A Tribute to GEI Co-Founder and Geotechnical Engineer Dr. Steve J. Poulos (1933 – 2016)November 27, 2016
Dr. Steve J. Poulos, geotechnical engineer and co-founder of GEI Consultants, Inc., passed away on October 6, 2016. Steve was born in Burlington, VT, the youngest child of Greek immigrant parents. He received a BS in Civil Engineering and a MS in Soil Mechanics and Hydraulics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1954 and 1955, respectively.
From 1955 to 1958, Steve served as an engineering officer in the U.S. Navy, with initial duty assignment at the Iwakuni Naval Air Force Base in Japan in support of the U.S. presence in the Far East following the Korean War truce. After 16 months in Japan, he returned to Boston serving both as the Assistant Resident in Charge of Construction for Texas Tower 4 (an offshore cold war radar station) during its construction in drydock, and as Resident Officer in Charge of Construction when the Tower was towed and erected at the edge of the outer continental shelf, in 180 feet of water 90 miles off the New Jersey coast.
After leaving the Navy, Steve worked for 9 months as a geotechnical engineer for a Boston consulting firm, and then in 1959 he enrolled at Harvard University to pursue his Ph.D. degree in soil mechanics under Prof. Arthur Casagrande. His original research focus was on the long-term stress-strain behavior of clays. However, as he was performing the laboratory testing, he learned that membrane leakage in long-term triaxial testing significantly affected the test data and results. Therefore, he redirected his research to an indepth study of membrane leakage, and methods to reduce and account for leakage. This became the subject of his Ph.D. dissertation, which was completed in 1964.
Steve was appointed an Assistant Professor of Soil Mechanics at Harvard in 1964, and held that position until 1970. During that period, he taught courses in soil mechanics, soil laboratory testing, and groundwater flow. He was one of the instructors for the five special programs in soil mechanics that Harvard University presented to over 200 experienced engineers from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, other governmental agencies, and leading private engineering companies. While at Harvard, Steve was also active in consulting and in advising students on their research.
While on sabbatical at Cambridge University in England in 1970, Harvard University decided to close the geotechnical engineering program when Prof. Casagrande retired. Steve reached out to several colleagues from Harvard with the idea of starting a consulting firm. He, Dan LaGatta, Ron Hirschfeld, and Dick Murdock founded Geotechnical Engineers, Inc. (now GEI Consultants, Inc.) on July 1, 1970. Gonzalo Castro joined the firm a year later. Steve served as President of the firm for three 4-year terms between 1970 and 1990, and also as Treasurer for several terms. At the time of his death, the company Steve helped found and lead for 45 years has grown to over 700 people with 35 offices across the country. While the firm has greatly expanded its services, it has retained Steve’s very strong focus on high quality and attention to detail in all its work.
Throughout his 45 years at GEI, Steve served as geotechnical consultant for a wide variety of clients and projects. His experience and expertise earned him a role as trusted advisor to many leaders in engineering firms, agencies, utilities, property owners, and managers. He continued with his consulting practice until retiring in 2015. Steve shared his knowledge freely, and encouraged everyone to be curious and learn constantly. He authored or coauthored over 25 technical papers to share what he had learned. Steve made important contributions in the areas of steady state strength of soils, liquefaction, and cyclic mobility. He prepared a monograph on the stress-strain curves of soils. Along with his partner Ron Hirschfeld, Steve co-edited the book Embankment- Dam Engineering, as a tribute to Arthur Casagrande.
He was a recognized expert on dam engineering, especially the assessment of the static and seismic stability and hydraulic safety of existing dams. He served on a national panel for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to evaluate the condition of high-risk dams most in need of remediation, and to define and prioritize the necessary explorations, design, and construction.
Early in his career, Steve had several experiences that affected his attitude and approach to engineering and professional practice. As a Naval officer, he had overall responsibility for the drydock construction and deep sea installation of Texas Tower 4. During installation, the structure suffered significant damage. Despite his objections, Steve ultimately accepted the decision of Navy superiors to make repairs in place, underwater, rather than returning the structure to the drydock where the repairs could be made with greater control and confidence. When the tower suddenly failed in a hurricane 4 years later, with the loss of all 28 people on board, Steve felt an intense personal responsibility for the tragedy. A few years later, he had the opportunity to perform an expert investigation into the piping failure of a dam in Connecticut, which resulted in the loss of three lives. In both these experiences, Steve recognized the immense personal responsibility that engineers have for the health and safety of the public. He made it a cornerstone of his career to live up to that responsibility, and to help other engineers do so as well.
Steve was a generous mentor to all those he worked with. He summarized his expectations of himself and of those he mentored in a few simple words: Kindness, Initiative and Integrity, and Competence, or K-I-C. He exemplified these attributes in every aspect of his life, both professional and personal.
Steve will be sadly missed and fondly remembered by all who knew him.