Civil engineering professor came late to teaching, but still has had big impact on many

John Oyler


Thomas Amadeo Hirata, a graduate student studying structural engineering in the Swanson School of Engineering, loved to visit John Oyler’s office whenever he was in.

And every time Hirata came by to visit, he would ask Oyler, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, to tell him a story.

“And he, in typical grandfather fashion, he has hundreds of stories that he’s recollected from his years, and in every single one of the stories he always is able to incorporate some form of wisdom in terms of engineering or some tidbit of knowledge that I can take forward,” Hirata said.

But that office will soon be empty as the School of Engineering plans to say goodbye to Oyler, who will retire at the end of the fall semester after 26 years a Pitt.

Oyler, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, has touched the lives of many students like Hirata and professors in the Swanson School.

“His impact on every student and the civil engineering profession is immeasurable,” said Leonard Casson, associate professor and undergraduate academic coordinator for the engineering school. “John served many roles including mentor, confidant, counselor, professor and guide for at least 100 students who graduated from the department each academic year.”

And on his final lecture for the Civil Engineering Materials course, students applauded, Casson said.

“That is a very rare occurrence,” Casson said. “I would like to think of John as a master teacher. He also serves as a role model to me in my academic and professional endeavors.”

In addition to the materials course, Oyler taught the capstone senior design project, which every student planning to graduate from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering must take.

Hirata, who took the capstone course, said his interactions with Oyler helped inspire him to continue his education at Pitt. He said Oyler had a way of pushing students to achieve more than they thought they were capable of.

“I think … the impression that he’s left on me is that he’s given me a role model of the engineer that I want to be,” Hirata said.

Oyler is a Bridgeville native who earned his bachelor’s in civil engineering from Penn State University in 1953 and his masters and doctorate in civil engineering from Carnegie Mellon University in 1961 and 1972.

Oyler also worked as an engineer for the Pittsburgh-based Dravo Corporation while he was studying for his degrees. In the early ‘90s, Oyler retired from Dravo and worked as a consultant for a while. He also applied to teach at CMU.

But by 1993, he ended up at Pitt instead.

“I was initially disappointed that I didn’t get an offer from Carnegie Mellon — initially,” Oyler said. “The longer I’ve been here, the more obvious it was: this is where I belong.”

Oyler said it was the students, many whom he characterized as “disadvantaged kids who really have to pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” who helped him realize that Pitt was the right fit for him.

“The kids we get are so different from the prima donnas at CMU,” Oyler said. “I couldn’t help them. I was able to help a whole lot of people here. And I think really, maybe my impact here was on the very most disadvantaged kids, the kids that struggled the most. And I’m proudest of a bunch of kids that got through.”

And former students like Kevin Abt, who graduated from Pitt in 1995, continue to keep in touch with Oyler after they graduate. Abt is now the project manager for the Parallel Thimble Shoal Tunnel Project for the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Tunnel District.

“My reward is the students,” Oyler said when asked why he decided to stay at Pitt for so long. “I was 61 years old when I started this, and I have no academic aspirations. I’m not doing this for the money. But seeing these young people mature and go out and do the things that they’re doing … that's my motivation.”

Abt said he got to know Oyler when he was sitting outside of a class reading a book when Oyler stopped to talk to him about the book.

“So that was one of those things where we ended up not necessarily talking about engineering, we were talking about literature and history and a lot of other things,” Abt said. “And

That’s what piqued my interest in John — he could basically step away from the engineering and mathematics and he could talk about anything.  We could talk music, we could talk literature. He’s a great guy to talk to.”

Others also remarked on Oyler’s multiple interests outside of engineering.

Over the years, Oyler has been an active member of the Bridgeville Historical Society and the American Society of Civil Engineers. He's also a columnist for the Tribune-Review about historical topics.

He’s also known for his other hobbies, including designing calendars, which he passes out to Swanson faculty each year and collecting historical bricks, a hobby he jokingly called “weird” and “the worst hobby you can imagine.”

“You know, you collect stamps, you have them in an album and carry it around,” Oyler said. “You collect baseball cards, put it in a three-ring binder. You collect bricks, you need a pickup truck.”

Oyler also has multiple ties to Pitt. His daughter, Elizabeth Oyler, is an associate professor of Premodern Japanese Literature and acting chair of the Department of East Asian Languages & Literatures. His late wife of 52 years, Nancy, earned her master’s in rehabilitation counseling from Pitt.

When asked about his plans for retirement, Oyler mentioned a phrase from a soldier’s folklore song: “Old Soldiers Never Die.” The full phrase is “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away,” he said.

“I’m just going to fade away,” Olyer said. “I think that’s what I’m doing.”

Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at or 412-383-9905.