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John F. Kennedy - B.S., CEEES ’55

AUTHOR: Nina Welding

PUBLISHED: August 28, 2015

A Giant Footprint in Water

It’s easy to talk about leaving a legacy, the impact or footprint of your life, but much harder to do so. The footprint left by John F. Kennedy (B.S., CEEES ’55) can be seen through the expansion of the field of hydraulic engineering. More than 20 years after Kennedy’s death, his colleagues, the graduate students he mentored, and others are still grateful for the way he shaped their lives and careers. He made a lasting impact on the science, the body of knowledge, the practice, and the future of hydraulic engineering through his research, teaching, and leadership. In addition, his personality and character made the man and his teaching even more memorable. Sir Isaac Newton’s comment that “if I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants” characterizes Kennedy’s life and work. Kennedy was himself one of those giants, one who fully appreciated the work of those who preceded him and is deeply appreciated by those who followed him.

Kennedy began his academic career at Notre Dame in 1951with assistance from a family friend. This friend recognized that he had intellectual abilities that could best be honed in the University’s academically challenging environment and wrote a letter that created the opportunity for him to attend.

Having grown up on an Indian reservation in rural New Mexico, where his father supervised the drilling of water wells for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Kennedy already possessed a deep and practical understanding of the importance of water. He chose to study in Notre Dame’s civil engineering department and developed a close relationship with his hydraulics professor — noted émigré engineer Steponas Kolupaila. Under the influence of this inspirational mentor, Kennedy’s interest in water developed into a life-long career in hydraulics. As his hometown friend had envisioned, Notre Dame opened a world of opportunity for Kennedy, and he gained a rigorous educational foundation and leadership skills, which he often credited with helping to launch his career.

Although he graduated at the top of his class, Professor Kolupaila, did not want him to stop there. Kolupaila believed that the field of hydraulic engineering would benefit from Kennedy’s pursuit of an advanced degree. He encouraged Kennedy to continue his studies and was instrumental in getting him into the graduate program at CalTech, one of the leading hydraulics programs at the time.

The pattern of being able to work with giants in his field began during Kennedy’s time at CalTech and continued later as a young faculty member at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as his brilliance was noted and fostered by top faculty. His doctoral thesis, considered a milestone, centered on alluvial bedforms and his theory of antidunes. In fact, his section on bedforms in the ASCE Manual 54 Sedimentation Engineering is still in use today.

At the extraordinarily young age of 39, Kennedy was elected to the National Academy of Engineering, the most prestigious honor in the field of engineering. He was appointed the director of the renowned Iowa Institute of Hydraulic Research (IIHR) and his international stature grew through his leadership of IIHR, research in areas such as river sedimentation, alluvial channel development, river ice hydraulics, and international consulting. His practical entrepreneurial approach shaped his leadership as the IIHR took on many high-profile projects that blended fundamental and applied research. He skillfully used those projects to develop his younger colleagues and graduate students, providing them with unparalleled opportunities for growth. Kennedy’s efforts throughout his 25-year tenure as director not only placed the IIHR at the forefront of environmental hydraulics, but they also led to his induction in the Legacy of Iowa Engineering.

Deeply committed to water engineering research, Kennedy also served two terms as president of the International Association for Hydraulic Research (IAHR) where he fostered the participation of younger members. Today, an annual IAHR Student Paper Competition honors his memory and his significant contributions to the field.

His interests were not limited to the sciences and technology; he had a deep appreciation for history, music and musicals, and literature. An unusually gifted and witty communicator, his conversations, lectures, and papers were interwoven with quotes from or riffs on Cole Porter lyrics or Shakespeare, engaging the listener or reader as he blended his love of the humanities with his passion for engineering.

Kennedy remained staunchly loyal to Notre Dame, and his career-long choice to invest in the lives of others reflects his development as a strong Catholic servant leader that began during his undergraduate years under the Dome. The discipline is richer because he chose to pour into the lives and careers of those around him, passing along to others the blessings of opportunity that he received at Notre Dame. As noted by Joannes Westerink, the Joseph and Nona Ahearn Professor of Computational Science and Engineering and Henry J. Massman Chair of the Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering & Earth Sciences, John Kennedy would be pleased to see the breadth and depth of the dynamic, world-class group of hydraulics and fluids faculty at Notre Dame today, as well as how they, and their students, are making their own footprints by impacting the fields of hydraulics and fluid mechanics and serving communities around the globe.