Dennis Martenson, a very civil Civil Engineer

DENNIS R. MARTENSON (PE, BCE 1967, MSCE 1968, Pres.06.ASCE) has given a lot of himself to engineering, a profession that gives a lot to society.

Martenson, who has been licensed since 1971 and is registered in six states, participates in several professional organizations. He became a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) as a student and has served as national president (2006) and chair of the National ASCE Committee on Professional Conduct (CPC). He is also active with the American Water Works Association (AWWA), the Central States Water Environment Association (CSWEA) and the Water Environment Federation (WEF). His career includes experience in industry, regional wastewater authority, and consulting engineering firms. He has been honored with many awards.

Currently, Martenson is a member of the Steering Committee for the preparation of the 6th edition of the joint AWWA/ ASCE Water Treatment Plant Design Manual, and the first ASCE-MN Section State Infrastructure Report Card for Minnesota for which he is leading the Drinking Water and Wastewater portions. He is also on the Minnesota State Board of Architecture, Engineering, Land Surveying, Landscape Architecture, Geoscientists, & Interior Design (AELSLAGID). He is a consulting Engineer at Donohue & Associates, Inc. in Minneapolis. He also serves on the Professional Advisory Board for CEGE, where he has been instrumental in organizing and shaping the capstone design course.

“Well,” says Martenson, “I like to keep busy.”

Martenson also likes to keep up with the news on engineering. He followed stories about the recent hurricanes in Texas and Florida with interest. He believes those events and how society reacts reveals multiple layers of impact that civil engineers can have on society.

“Destruction in the wake of Hurricane Harvey,” says Martenson, “certainly presents a resiliency challenge for Houston and for the entire country.”

Resiliency is our ability to recover from disasters, natural or man-made. Houston seems to be in a better position for recovery than New Orleans was when Hurricane Katrina hit back in 2005. “When the levees failed in New Orleans, the lack of critical infrastructure became a big issue. The city had to worry not only about flooding, but also about a lack of clean water supply, and lack of transportation, electricity, and communication networks. Loss of these critical infrastructures can lead to chaos. People get desperate and do unreasonable things. A loss of civility comes with a lack of civil infrastructure.”

Seen in this light, the services provided by civil engineers are vital for our society. Civil engineers protect us, physically and socially, in very real ways.

Dennis Martenson believes strongly in the good civil engineers can deliver; he also believes strongly that civil engineers have a duty to do good in the world. “I was the first in my immediate family to obtain a college education, and it has proved invaluable to me professionally, financially, and personally. My wife and I feel that people who have been given a lot should give something back, and that it is important that people give in ways that are meaningful to them.

“As ASCE President, I traveled to many universities and always encouraged students to give back. I would tell them, ‘As engineers, you will earn more than the average person. You should seriously consider paying it forward to let others have the advantages you have had.’ In my mind, it is just the right thing to do.”

Martenson started volunteering during his first job after college. He was a Plant Engineer in the Plant Design and Construction Services Group of the Western Electric Company (a division of AT&T). The company encouraged volunteerism and arranged some opportunities for their employees.

Martenson’s first activity was tutoring young students in a low-income housing project in Newark, New Jersey, at a time when Newark was embattled after riots and tanks had been sent to surround the housing area. It was about ½-mile from the train stop, and volunteers were advised not to walk alone. “I remember one six-year-old boy in particular. He was one of three kids, no father. His mother, who worked 2-3 jobs, didn’t let the kids ride their trikes outside, so they rode them in the building up and down the hallways. This little boy was really so interested in learning. I always wondered what happened to him. It was an interesting opportunity to help those people who lived through the riots.”

Martenson has continued to volunteer throughout his life—some activities were engineering-related and some were not. He and his wife instilled a give-back attitude in their two daughters, who are now passing that value along to their own children. “As a parent, it makes me glad to see my children acting in ways that we always hoped they would. I hope, too, that some of the students I’ve talked to have embraced volunteering. You have to plant the seed. People are often willing to give or to help if they are asked. Sometimes you just have to ask them.”

“I became interested in civil engineering when I was young. I was fascinated with construction and watching things get built. When a bridge was being built over a railroad about a block from my house, I went there with my friends many times. During the day we would watch everything that was going on, and at night, we would climb around (which we weren’t supposed to do!). We were interested in how it all worked.

“In college, I liked many aspects of civil engineering, and I found water/ wastewater engineering was a way to get involved in the whole spectrum. For example, building a water treatment plant involves structures, roads, and even mechanical and electrical engineering.”

Martenson often expresses gratitude for what he has attained and gratitude that he is able to give back. He appreciates that precisely because he has not always had a lot. He married his love, Catherine, when they were quite young; Martenson was working and going to college at night. They decided, if he was going to finish before he was thirty, he’d have to go full time. That meant they made some sacrifices.

“We lived in a little house on Nokomis Avenue in South Minneapolis. We bought the house from her aunt on a contract for deed with a payment of about $49 a month. It was a one-bedroom house, but we couldn’t have a bed in the bedroom and get to the bathroom! We had to crawl over the bed to get to the bath. So we put a hide-a-bed in the living room. There was no furnace, only a space heater. My wife would come home after bussing to work and would sit on top of the space heater because she was so cold! The whole house was maybe 25x25 feet, and one third of that was a porch that went all across the front, so the whole place was not very big. We lived there until I earned my bachelor’s degree.”

“My oldest daughter was born when I was a senior. My wife started having morning sickness during finals week. At the time it was not good. We laugh about it now; it all turned out alright.

Dennis Martenson

“So thinking of those days, my wife and I wanted to help out students who find it difficult to pay tuition and so forth. There is a big difference in financials today; tuition is higher and some students struggle. We thought students needed financial help, so Catherine and I funded the Dennis R. and Catherine M. Martenson Scholarship. The recipients each send a letter when they receive the scholarship, and we have gotten to meet several of them. For my wife and me, it is very rewarding to meet a student that we are helping.”

Through the scholarship, the Martensons support students in meaningful ways. Receiving a scholarship can also be an emotional boost for students. When a student hears from an engineer—from someone who knows the struggle, has conquered it, and been successful in their career—when a student hears that engineer say, “I’m behind you. Even though I didn’t know you, I’m behind you and will support you!”—that means a lot to a struggling student.

Martenson talks with students often as a representative of one of the many professional organizations or as an instructor within CEGE. Martenson observed, “Students today are more idealistic, I would say. Some of them get involved with organizations like Engineers Without borders or Teach for America. Such work seems to be, if not a passion, surely an interest of many students. It is important to bring out each student’s special abilities. Sometimes, a student needs somebody to assist with that, to help them identify their interests and opportunities, and to help them be as successful as they can be.”

The CSE Mentors Program pairs practicing engineer-mentors with students. Through mentoring, students learn about the profession and about career options. This past year, Martenson was matched with a Ph.D. student. “She was technically probably head and shoulders above me!” laughed Martenson, “but I was able to give her some practical insights.”

When he was a student, Martenson majored in Sanitary Engineering, which is now called Environmental Engineering. “At UMN, I received a first class education in Civil Engineering. That’s true for students today, too. As President of ASCE, I talked to numerous students and faculty on various campuses about Capstone Design programs. I believe the experience offered in CEGE is outstanding.”

“Students also benefit from UMN being a research institution. CEGE encourages undergraduates to get involved in research and internships, which I think is a strong plus for students. As students get experience through internships or research opportunities, they will have a better understanding of what life will be like when they graduate and go to work.”

“I think the students graduating today, although they will work in many of the same types of occupations my peers and I did, they will face different challenges. Computers have presented a huge change in the skills and knowledge students need and the amount of data they have to work with.”

“CEGE graduates will, eventually, be developing and working with new methods, new procedures, and new materials.” Martenson says that is not a prediction but just a development of current trends. “Data is going to bring a big change to the way we renew and repair our infrastructure. For instance, the new I-35W Bridge is highly instrumented. We can now get data about what is going on inside the structure, which will enable us to make better, more timely decisions.”

“Instrumentation is now being used on buildings, bridges, water lines, and sewers. The ability to monitor water and sewer lines in real time is a big benefit. More instrumentation is going to give us more data so when we design things, we will be able to make better decisions.

“Historically, without as much data as we would have liked, civil engineering has built massive structures to ensure safety. I saw an estimate somewhere that the Brooklyn Bridge was designed with a factor of safety between 5 and 7. As we have learned more and built in redundancies, safety factors can be reduced. Now we are taught to use a safety factor around 2. A lower factor of safety makes the structure less expensive to build without compromising safety.”

As engineers are able to gather more data on how structures perform below the surface, they will be able to make better decisions and build strong, safe structures with less expense.

After a lifetime of engineering work, Martenson has a lot to teach us all about what it means to work for the benefit of society. “I’m so appreciative of what I’ve been given and been able to accomplish. I try to instill in others the willingness to give back, monetarily and/ or by volunteering. We all owe some debt of gratitude. Giving back is a way of paying it forward, so to speak. I try to instill that in future generations of civil engineers. Ultimately, we all serve to benefit society.”

A Classroom Memory

We had to have 12 quarter hours to be a full time student; I remember taking 17-19 credits. Then I went to summer school, too. I remember taking Concrete Structures over the summer, an intense 5 week course with structural engineer Paul Andersen. It was in the old Experimental Engineering Building. There was one big classroom and I think his office was in that building, too. The class started at 7 in the morning. When we came in the classroom at 7 a.m., he would have the chalkboards plus foam-core boards above the chalkboards covered with notes on three walls! I could not take notes; I had to really pay attention to follow what he was saying. But he would let us come to his office and review his notes. Every lecture was bound separately in very neat handwriting. He was really organized. It was really intense as a summer course!