewarding career

Portrait of Jim Monsees

Jim Monsees

As a young man, Jim Monsees planned to eventually become a doctor, but his older cousin’s stories about the Army Corps of Engineers inspired him to instead pursue civil engineering and mechanics at the University of Missouri.

While at MU, Saturday afternoon football games were a highlight.

“I was there when Dan Devine had good teams,” Monsees said. “It’s great to see the Tigers winning again.”

An ROTC student at the University of Missouri, Monsees’ commission as a second lieutenant in the Air Force found him working underground, developing design methods for silo structures as part of the Cold War Minuteman Missile Program. He never looked up.

Not literally, of course. It’s just that his first tunneling job led to a doctorate in geotechnical engineering from the University of Illinois — with a thesis on rock tunneling that was incorporated into a national DOT report — and a career in underground structures.

In the 1970s, Monsees went to work for A.A. Mathews, Inc., primarily designing transportation tunnels for the cities of Mexico City, San Francisco and Washington D.C., where he developed a computer modeling program that provided a more efficient support system for the metro stations.

Recognizing his talent, Thomas Kuesel, the technical director of underground engineering for Parsons Brinkerhoff (PB), recruited Monsees in 1983 and put him to work designing sections of the underground structure for the Los Angeles Metro in the downtown area, work that Monsees said is a career highlight.

“Seismic distortion in the ground led to distortion in the subway; as the ground moves, so moves the structure. I came up with new seismic design criteria that have been used all over the world,” Monsees said.

In 1996, Monsees was named PB’s technical director for underground engineering, a position he holds today, as well as serving as senior vice president. He said he is quite fond of his role in the company, which gives him an opportunity to consult and advise on nearly every project PB takes on without sweating the small stuff.

Elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1991, Monsees has since garnered some of the industry’s top honors, including a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Underground Construction Association.

In 2000, the University of Illinois named him a Distinguished Civil Engineering Alumni, and MU Engineering bestowed Monsees with the Missouri Honor Award and Citation of Merit Award in 1998 and 2005, respectively. He also is a member of MU’s Civil Engineering Academy, which recognizes outstanding achievement, excellence and leadership in engineering and civic affairs.

The Institution of Civil Engineers in the UK, in association with the International Tunneling Association, conferred Monsees with the 2010 Tunneler of the Year Award. And most recently, he was the recipient of the 2011 Golden Beaver Engineering Award.

At home in Villa Park, Calif., Monsees and his wife, Leda, will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary in October. Living just six miles from Disneyland gives them an edge over many grandparents, one their four grandchildren can appreciate.

Away from the office, Monsee’s favorite pastime is training his 110-pound German shepherd, Saber, to be an AKC tracking dog. His first shepherd, Heidi, earned the tracking recognition and Saber is well on his way to accomplishing that, and more.

“We’re just getting started. I’m just learning what the dog is trying to do. I enjoy it. It gets me out and it’s a lot of fun working with dogs,” he said. His son trains seeing-eye dogs.

When asked what his advice to today’s engineering students would be, Monsees replied, “Get as broad an education as possible. Think outside the box for new ideas and new approaches rather than simply repeating what has already been done.”

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