Environmental science and engineering recently lost a champion, Aarne Vesilind. He was a true friend and leader of members of AEESP and of countless other environmental and engineering organizations. Along with numerous teaching awards at Duke and Bucknell, he received the Collingwood Prize from the American Society of Civil Engineers in 1971 and AEESP Founders’ Award in 2010. He became a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1985. Aarne was AEESP President from 1993 and 1994 and was very active in our organization over the years, serving on numerous committees, two terms on the Board, and Book Review Editor from 1996-2005. Aarne advanced environmental engineering research and practice, notably in biosolids (sludge management). He wrote extensively on what it means to be an engineer, from both technical and ethical perspectives, and was committed to the growth of current and future engineers and to our society at large.
Though it is impossible to convey in this space Aarne’s contributions to our field and to humankind, I would like to share a few thoughts from his colleagues and friends at Duke.
He was the only environmental engineering professor at Duke until he recruited me in 1979. Aarne was proud of his and his family's escape from Estonia during WWII, always hoping to return to their home in Tallinn to dig in the back yard for the buried family treasures. I am not sure he ever was able to dig. His earliest funded research was on the treatment of municipal wastewater treatment sludge, and his sense of humor produced t-shirts for some students: "It may be s**t to you but it's bread and butter to me." The non-environmental engineering faculty never appreciated Aarne's humor. He played his French Horn for years with the Chapel Hill Village Band.
I joined the faculty in Duke University’s department of Civil and Environmental Engineering in 1992, after finishing my PhD at Stanford. Aarne was a great friend and mentor to me throughout my time at Duke, and I will be forever grateful for the way he treated me.
Two memories stand out, one at the very beginning of our Duke overlap, and one at the end. First the beginning: when I interviewed at Duke in the Spring of 1992, Aarne was away on sabbatical and I missed meeting him. When I arrived in August for my first semester of teaching, Aarne was there, and quickly reached out to me and offered his advice at any time. He ran a new faculty orientation program in the School of Engineering in those days, which definitely helped me adapt to the professoriate and feel more at home. But what I most appreciate was his personal touch and time spent with a young faculty member whose scholarship was well away from his own primary interest. Whether it was an informal dinner at his home, or bringing me along to a basketball game in Cameron, or settling me down after a contentious faculty meeting---Aarne always seemed to know what I needed in the way of reassurance or friendship. I will never forget how much easier he made that first year on the faculty.
The second strong memory was toward the end of our time together at Duke---it was his own (Duke) retirement party at the old Colonial Inn in Hillsborough. One of my colleagues recently referred to this party as “epic,” and that is exactly right! Aarne had brought a gift (and most typically, a story) for each of us, usually in a humorous vein, and my gift was one of the various Duke mementos he had collected over the years (a service award, in fact…. I think he was trying to clean out his office!). I’ve taken it with me everywhere I’ve gone since as a memory of our time at Duke together, and I am looking at it in my office here in Abu Dhabi as I type this. The funny story that went with it was the way he would ring this gong-like object with his forefinger whenever an administrator said something stupid. Since I am now one of those guys, I try to imagine what my faculty use for this purpose when/if I make an ill-advised suggestion or statement---and hope that they don’t have to do it very often!
I take only very fond memories from knowing Aarne and want to convey my deepest condolences to his family on their loss. I know everyone there will feel deeply was a quality human he was. There is no question from what I know that he lived his life with joy and caring for others, and I know he brought so much to those around him. I am definitely so much the richer for having known him.
I will always be grateful for the advice and counsel that Aarne gave me during the trials and tribulations required as I pursued the battle required to change the draconian original Duke patent policy. It turned out that this policy was based on the Liggett and Myers patent policy because Chancellor Ken Pye played tennis with the lawyer at Liggett and Myers. When President Sanford decided Duke needed a patent policy, he asked Pye to write up this policy, and Ken used the Liggett and Myers policy, basically crossing out Liggett and Myers and writing in Duke University. The three years required to change this policy were long, hard, and lonely, and I will always remember and be grateful for Aarne's support and wise counsel.
My memories of Aarne are all positive, and reflect an accumulation of always pleasant, usually low-key interactions. My earliest conversations with him revealed an interesting near intersection of trajectories. He had spent a sabbatical at my alma mater in London concurrent with the time I was a grad student there, although we didn’t meet then (to my knowledge, and we worked in different research groups), but it was enough to spark a friendship.
Before I came to Duke permanently, I briefly visited Durham (in the mid-80‘s), and Aarne invited me and a few others to a dinner party at his house. It was a lot of fun, as was a later party at his house (with me now a Duke faculty member) when guests were encouraged to wear interesting hats of their choice. What a pity we didn’t have convenient digital cameras back then.
His ability to keep faculty meetings enjoyable (while herding cats), traveling to the NCAA men’s soccer final four in Charlotte in 1992 (yes, I had to look up the date), going to the Durham Bulls, and his and Libby’s hilarious, handmade Christmas cards are things I will always remember about him. His eulogy at the remembrance for Eric Pas was truly moving.
Even though I was only a secondary faculty member in the department he chaired, he always made me feel welcome, and valued my contributions, modest as they were.
I have to mention what an enjoyable event his unofficial (Duke) retirement party was. Probably about 20 years ago, but suffice to say, no similar occasion has even come close to that level of bonhomie, camaraderie, and sheer fun.
As part of his highly amusing speech, Aarne gave out less-than-serious gifts. When I was called to the podium, he presented me with two tickets to a Duke men’s basketball game! Generous, right? Other than the fact that they were USED. But it’s the thought that counts!
When I reminded my wife of that occasion, she added a bit that I had actually forgotten. Aarne also presented me with a video cassette recording of that game (which I had already watched on TV of course). And then said “better not watch this in front of Lianne, in case it hadn’t recorded properly, and God knows what might have been on the tape previously.” Isn’t that so Aarne?
I haven’t seen him for many years, but I still have those memories.
Aarne was a splendid colleague. He was deeply involved in the Science, Technology, and Human Values Program, eventually becoming its Director. His intellectual outreach contributed to making Duke the special place it has become
Aarne hired me into CEE in 1988, and about a dozen years later my wife and I bought from Aarne and Libby their house in Chapel Hill, where we still live. Over the years we had attended quite a few departmental parties at the Vesilind house, and retained warm memories of the convivial atmosphere and kind hospitality which Aarne and Libby offered their guests. The purchase was done mostly by word of mouth agreement as to price and conditions, with no real estate agent on either side; in dealing with Aarne one always had implicit trust without any worries.
Aarne introduced me to the weekly sherry hour at the old Faculty Commons. At the end of day on Fridays he would lead the whole department through the woods and around the Chapel to West Union building, where we could let down our hair down and partake from the decanter that always stood at the ready (and free). One felt that as Chair, Aarne's heart as well as his intellect was in the department.
Aarne also worked outside the usual lines of administrative responsibility in running an unofficial evening seminar series devoted to a broad engagement with questions of ethics. Back in the early 90s these meetings were sometimes held, as I recall, in a room in the basement of Teer. But Aarne had found a topic that was increasingly to engage his attention and I think he felt that to best express his vision he had to move beyond that basement room, and so in the end he departed CEE and Duke. I think it is clear today that Aarne was on the right track, that a focus on engineering, technology and the environment alone cannot adequately inform society of how to make decisions without much more attention being paid to the intrinsically human side of the equation, the side that Aarne identified with most strongly and where over the years he increasingly put his efforts.
I missed him when he left, and now I miss him even more, knowing that he is not there to continue to work for those things whose value to the rest of us he so clearly understood.
Aarne was a displaced person at the end of WWII and I have often wondered if that early childhood experience led to his empathy for those less fortunate. He was a champion of the underdog and I believe he identified himself in that group. My closest interaction with Aarne was when he served as chair of the department. He was an enthusiastic chair and brought his unique personality to that position. His interest in ethics in engineering may also be traced back to that early life experience.
As the testimony of several colleagues will attest, he is long and warmly remembered for his time at Duke.
Aarne Vesilind was a wonderful colleague and a dedicated professor. He cared about others – always coaching, mentoring and taking a sincere interest in the success of his fellow faculty, students and staff. I remember Aarne’s broad smile – with a twinkle in his eye. I am sorry to hear of his passing.
Aarne was my mentor, colleague, and friend. He served on my dissertation committee, introduced me to engineering ethics, and passed the baton to me to lead Duke’s Science, Technology and Human Values Program and to represent the engineering school in Duke’s Responsible Conduct of Research initiatives.
I had the distinct pleasure of writing a book with him in which Aarne had the idea to include vignettes of people who have shaped social responsibility in engineering. Looking back, we should have had a prominent one for him.
(If you would like to share your experiences with Dr. Vesilind, click here.)