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July 13, 2017

Obituary: Joel Ivan Abrams

Joel Ivan Abrams, former longtime chair of the Swanson School of Engineering’s civil engineering department and founding director of its pioneering public works program, died June 4, 2017, in Delray Beach, Fla. He was 88.

John C. Mascaro, founder of Mascaro Construction Company, said Abrams was one of the most influential men in his life, beginning with Mascaro’s undergraduate days as a Pitt engineering student, from 1962-66.

“He was the quintessential professor,” Mascaro said of Abrams. “You had to work. He was a great leader — he demanded your best.”

Abrams received the Chancellor’s Distinguished Teaching Award in 1992. During Mascaro’s years, he inspired his civil engineering students to do everything from winning the school’s Engineering Week competitions to continuing their studies in graduate school. Mascaro, who continued his studies at Pitt, recalls delaying his own master’s thesis for years, since he was already working in the construction business, until Abrams mentored him personally through the two-year process. “He made me do it, out of respect for him,” Mascaro remembered. “You were afraid to let him down.” (Mascaro completed his MS in 1980.)

The pair maintained a friendship through the rest of Abrams’ life.

“I just loved the man,” Mascaro said. “He was easy to talk to, but you better be prepared because he knew what he was talking about.”

Born Sept. 7, 1928, Abrams grew up in Baltimore, Md., and completed his engineering bachelor’s degree from Johns Hopkins University in 1947. He took a teaching fellowship there and earned a master’s degree in structural engineering in 1950. He then worked in private industry for several years before receiving his doctorate in engineering in structural mechanics from Johns Hopkins in 1956.

He quickly began his academic career at Yale, moving from assistant to associate professor of civil engineering. In 1965, Abrams was recruited to become chair of Pitt’s Department of Civil Engineering, with a joint appointment as a professor of mathematics. He was honored in 1988 with the Abrams Fellowship, created by his department faculty shortly after his retirement to benefit civil engineering graduate students. It was last awarded in 2003.

His teaching and scholarship led him to work with the United Nations on public-service training for people in scientific and technical fields. He also aided physicians and emergency response personnel in Japan, Chile and Armenia, who were assessing the resuscitation potential of people trapped by major earthquakes. His academic career took him to other universities as a consultant and evaluator for civil engineering programs.

Abrams was active in many professional organizations along with symposia, conferences and committees, and was widely published. He was a distinguished member and fellow of the American Society of Civil Engineers, and was named an ASCE Professor of the Year. He also received the Donald C. Stone Award for Excellence in Education from the American Public Works Association and the Distinguished Service Award from the Pennsylvania Society of Professional Engineers.

He is survived by his wife of 64 years, Rosalie; three sons and daughters-in-law, Jeffrey and Caryl Abrams, Stephen Abrams and Paula Copp, and Lane and Lysbeth Abrams; and grandchildren Hana, Rachel, Ivan, Henry and Max Abrams.

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