A Remembrance: Margaret S. Petersen (1920-2013)
Curt Elmore, Rolla, Missouri, January 2013

Margaret Petersen - a pioneer in the engineering industry - passed away on January 18, 2013. Curt Elmore’s sentiments on her as an engineer, a mentor, and a friend will certainly be echoed by many in our EWRI Community. It is with that in mind, that this issue of EWRI Currents is dedicated to the loving memory of Margaret Petersen.
“It’s been a richly rewarding life” is the title of Margaret Petersen’s autobiographical essay in the 1989 ASCE book Sons of Martha edited by the renowned Augustine Fredrich.  The book was published while I was a civil engineering graduate student at the University of Arizona about a year after my father died suddenly at age 52.  His death left a gap in my life, and shortly thereafter I found what proved to be life-long personal and professional support in the form of one of my professors, Margaret Petersen.  

Margaret had been an instructor for two of my hydraulic engineering classes, and I was both familiar and impressed with her professional history.  She had started work for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers during World War II as a drafter working in the Panama Canal Zone.  She told the story of her return to the U.S., and her desire to learn more about the things that she had been exposed to at the Canal.  I found similarities between her story and mine – like her, I was a little bored by my engineering job after completing my B.S., and I returned to the university to pursue a graduate degree.  But I was impressed and a little intimidated to learn that she had studied under the University of Iowa legend, Hunter Rouse (as had several of her contemporaries who were on the U of A faculty with her).  

Margaret had a distinguished 35 year career with the Corps, and she peppered her lectures with examples from her days at the Waterways Experiment Station in Vicksburg, the Omaha District, the Little Rock District, and finally the Sacramento District.  She was a recognized expert in hydraulic engineering and especially river re-alignment.  During her stay at Sacramento (continued pg. 12)
she embraced project planning, and I often used information from her text book during my 16 years as a federal contractor (primarily for the Corps), and I still use excerpts in my engineering classes at Missouri S&T.  She’s been honored by the Corps, ASCE and EWRI, the University of Iowa, the University of Arizona, the Arkansas River Hall of Fame, and others.

I learned more personal details about Margaret too.  I learned that she was one of only four women employed by the Corps at the Canal, and that she was the second woman to graduate with a civil engineering degree from Iowa (her companion for 32 years from the Canal project, Irene Miller, went with her to Iowa and was the third female Iowa graduate – or maybe vice versa?).  I found out that Margaret had great personal interests in travel, and she collected tasteful artifacts from her worldwide travels.  I wanted to follow her tracks across the globe.  I was surprised when Margaret told me that her first love was art, and that she traveled to Guatemala to learn more about indigenous weavers.  I visited her home in the foothills of Tucson and she showed me her loom and her collection of original prints.

Margaret never married and didn’t have children of her own.  But she adopted a lot of us lost and lonely graduate students.  During the 20 years that she was on the U of A faculty, there were very few female graduate students.  So the only thing that Margaret’s extended graduate student family shared is that we were mostly (but not exclusively) young men.  But we came from all over the world – Algeria, Korea, the U.S., Africa, and everywhere else.  I’d like to say that I knew a good thing when I saw it, and that’s why our relationship stretched across the decades after I finished my Ph.D. and left Tucson.  But it is more likely that Margaret recognized that I was a work in progress, and she could not stand the thought of leaving work unfinished.  She helped me with the mundane – visiting me in Kansas City and helping me pick out appropriate upholstery for a reading chair, sending me her favorite cookie recipes, and quizzing me about the progress of my career.  I came to treasure her advice, and I sought her input frequently.  She encouraged me to try new directions in my professional career, and she helped get me jump-started in EWRI.  It was one of the best pieces of professional advice that I have ever received.

Margaret was a very independent person.  She broke her hip in 1990, tripping over a curb, and I went with her long-time friend, Dr. Bob Clark, to her house to feed her cat, Omar, while Margaret was in the hospital.  We told her that we had a hard time corralling the Persian kitty in order to feed it, and she scolded us soundly for being silly!  Who would try to herd a cat?  Margaret slowed down a little, but remained in relatively good health.  More than a decade later, she suffered another broken hip and age began to catch up with her.  She retained her vision and her hearing until recently, and she was able to maintain her correspondence with her friends, colleagues, and former graduate students.  Margaret inspired several us to embark on a grass roots effort to recognize women in water resource engineering, and through the generosity of primarily Bob Clark, the first Margaret S. Petersen Outstanding Woman of the Year Award was presented to Kathy Banks at the 2011 EWRI World Congress.  But Margaret wasn’t fond of being called a pioneer for women in engineering.  She told me more than one time that she didn’t do what she did just for other women.  She told me that no one ever treated her differently just because she was a woman.  I never doubted her – she was the quintessential engineer, and who in their right mind would challenge her competence?

I think that she should have called her 1989 essay “it is a richly rewarding life”.  It is difficult for me to use the past tense when referring to her.  Margaret Petersen will remain with those of us who knew her personally.  I have tried, and will keep trying, to introduce her to my colleagues and students through my actions.  There’s a lot of pressure on me to pass on the personal and professional ideals that Margaret taught me – she scolded me once, and I don’t want it to happen again!

Arrangements have not yet been finalized for Ms. Petersen’s memorial services. Leading up to her passing, Margaret had expressed that any contributions in her remembrance be submitted to the ASCE-EWRI award in her namesake, the Margaret Petersen Outstanding Woman of the Year Award. This award is presented annually to a female member of EWRI who has demonstrated exemplary service to the water resources and environmental community.

Contributions in Margaret Petersen’s honor can be made to:

Brian Parsons
1801 Alexander Bell Drive
Reston, VA  20191
(Attn: MSP Award)