John Kulicki: Setting new standards

July 2014 » Features » CE PROFILE
A leader in the field of bridge engineering through 40 years at Modjeski and Masters, Kulicki sought to create new standards and inspire his team to success.
Maureen Foody
Kulicki and a young engineer study a model of the Bayview Bridge.

Modjeski and Masters

Established: 1893

Headquarters: Mechanicsburg, Pa.

Size: 182 employees in nine offices

Ownership: Employee owned

Website: www.modjeski.com

Primary services: Bridge design, rehabilitation, inspection, and structural health monitoring

While passionate about mathematics and physics, John Kulicki, Ph.D., P.E., didn’t know exactly what to do with those interests after high school. After growing up on Long Island then moving to Pennsylvania, Kulicki soon began exploring colleges. A guidance counselor suggested that he set his sights a bit higher than what he originally planned for by considering civil engineering as a possible field of study. Following this lead, Kulicki enrolled at Layfayette College in Easton, Pa., where he received his B.S. in civil engineering. Kulicki helped foster his budding interest in bridge design by working for a professor who had a part-time business working with a local highway department designing bridges. 

“I soon discovered I loved [not only] design itself but also applied research, being able to physically make something happen,” Kulicki said. “We weren’t working on very complicated projects, but we had access to a computer and developed some advanced programs for the time. The experience helped define what it meant to work for someone who takes an interest in you personally while also challenging you as an engineer.” 

John Kulicki, Ph.D., P.E., and his team at Modjeski and Masters, with the help of 53 subject matter experts, developed the AASHTO LRFD Bridge Design Specifications that established better safety standards and revolutionized the approach to bridge design and building.

From there, Kulicki attended Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. for his M.S. and Ph.D. in civil engineering. He credits the mentorship of a number of professors and teachers who helped him along the way, especially his advisor at Lehigh, Celal Kastem, who helped him decide between continuing in the field of higher education or exploring the world of private industry. 

“He was great as an advisor because he gave you all the rope you could use,” Kulicki said. “He was always pushing for more.”

In 1974, Kulicki began his work at Modjeski and Masters in Mechanicsburg, Pa., just a year after receiving his doctorate. Until that time, Kulicki had no need to be a licensed engineer, so he started out as a near entry-level engineer — an E2 out of a range of E1-E5 — as he set out to become licensed. 

“I started by doing projects involving ratings, structural design, and some programming,” he said. “Although working at M and M also provided opportunities to work on special projects.” 

Kulicki (left) and Thomas P. Murphy, Ph.D., P.E., S.E., vice president and chief technical officer at Modjeski and Masters, inspect a Bayview Bridge stay cable anchorage.

It wasn’t long before Kulicki received his P.E., rising quickly through the ranks at Modjeski and Masters and being named partner in 1980. The projects he became involved with varied, including a few bridge collapse investigations that he called “breakthrough projects” in the sense that they were especially important to senior staff in the owner’s organizations.

“It’s important to get yourself involved in as many aspects of engineering as possible,” Kulicki said. “The more involved you become, the more diverse the type of work you get becomes.” 

Kulicki said his time teaching in the classroom — here as an assistant professor at Lafayette College in 1969 — was “a priceless experience” in terms of learning to express his thoughts and ideas while also bringing people into discussions.

Thanks in part to his work studying these collapses and other structural problems, Kulicki and his team at Modjeski and Masters were soon awarded the development of the AASHTO LRFD Bridge Design Specifications. These specifictions, developed with the help of 53 subject matter experts, helped establish better safety standards and revolutionized the approach to bridge design and building. 

Kulicki is quick to share credit. “It’s the team that gets the work done in situations like that,” he said. “Especially with technical people, you get much more by offering them a platform, rather than just instruction.” 

A vacation trip to Mexico, Costa Rico, and Panama with wife Harriet included a full transit of the Panama Canal, an engineering marvel that resulted from the confluence of technical, political, economic, and social forces.

Kulicki realized this when teaching first at Lafayette College and later Lehigh University, while in graduate school. “In terms of learning to express my thoughts and ideas while also bringing people into discussions, the time in the classroom was a priceless experience for me,” he said. “This was especially true after the LRFD project, when we traveled to many states teaching a course on the specifications for the FHWA’s National Highway Institute. You need both interaction and organization in order to have people connect with ideas.”

Kulicki has worked on a number of notable bridge projects at Modjeski and Masters, including bridges across the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. As of 2014, Kulicki is chairman emeritus and senior technical advisor at Modjeski and Masters, after relinquishing his roles as chairman and CEO. He is still working on several projects related to the specifications and some special issues.

“One of the best things about Modjeski and Masters were the senior managers who helped me a great deal with my time as chairman,” Kulicki said. “They were always willing to step up and handle any issues that came up.” 

Kulicki credits his success at the helm to the decision to maintain the company’s traditional position as a practice-centered business. “Practice is what we offer to our clients and what we try to concentrate on,” he said. “Engineering at its core is a people business, and you have to try to not only find talented people who are going to help your organization, but also help them succeed as individuals. The best results are delivered when you allow qualified people to take ownership of an idea, rather than demanding it from them. Consensus is necessary in order to move ahead.” 

Meeting of a panel for NCHRP Project 12-84, Guidelines for the Load and Resistance Factor Design and Rating of Riveted and Bolted Gusset Plate Connections for Steel Bridges, at the FHWA's Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center provided an opportunity to view some of the test specimens and review progress on the project.

Even when approaching projects that are innovative, Kulicki keeps a cool head, “Those projects also have more risk as well as innovation,” he said. “The risk could be financial or legal liability, but you have to forge ahead, managing your collective effort and technology while also keeping your team motivated and focused on the task.”

Over the years, many have taken notice of the work Kulicki has done at Modjeski and Masters — not only his work on the LRFD specifications, but also in the diversity of his bridge designs, with projects ranging from long-span truss and arch, cable-stayed, suspension, and girder bridges. The accolades and recognition come in many forms, such as being twice named one of Engineering News-Record’s “Men Who Made Marks” in 1984 and 1991. In 2002, he achieved a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Institute of Steel Construction. In 2012, he received the J. Lloyd Kimbrough Award from AISC, the 11th person ever to receive the award. That same year, Kulicki also was elected as an inaugural Fellow by the Structural Engineering Institute of the American Society of Civil Engineers. He has received both the International Bridge Conference’s Richardson and Roebling Medals. Combined with his election to the National Academy of Engineering in 2006, these awards are a standing testament to the life of work and dedication Kulicki has provided to bridge design.

When speaking about contemporary issues facing civil and structural engineers, Kulicki cited the ever-growing threat of commoditization: “Society and the marketplace for engineers are changing. Economic pressures and the growing competition from other fields are hard to deal with if we don’t have respect from society at large. There are difficult parameters in developing the next generation of engineers.” 

Kulicki also cited the importance of engineers’ participation: “We have to be looking at societal situations and becoming more involved in the process,” he said. “We can and have to remain dedicated to the project at hand in a way that treats everyone honorably.” 

Citing the importance of mentorship, especially when one is first starting out into the field, Kulicki often put himself in the public arena by publishing papers, attending conferences, and providing strong leadership within Modjeski and Masters. “You have to find your role model who exhibits honorable behavior and also represents the knowledge you want to attain,” he said. “The need to cultivate is very important; you need to treat people well in order to make and keep connections.”

As Kulicki moves ahead, he joked that he hasn’t really been familiar with the concept of downtime. This gives him a bit of time to explore his passions of photography and reading, which he admits were usually materials relevant to work. He also enjoys spending time with his wife of more than 40 years, Harriett, who worked as a registered nurse and now remains active volunteering with their local church and food pantry. They have one daughter, Jennifer, who serves as a police sergeant in East Hempfield, Pa. “We like to travel and hopefully now this year we can get a bit more of that in,” Kulicki said.

And though there are hurdles to climb for an engineer just starting out, Kulicki remains an optimist about the field. “No one does it by themselves; all of the products and projects come from collective effort,” he said. “The people you choose to surround yourself with are pertinent to your success. I am happy to say luck has been on my side during my time at Modjeski and Masters — with years of great teams, great collaboration, and interesting work.”

Maureen Foody is a freelance writer and editor who lives and works in Chicago. She can be reached at maureen.t.f@gmail.com


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