Memorial Tributes: National Academy of Engineering, Volume 25
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  • FRANCIS B. FRANCOIS 1934-2021


    FRANCIS BERNARD FRANCOIS, long-time executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), died February 17, 2021 at his home in Chicago at age 87. An engineer and patent attorney, he was well known for his support of technical innovation and his leadership in improving transportation policies.

    Frank was born January 21, 1934, in Barnum, Iowa, a village near Fort Dodge. Growing up on a farm in Webster County endowed him with an appreciation for hard work and basic values of ethics and integrity. He had a wide variety of interests and as he approached college age considered a number of possible careers, including professional magician or the priest- hood. In the end he graduated from Iowa State University in 1956 with a bachelor’s degree in engineering.

    He moved to Washington, DC, and began his career as a patent examiner in the US Patent Office. An ambitious young man, he enrolled in night classes at George Washington University Law School. In 1959 he became a patent advisor for the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University.

    During this period he met and fell in love with Eileen Mary Schmelzer, a local student living in Hyattsville, Maryland. They married just before Frank received his law degree in February 1960. He passed the Maryland bar later that year and practiced patent and trademark law (1962–80) with the firm of Bacon and Thomas.

    Frank and Eileen shared an interest in public service and it wasn’t long before Frank joined the local Democratic club and got interested in running for office. In 1962 he became an elected official in Prince George’s County, MD, a populous jurisdiction just east of Washington, serving first as chief judge of the Orphan’s Court, then as a county commissioner, and finally as an elected member of the county council. He was a strong advocate for civil rights, fair employment for African Americans, community development, improved fiscal management, education, and the needs of senior citizens and the handicapped.

    As a council member, Frank represented Prince George’s County on the Washington Metropolitan Council of Governments (COG; chair, 1969, 1976; president, 1971) and Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), for which he chaired the joint Policy and Steering Committee on the Washington Alternatives Analysis Project. At the time Washington was in the throes of construction of major portions of the interstate highway system as well as significant parts of the rail transit system known as Metro. These assignments whetted Frank’s growing interest in both transportation technology and engineering along with the difficulties in balancing the benefits of improved mobility with the environmental and social costs associated with such changes. He supported and helped coordinate the DC Air Pollution Act in 1968 and was present for the signing of the bill alongside President Lyndon Johnson and DC mayor Walter Washington.

    By 1978 he considered running for county executive but decided against it; when his decision was announced, the Washington Post referred to him as the council’s “philosopher-historian,” “maverick,” and “ambassador to the outside world.”1

    Frank was a big man with a strong resonant voice, and his political skills were evident as he became a force in a number of national organizations, including election as president of the National Association of Regional Councils (twice) and of the National Association of Counties (NACo; 1979). As NACo president he touted county government as the most important and elective local government in America.

    In 1980 he resigned from the Prince George’s County Council to serve as executive director of AASHTO. During his nearly 20-year tenure, he reasserted and strengthened the association’s role as the premier technical organization for issuing highway standards and specifications, many of which continue to have worldwide application.

    He emphasized the need for multimodal transportation and developed agency expertise in policy activities. Because the association’s board is made up of the directors of each state’s transportation agency, Frank had, in effect, 50 bosses. He was a significant influence in national debates about transportation policy, and his experience in politics was crucial in his ability to reach consensus positions among the AASHTO directors. Such consensus played a major role in the passage of major transportation legislation in 1981, 1986, 1991, and 1996, during the presidencies of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton. He also marshalled state transportation departments’ advocacy for several major highway and transit bills, capped by the 1998 Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21).

    In addition, he cultivated AASHTO’s expansion into international activities, recognizing the potential mutual benefits of working cooperatively with global transportation organizations such as the International Road Federation, Permanent International Association of Road Congresses, and World Road Association. He co-led the Scanning Tour on Transportation Agency Organization and Management cosponsored by AASHTO, the US Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), and industry leaders; the tour included meetings with transport agencies in Australia, New Zealand, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. He also served on the National Academies’ Committee for the 10th International Conference on Low-Volume Roads (2008–11).

    While directing AASHTO, Frank supported other transportation organizations in their efforts to encourage innovation. He served on the executive committees of the National Academies’ Transportation Research Board (TRB) and National Cooperative Highway Research Program (1980–99), and worked tirelessly with TRB and the FHWA to support research that would lead to improved highway planning, design, construction, and maintenance activities. He was an active advocate for the Strategic Highway Research Program (SHRP) and convinced state transportation agencies that they should finance the program out of their own budgets and sup- port the research by building segments of their highways as test sections. Many products of SHRP have been accepted as standard practice in such diverse areas as asphalt pavement design and winter maintenance.

    He supported transportation research with an eye to the future. He was a cofounder and chair of the Intelligent Transportation Society of America (ITSA) and was made an honorary life member of its board. ITSA is the seed organization for the development of autonomous vehicles that interact with highways to provide for driverless vehicles. For the National Academies he served on the Committee on the Metropolitan Planning Organization, Present and Future: A Conference (2006–08), Committee for a Future Strategy for Transportation Information Management (chair; 2004–06), and Committee for a Study for a Future Strategic Highway Research Program (1999–2002).

    Other National Academies service included his appointment to the Committee on Weather Research for Surface Transportation: The Roadway Environment (2003–04) and Science and Technology for Countering Terrorism: Panel on Transportation (2001–02), among others. For the NAE he served on the Audit Committee (2002–05).

    Frank received many awards and honors. In 1973 he was recognized as Washingtonian of the Year by Washingtonian Magazine. TRB presented him with its W.N. Carey Jr. Award (1989) for his leadership in transportation research and Frank Turner Medal for Lifetime Achievement in Transportation (2007). The Institute of Transportation Engineers gave him the Theodore M. Matson Memorial Award in 1993 and in 2002 made him an honorary lifetime member of its board. In 2003 Iowa State University (ISU) awarded him the Marston Medal and in 2004 the American Road and Transportation Builders Association named him one of the top 100 private-sector design and construction professionals in the United States in the 20th century. In 2000 AASHTO created the annual Francis B. Francois Award for Innovation, presented to state departments of transportation that have developed innovative projects. He was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1999, and posthumously inducted into the Hall of Fame of ISU’s Department of Civil, Construction, and Environmental Engineering.

    Frank had important impacts beyond his chosen professional field. For example, he was the patent attorney for two boyhood friends who got a patent for a breakaway basketball goal. Several professional and college games had been halted by broken glass backboards from what some called the thunder dunk. The breakaway goal solved the problem of broken glass backboards, and so the dunk and hanging from the rim were allowed again and kept the excitement in the sport. Frank wrote a book memorializing the invention, Two Guys from Barnum, Iowa, and How They Helped Save Basketball (Archangel Press, 2008).

    In 2011 he published his memoirs in a book that featured deep family ties to his native Iowa, titled Me? I’m from Iowa: Memoirs of an Iowa Farm Boy Who Went to Washington (lulu. com, available on Amazon).

    In retirement Frank moved to Chicago to be close to family. He was married to his beloved wife Eileen for 43 years; she died in 2003. They are survived by their children Joseph, Marie, Michael, Monica, and Susan, and seven grandchildren.

    1 Maraniss DA. 1977. Francois won’t run, says so in 10 pages. Washington Post, Nov 24. 

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