Henryk Stolarski: A Balanced Life

Henryk Stolarski began his life in Poland, earned four graduate degrees, and was “lucky” enough to have two significant breakthroughs in his productive career. He appreciates mathematics along with family, music, and woodworking. His colleagues consistently describe him as smart and humble. He seems to be learning the art of balance.

Henryk Stolarski first came to the United States as a Fulbright Fellow to study with Professor Ted Belytschko at the University of Illinois, Chicago. The academic and research opportunities were valuable but tempered by his personal circumstances. “It was a difficult time, because when I was leaving my daughter was about eight months old, and I was thinking about her. I had no plan to stay in the States. I knew I would be going back to live in Poland. Actually, I didn’t know if I would come to the United States ever again because of the political system in Poland at that time.” He spent as little as possible, living in a basement apartment and sending money home.

The Beginning
Stolarski was born in a small town in Eastern Poland. At age 13, he left his parents to attend high school in a larger, nearby city. He lived in a dorm for about five years. 

“I came to Warsaw in 1963, just 18 years old. Eight years after the war, there were still weeds in the center of the city. I remember that,” Stolarski recalls. He earned his Master’s of Science in Civil Engineering at the Technical University of Warsaw and his Master’s of Science in Applied Mathematics at the University of Warsaw. 

He still owns a small apartment in Warsaw, the same place he lived with his wife and young daughter before coming to the United States. He has updated it in the meantime, so now it is a bit more comfortable, but still tiny at just 550 square feet. “I once thought I would live all my life in a place like that.” 

Stolarski got a second chance to travel to the US three years after his first visit. The second time he came as a postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern University, again working with Professor Belytschko, albeit at a new place. This time, Stolarski was earning more money and his young family was with him. The situation was much better, intended to be another year-long study program.

Professor Belytschko was only a few years older than his student, and they complemented one another well. Belytschko went on to be quite famous. At one point, he invited Stolarski to move with him to another university where Belytschko was being considered for a leadership position. The plan was that Stolarski would focus on progressing their research while Belytschko concentrated on administration. Stolarski had proved himself to be a valued research partner. 

The postdoctoral research fellowship extended over a few years. Afterward, Stolarski worked at Northwestern University as a Visiting Scientist. In 1985, Stolarski was offered an academic position at the University of Illinois, Chicago. The job offer coincided with a request to return to his home institution, Institute of Fundamental Technological Research. The Polish authorities did not want him to extend his United States stay any longer. 

Stolarski chose to accept the job and stay. As a result of his noncompliance with the official request, he could not travel back to Poland, nor could his family come to the States. “For ten years I did not see anyone in my family. Within that time, my father passed away and I could not go back for the funeral. Life was tough at that point.” Stolarski worked four years as an Associate Professor at the University of Illinois, Chicago, and in 1989, came to Minnesota. 

After ten years, the political situation in Poland had shifted, and Stolarski was able to travel back and forth. By that time, he had established his life and research at the University of Minnesota, but he travelled each year to visit his two brothers and his younger sister.

Two People’s Work

For Stolarski, teaching was the main part of his work at the University and the main reason for a university to exist. “I tried to do as good a job as I could teaching college students. No matter what I was teaching, I perceived in every classroom that there were students who could be excellent.” 

Because of this belief, Stolarski was sometimes willing to take on students other faculty hesitated to admit. “Yes,  I had to help them quite a bit,” he recalled, “but I particularly enjoyed when I could help to eliminate difficulties for a student who maybe had some struggles. I consider myself to be successful when I could help those students who needed extra help. One in particular, went on to a very wonderful, very productive career.”

"Teaching and Learning is two people's work—it takes the teacher and the student. If a student does not care then it does not matter what I do; there will be no results. But when a student cares, then learning can happen."

Beams of Starlight, Beams of Concrete

A memorable collaboration with Professor Catherine French required the use of a large computer model and the facilities of the Minnesota Supercomputing Institute. Other researchers working at the Supercomputing Institute included physicists studying space and simulating galaxies. 

“We were simply simulating beams! But our work led to a real life impact, even though it was one of the simpler projects in my research.” The project, initiated by a company that was manufacturing very large, pre-stressed beams for the Minnesota Department of Transportation, was looking to eliminate cracking in those beams. 

During production, the manufacturer noticed some cracking. Although the beams with the cracks were stable and were being used, the concern was that water and salt from the roads could get into the cracks and corrode the steel rebar, diminishing the capacity. They approached Professor French, a concrete specialist, to find a way to eliminate cracking.

The process of creating the beams involved placing about 30 steel cables in each concrete beam. After curing, the tension was relieved by cutting through the steel cables. The convenient order of the cutting followed the cables as they appeared, one after another. Cracks appeared in this zone at the time of cutting.

French and Stolarski investigated various ways of cutting the steel in the beams. They mathematically simulated the process and found an alternative pattern of cutting the cables and relieving the tension that could significantly reduce the forces that were producing cracks. Theoretically, fewer cracks would appear. The plant applied the new cutting pattern and the number of cracks was indeed significantly reduced.

When it came time for the Minnesota Supercomputing Institute to show legislators (their funders) the useful things they were doing for Minnesota, the director highlighted the research on prestressed concrete. Although the research was successful and very useful, Stolarski finds humor in how the humble beam research outshone the more technically impressive research into galaxies. "Simpler things in life are often more useful," he mused. 

"Simpler things in life are often more useful," he mused. 

Research Institutions

Stolarski is quick to mention the role of luck in bringing him to four esteemed technical institutions. He does not dwell on the hard work and sleepless nights he endured on his way to theoretical breakthroughs.

“I have been lucky to be associated with great research institutions all my life. Whenever I moved, it was to move into a better position. Starting out at a new place, I worried a bit if I would be good enough to fit in at these prestigious institutions. Then after a month or a few months, I would get up to speed. I learned that even famous researchers have strengths and weaknesses; people are people.”

"I learned that even famous researchers have strengths and weaknesses; people are people.”

Stolarski began teaching at the Technical University of Warsaw where he completed his first master’s degrees. After he earned a master’s in civil engineering (1968 Technical University of Warsaw), he started working for a division of the civil engineering department with a mathematical emphasis. He realized that he needed to understand more mathematics. “So, I started at the very beginning and studied for five years earning a Master’s in Applied Mathematics (1975 University of Warsaw). I must say that did not improve my physical thinking about the problems, but it gave me a different perspective, which serves me well to this day. I think that mathematics is an important aspect of everything.” 

Stolarski completed his Ph.D. in Engineering Mechanics at the Institute of Fundamental Technological Research. He continued to work there as a researcher. “The Institute of Fundamental Technological Research is a world class institution. I had extensive contacts with people from many countries, and my time there helped me develop as a researcher.” 

Then in the US, Stolarski studied and worked at Northwestern University and the University of Illinois, Chicago (UIC). “The departments that I worked in were outstanding. Both were formative for me.”

Coming to the University of Minnesota, he again found an excellent, collaborative research environment. In addition to his colleagues in the Department of Civil, Environmental, and Geo- Engineering, Stolarski engaged in valuable collaborations with associates from chemical engineering and mechanical engineering, mathematics, as well as aerospace engineering.  

He noticed that one or two people can destroy camaraderie, and at the same time, one or two people with warm personalities can enhance the environment. “I found warm personalities when I came to Minnesota. Professor Galambos, for instance, was a person who really introduced a warmth to this place. Joe Labuz and Cathy French are like that. A few people can set the atmosphere.”


While Stolarski learned mathematics and engineering from some of the best, in his alternative pursuits, he is largely self-taught.

Music is one area of enjoyment, especially jazz and classical music. “I see them both as abstract in a way, sometimes you do not hear a melody. Other types of music, like folk or country, you have a melody that you can hear. You can even remember it, and repeat it afterwards, but in jazz or classical music, such repetition is tougher. I like that abstraction.”

In addition to listening, Stolarski also makes his own music on guitar and accordion. He was introduced to the accordion at about 8 years old. An elderly professor in a neighboring village was very talented musically and played several instruments. He decided he would teach the children of the village for free, provided the parents bought the instruments. “My parents bought me an accordion. We even participated in some local competitions.”

In high school, he bought himself a guitar and some sheet music, and taught himself to play. “I played accordion and guitar all through high school, but I abandoned both at the university.” 

His did not return to playing until many years later. “My daughter somehow learned that I used to play the accordion, and one Christmas surprised me with a small accordion. At that point, I had not played the accordion for something like 40 years, but I took it out of the box, and I could play it. Now I play it only during winter when all the windows are closed and no one can hear!”

“I returned to guitar when I was teaching at the University of Illinois, Chicago. I lived in Evanston, so I commuted more than an hour each way. I took a train, and then a bus, and then from the bus station, I walked a couple blocks. Once, after a huge rainstorm that flooded many basements, people piled their wet junk on the curb. I was walking from the bus stop and looking at all this stuff. I saw a guitar case. I passed by it. Then, I thought ‘maybe there is a guitar inside.’ I went back to look and, indeed, found a guitar inside, a little wet. I took it home. That was probably 35 years ago. Since then, I play guitar every day, maybe even a couple times a day. Jazz is difficult for the person who is self-educated, so I play mostly classical and some folk melodies from Poland, Hungary, Germany, or France. I’m getting better now, but I’m still self-educated.”

“I also do some drawing and some woodworking. My furniture at home is mostly what I have made. I made my own bed, my own desk, my own coffee table, chest, bookshelves. When I first came to this country, I had no money but needed all that. My apartment in Evanston was only few blocks from a lumberyard. I just carried boards home to make what I needed.”

“I am self-taught and my work is primitive—my woodwork is primitive, my music is primitive, yet I get a lot of enjoyment out of these things.”

View to the future

My field is fairly classical. I dealt with mechanics and mathematics, which is a mature area. The future lies in combining classical mechanics with computational methods and technology. In the last several years, I have been working in this area, using computers and models related to various applications, including using numerical algorithms to solve problems in the medical field. And CEGE is now hiring faculty who have these combined abilities, for example, Jia-Liang Le and Qizhi He. “No one can predict the future,” said Stolarski, “but I expect the department will continue to excel.”