Memorial Tributes: Volume 26
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  • JAMES E. MONSEES (1937-2019)



    JAMES EUGENE MONSEES, world-renowned expert in the design and construction of tunnels and underground facilities in soil and rock, died August 5, 2019, in Fullerton, California, at the age of 82.

    Born on March 27, 1937, in Smithton, Missouri, Jim, as he was universally known, was the oldest child of Olen and Ruth (Weiffenbach). The Monsees family had roots in the Smithton area, with Jim’s great-grandfather immigrating from Germany in the mid-1800s. Although Jim grew up on a Missouri farm, he was destined for a career in engineering that would take him far from his midwestern roots.

    Following his graduation in 1956 from Sedalia High School in Sedalia, Missouri, Jim attended the University of Missouri, Columbia, graduating in 1960 with a BS in civil engineering. He continued his studies at Missouri and received an MS in civil engineering in 1961, specializing in structures and mechanics. Through the Air Force ROTC program, he was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant and, after his studies at Missouri, started active-duty service in the US Air Force. Jim thought he would be assigned somewhere as a US Air Force base civil engineer. However, his orders were for him to go to the Air Force Weapons Laboratory (AFWL) at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico. Jim considered this to be a fortunate assignment for which his structural engineering education made him well qualified. But the assignment forced him to learn new things about underground engineering that were not then part of a traditional degree program -- lessons that, even now, are rarely taught in typical programs. During the Cold War, the AFWL led the United States’ activity related to the design and construction of underground missile silos. What Jim did then was top secret and would ultimately lead to the design criteria for the Minuteman missile silo system. Jim’s Air Force work involved graduate schools throughout the United States that had any type of program in underground engineering to support the AFWL mission. Given the scope of his work with the Air Force, it was natural that Jim became aware of the underground engineering research at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

    After the Air Force, Jim worked for two years for Exxon before starting graduate studies in 1966 at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. In 1970, he received a PhD in civil engineering from Illinois, specializing in soil and rock mechanics. From that time on, he was continuously involved in world-class projects of the day, managing and improving the state of practice for the design and construction of transit, water, and wastewater tunnels; underground storage of nuclear waste; and high-energy research facilities. At Illinois, Professor Ralph B. Peck (NAE 1965) was Jim’s thesis adviser, and Professor Don U. Deere (NAE 1967, NAS 1971) was Jim’s coursework adviser. Jim’s prior experience at the AFWL and the ongoing university research at Illinois for both the AFWL and the US Department of Transportation (DOT) set the technical environment for his Illinois graduate education. At Illinois, he was the author and co-author of several DOT-funded research projects on tunnel liners and tunnel support systems.

    Jim’s education was, so to speak, in the pre-computer, “slide rule” engineering era. This was not a barrier to his later career involvement with state-of-the-art concepts and evolving engineering practices for the seismic design of underground structures. After receiving his PhD, he worked in underground engineering for the next 40 years and knew or met virtually everyone in the underground construction industry in the United States and many more worldwide.

    After completing his PhD at Illinois, Jim joined A.A. Mathews Inc., a consulting firm that specialized in heavy construction, including tunnels. That position took Jim and his family to Mexico City to work on the design and construction of the Deep Level Interceptor Tunnel, a 15-mile-long, 20-foot-diameter wastewater tunnel in soft, compressible soils in the city. Also while with A.A. Mathews, Jim was responsible for the design of a portion of the Washington, DC, Metro with 5 miles of tunnel, 7 shafts, and 2 underground stations in rock, known today as the Medical Center and Bethesda Stations. Using state-of-the-practice, computer-aided design of the time, Jim was able to reduce the amount of structural steel support used for the iconic underground transit stations to only 25 percent of the steel that had been used previously by other designers in similar work for the DC Metro.

    Especially impactful was the work that Jim led as Chief Tunnel Engineer for Parsons Brinckerhoff, which he joined in 1983 for the start of the design and construction of the first heavy-rail subway for the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority (LA Metro). Jim was responsible for the tunnel and underground structure design for the initial 26.2-mile-long, fully underground subway. The subway project had a combination of very difficult conditions not faced by other transit projects around the world—namely explosive methane gas, high seismicity (earthquakes), and active faults. In addition to those hazards, there was also a psychological issue: the automobile-centric public would not be comfortable—or would actually be fearful—of using the subway. Thus, the design had to be safe in an engineering sense but also perceived as safe by the public. A key element in achieving this was designing the ventilation system so that it was capable of reliably maintaining gas-free conditions with ventilation even with a widespread power outage associated with a major earthquake. The subway had to be designed and constructed to keep the underground structures both dry beneath the groundwater table and free of explosive gas. Jim was responsible for the development of the means to mitigate gas seepage into the subway by pioneering the use of high-density polyethylene encapsulation of all underground structures, a method that has since demonstrated to be effective and continues to be a mandatory requirement for all new Los Angeles subway work. Accommodating seismic conditions for both ground shaking and fault movement required new ways of thinking to replace existing criteria. Under Jim, the LA Metro seismic design criteria became a standard followed in many cities around the world. Much of the tunnel design and criteria still in use today on the LA Metro are attributable to Jim.

    Jim would work on many world-class projects over the course of his distinguished career until his retirement in 2018. For example, in 1992, he worked on the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) Project in Texas, where he was the tunnel design manager and chief underground engineer for the multibillion-dollar, high-energy physics research facility. Another major underground project Jim worked on was the Nuclear Waste Repository in Tuff at the Nevada Test Site, Nevada.

    Jim’s influential work in underground engineering was complemented by his prominence in various professional associations and his activities within the Academy. He was chairman of the NAE Awards Committee (1997–1998); twice a member of the Committee on Geological and Geotechnical Engineering (1988–1986 and 1995–2001); a member of the Subcommittee to Study Contracting Practices for Underground Construction of the Superconducting Super Collider (1983–1986); and a member of the Committee on Advanced Drilling Technologies for the 21st Century (1990–1994).

    Jim had a career-long commitment to the field of rock mechanics. For the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), he was a four-term member of the US National Committee for Rock Mechanics, which, during his tenure, was the sponsor of the US Symposium on Rock Mechanics. The first US Symposium on Rock Mechanics was held in 1956 and was managed by the NAS and the National Research Council (NRC). Jim was also instrumental in negotiating the transfer of the US Rock Mechanics Symposium from the NRC to the American Rock Mechanics Association (ARMA) in 1997. He was one of the founders of ARMA, served on its first finance committee, and was a member of ARMA’s first Board of Directors.

    He was a member of the Subcommittee to Study Contracting Practices for Underground Construction of the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) of the NRC’s US National Committee for Tunneling Technology. The subcommittee prepared a report on recommended construction and contracting practices for the SSC. He was the principal author of a section of the report devoted to scheduling for the SSC and was a reviewer and contributor for the entire report. Also for the NRC, Jim was a member of the Committee on Advanced Drilling Technologies tasked with reviewing US practice and recommending a program to improve drilling for the twenty-first century.

    For the Rapid Excavation and Tunneling Conference (RETC), the biannual premier tunnel industry conference in the United States, he was an Executive Committee member for many years (1989–2001), editor of the 1993 RETC Conference Proceedings, and conference chair for the 2001 RETC. The RETC was founded jointly by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) and the Society of Mining Engineers (SME) and is sponsored to a large extent by tunnel construction contractors. Being a member of the RETC Executive Committee and chair of the 2001 event was a clear indicator of the tunnel industry’s high regard for Jim.

    Jim was a member of the Board of Directors of the American Underground Association (AUA), later called the American Underground Space Association (AUCA). The AUA represented the United States in the International Tunneling and Underground Space Association (ITA), a professional industry organization that today has representation from 78 countries. The AUA and AUCA are the predecessor organizations to the Underground Construction Association (UCA) of the Society of Mining Engineers (SME), with a mission to act as an advocate for and proponent of the development and use of underground space and related facilities. It is considered the professional voice for the tunneling industry in the United States.

    Jim was a life member and fellow of the ASCE. His service included being a member of the Committee on Tunneling and Underground Construction, the Committee on Rock Mechanics, and the Technical Committee on Lifeline Structures. For the Underground Technology Research Council (UTRC) of ASCE, he was a member of the Technical Committees on Tunnel Lining Design, Gassy Tunnels, Geotechnical Reports for Underground Construction, and TBM Criteria. He was a member of the Board of Directors for the American Geological Institute in Houston, Texas (2001). He served on the Technical Review Panel for the Neutrino Research Project, High Energy Physics, Fermi National Laboratory, in Batavia, Illinois (1998–99). He served on the Technical Advisory Panel for the Geotechnical Engineering Program at the Sandia National Laboratory in Albuquerque, New Mexico (1998–2000). He was a member of Tau Beta Pi, the Engineering Honor Society; Chi Epsilon, the National Civil Engineering Honor Society; and Sigma Xi, the Scientific Research Society.

    In 1991, he was elected a member of The Moles, a fraternal organization comprised of individuals engaged in the construction of tunnels, subways, sewers, foundations, marine, sub-aqueous, or other heavy construction projects. It is the most prestigious of its kind in the world.

    In addition to Jim’s extensive record of professional service, he also received numerous prestigious awards. He received the University of Missouri Honor Medal for Distinguished Service in Engineering (1992); the University of Missouri Civil Engineering Academy of Distinguished Alumni (Seminal Member; 1998); the University of Illinois Distinguished Civil Engineering Alumni (2000).  In 2008, he won a Lifetime Achievement Award from the SME Underground Construction Association. In 2011, he received the Golden Beaver Award for Engineering, recognizing his outstanding contributions to the heavy construction industry.

    On October 8, 1961, Jim married Leda Lou Hoehns at the Smithton Methodist Church in Smithton, Missouri, after Jim had finished college and was starting military service in the Air Force. Leda, a lifelong nurse, was the daughter of Leonard and Della (Eichholz) Hoehns. Jim and Leda were high school sweethearts. Leda died on May 8, 2020.

    He was also preceded in death by his parents and his brother, Olen. He is survived by daughter Brenda Black (Scott) of Littleton, Colorado; son Mark (Joyce) of Orange, California; grandchildren Rachel, Lauren, Christian, and Nick; great-grandchildren River and Judah; his brother Ned (Kathy) of Smithton, Missouri; his little sister Betty Jean (Pete Siegel, Jr.) of San Antonio, Texas; and his sister-in-law Karen (Olen) in Kansas City, Missouri.

    Regardless of where his career took him, Jim never lost the gentlemanly nature of his upbringing and always treated people with respect. It was clear to everyone that Jim loved his family and the engineering work he did. However, those who knew him personally knew he also loved fishing, Civil War and World War II history, and German Shepherds. Jim had a sterling reputation for open-mindedness and integrity, characteristics difficult to achieve in the hard business of heavy civil design and construction of tunnels and underground structures. Jim was someone everyone liked.