After 100 years, Richard Woodruff, P.E., F.ASCE says he has finally found his niche as a civil engineer.
Following a long and successful career building dams throughout Alabama, Woodruff, who turned 100 on March 22, is still going strong by helping the Village Creek Human and Environmental Justice Society, Inc. control flooding along a 44-mile watershed in Birmingham, Ala.
In celebration of Woodruff’s centennial, Birmingham’s City Council issued a proclamation thanking him for donating his time, money, and expertise and untiring efforts to fix the flooding that destroyed homes and property along the Village Creek community.
“Mr. Woodruff is a dynamo and looking to do stuff every day,” says his friend of 24 years, Bobby Nolen, P.E., L.S., M.ASCE, owner of the Nolan Engineering Group. “It is amazing to me how acute his mind and his memory are. He can piece together details from things 80 years ago, when I have difficulty piecing together things from last week.”
“Diminutive in his stature, he definitely is a giant among men in his accomplishment and in his will to strive,” Nolen added.
Continuing to make a difference today
“I read about the flooding in Birmingham [in 2009] and the damage that it had been doing to people and I decided that I would find out why,” recalled Woodruff, who claims he never has retired. “A few weeks later they held a meeting at city hall in downtown Birmingham for all the people in the city that had been affected by high water in Village Creek. One of them was Mable Anderson, who grew up there.
“She explained to me that at the house where her parents live, (the creek) had overflowed 18 to 20 inches above the first floor; which means you could not even get there without a rowboat! I knew as a civil engineer that I had to do something about it.”
Woodruff discovered that soil from the banks washed into the creek when it rained, which decreased its depth. In addition, both the county sewer pipe and a bridge with 12 piers cross the creek; these catch debris, forming mini-dams that cause water to overflow over the creek banks leading to flooding.
“It was easy to find out why it flooded,” says Woodruff. “It was a crooked creek that got filled up with trash and trees that didn’t float or wash away, and that built up ‘beaver’ dams so to speak.”
Thanks to Woodruff, community members now get together twice a year to clean up the creek, and the city is committed to raising the necessary funds to build a Gabion retaining wall and replace the Avenue F Bridge over Village Creek with a single-span bridge.
Love of civil engineering fueled active ASCE membership
Like the many wide and powerful rivers that help provide electric power to people in the state of Alabama, Woodruff’s long and distinguished career as a civil engineer left a noteworthy and indelible mark on the profession that he has served since graduating with a degree in civil engineering from the University of Alabama in 1937—the same year the Hoover Dam was competed. An ASCE member since 1937, member of the ASCE Board of Direction from 1981 to 1983, ASCE Student Chapter president, and winner of ASCE’s Rickey Metal in 1972 (as chair of the Committee on Hydro Power Project Planning and Design of the Power Division), Woodruff has lived a full life as a Society member and civil engineer.
“I knew I wanted to be a civil engineer when I was 10 or 12 years old,” confessed Woodruff, who grew up in Binghamton, NY. “I used to play with trucks and dig ditches with a hammer so I could run little trucks along the roads and bridges I built. That was fun all right and kept you busy for quite a while.
“I had originally planned to attend Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. But the tuition was $400 a semester at that time and that was a little bit beyond my budget and my folks could not send me. We got a catalog from the University of Alabama which showed the same curriculum, the same subjects, administered by Cornell graduates in the civil engineering school, and the cost of $78 for out-of-state students. So that looked real good to me. It was in the South, too, and that was a drawing point because they did not have ice and snow, like we did in Binghamton.”
‘I knew how to build a dam’ that could power Alabama
With the U.S. still in the midst of the Great Depression in 1937, Woodruff found it a challenge finding a job.
“I tried to get a job as a draftsman with all the architectural firms that I could find in Birmingham but I did not have any luck because I was [originally] from out of state,” he says. “I went back to Tuscaloosa and talked to a professor that I knew real well and I told him of my experience. He gave me a letter and said that I should go to the Alabama Power Company about a job, because he heard they were looking for junior engineers.
“They were looking for a civil engineer that understood transits and levels. So [they] gave me a [job] assignment and an office, working in the transmission and high voltage department of the Alabama Power Company.”
As a staff engineer, transmission line engineer, supervising engineer, and senior engineer and secretary at the Alabama Power Company and its parent company, Southern Company Services from 1937 to 1978, Woodruff was involved in the firm’s planning, design, operation, maintenance, construction, and reconstruction of 14 hydroelectric dams that provided power to the entire state. Woodruff was also involved with the state’s Board of Consulting Engineers, retained by Alabama Power to advise the company on technical problems in river development projects.
“As a civil engineer, I knew how to build a dam,” says Woodruff, who earned the 1999–2000 Distinguished Service Award from ASCE’s Alabama Section. “And they were also expanding the transmission system to as much as 110,000 volts, which in the old times, transmission lines were 13,000 volts, some of them were as much as 22,000 volts.”
Inspiring, and an inspiration to, generations of civil engineers
Retiring did not sit well with Woodruff, so he went to work in 1983 as a consulting engineer with Hendon Engineering Associates, where his work took him to rebuilding the Craggy Dam in Buncomb County, N.C.
“That is how I first got to meet Mr. Woodruff,” says Nolen, who worked for Hendon Engineering. “He had an office in our suite and I originally sought him out because we were just starting the ASCE Coloring Book Competition for fourth graders. I was just hoping he could get someone to offer a tour of hydroelectric dams in the area as an award for a winning class.
“He grabbed the reins [of the Coloring Book Competition]. In the end, he developed, organized, and created the state’s Coloring Book Competition.”
“The Coloring Book Contest was originally developed by ASCE and was suitable for fourth grade students and that went over real big with the kids,” added Woodruff, who was involved in the outreach program for 19 years. “They had to give prizes for those that did the best job of coloring, so I arranged to have the kids tour the Logan Martin Dam, which was the closest dam to Birmingham.
“I had employees from [Alabama Power] take groups of seven or eight through the hydroelectric plant. There are about six levels of elevation all the way from the top of the turbine, and we had to ride an elevator to get to the top of the turbine or the generator area because that is where the maintenance of the turbine was done. The kids paid strict attention to it because that was what was in their coloring books.”
For his work, the ASCE Birmingham Branch named their outreach program the Richard Woodruff Pre-College Outreach Program.
Woodruff was married to the late Gwendolyn Roberson Woodruff for 59 years and has two sons, Michael Eugene and Richard Lucian Woodruff. An active member of Independence Presbyterian Church before residing at St. Martin in the Pine Assistant Living, he has enjoyed stamp collecting throughout his life, a hobby he picked up as a teenager. He also keeps a boat on Guntersville Lake, located in northern Alabama between Bridgeport and Guntersville.
Still motivated and looking for new challenges every day, Woodruff today serves as not only an ambassador to the profession but a mentor to young engineers in ASCE’s Birmingham Branch.
When asked what his 100 years have taught him Woodruff replied, “It taught me that the world is a better place to live based on how civil engineers handle infrastructure all over the world.”