Lynn Beedle, `a world engineer, dies at 85

Lynn Beedle, whose contagious passion for tall buildings drew together the world’s engineers and architects and inspired university students and even elementary school children during six decades of service to Lehigh, died Thursday at the age of 85.
Beedle, a university distinguished professor of civil engineering, was perhaps best known as the long-time director of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, an international organization of 1,500 engineers, architects and city planners that he founded at Lehigh in 1969.
He was selected by Engineering News Record as one of the top 125 people in his field in the past 125 years. As director of Lehigh’s Fritz Laboratory and as author of two widely used books, Plastic Design of Steel Frames and Structural Steel Design, Beedle had introduced modern design concepts to the construction of steel buildings during the 1950s.
Beedle believed skyscrapers, if planned properly, could be aesthetically pleasing, clean, and safe, and could make cities hospitable—even delightful—places to live. As director of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, which moved last month to Chicago, he promoted urban and regional planning, championed skyscrapers as a viable alternative to urban sprawl, and inspired the world’s architects and engineers to seek solutions to the problems of tall buildings and cities.
The council organized the world’s first international conference on tall buildings in 1972 and has published scores of books and monographs.
“Lynn Beedle has been a pioneer in our understanding of how modern urban buildings behave and how we behave in response to them,” said the Berkeley Engineering Alumni Society in 2000, when it granted Beedle its Distinguished Engineering Alumnus Award.
“In founding the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, he brought together architects, engineers, environmentalists, social scientists, artists, and politicians, blazing a trail to the creation of better designed, more livable cities.”
`Function and philosophy’
Beedle received many of the top awards given in his profession, including election to the National Academy of Engineering, one of the highest honors bestowed on engineers in the United States. He lived long enough to see new awards established in his honor.
He spoke with relish, to anyone who asked, about the principles of structural engineering and tall buildings.
On Sept. 11, 2001, the day of the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., he answered a dozen phone calls from reporters who had found out that the floor system, concrete decks, and steel trusses of the World Trade Center towers had been tested at Fritz Lab in the 1970s.
And in 1996, he refereed a debate over whether Malaysia’s new Petronas Towers or Chicago’s Sears Tower should be named the world’s tallest building. The council ruled for the Petronas Towers, saying their spires were an “integral part” of the structure, while the Sears Tower’s 253-foot antenna was not.
Beedle answered letters from a third-grade class studying the issue at a suburban Chicago elementary school, and visited a class of second-graders in suburban Philadelphia, to teach kids about tall buildings.
He later chuckled over the height controversy.
“The whole point of tall buildings is function and even philosophy,” he said. “How high can man go into the sky? How high can he support loads in the event of storms and earthquakes? How high can architecture go in creating a pleasing structure?”
`A giant in his field’
Colleagues and friends remember Beedle as a modest man who cared deeply for others, possessed a rare gift for leading people, and campaigned tirelessly for his causes.
“Lynn was an extraordinary human being,” says Chandra Jha, founder and president of PSM International, a Chicago-based, real estate development corporation. “He had a rare mix of technical expertise and a mission to promote technology to improve the urban habitat around the world.
“He was full of optimism and vision, and that radiated in every meeting I had with him. He had a talent for bringing together technical experts all around the world. He never gave up and he was a very courageous person. There was no one else quite like him.”
John Fisher, professor emeritus of civil engineering and founder and former director of Lehigh’s ATLSS (Advanced Technology for Large Structural Systems) Research Center, says Beedle was “a giant in his field.
“Lynn truly had a passion for what he did,” says Fisher, who earned his Ph.D. under Beedle in 1964. “He believed in his work until the end.”
Arup SenGupta, chair of the department of civil and environmental engineering, recalls Beedle as “a very humble, modest and simple person. He was also very unselfish. If I asked him for any small thing, he would come to my office and deliver it.
“There was no one in the past 50 years who brought more international visibility to Lehigh University. If there were a Nobel Prize for engineering, Lynn would get it.”
“Lynn was really a world engineer,” says Alan W. Pense, provost emeritus and former dean of the P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science. “His great contribution was that he always had a world view. He traveled the world, talked to people around the world, and marshalled their talents.”
Lectures and loyalty
In the classroom, Beedle became known for lectures that were “clear and dry—just like the weather,” Pense recalls.
His clarity gained Beedle unique renown on the lecture circuit, says Le-Wu Lu, professor emeritus of civil engineering.
“Lynn for many years led Lehigh’s work in developing new methods of designing a variety of steel structural systems,” says Lu, former department chair of civil and environmental engineering. “He lectured on these methods at many conferences, both in the U.S. and abroad.
“He had the unique ability to transform complex engineering concepts into simple-to-grasp ideas. On numerous occasions, his speeches were so well-received that audiences would express their appreciation with standing ovations.”
Besides campaigning for causes, Beedle championed people he felt deserved recognition. This loyalty was perhaps best exemplified by his efforts to raise funds to establish an endowed chair at Lehigh for the late Fazlur Rahman Khan.
Khan, who received an honorary degree from Lehigh in 1980, was a Bangladesh-born structural engineer who completed engineering designs for the Sears Tower and John Hancock Center in Chicago and the Haj Terminal at Jeddah International Airport in Saudi Arabia.
Shortly after Khan died in 1982 at the age of 52, Beedle proposed endowing a chair in civil engineering and architecture, and set to work soliciting funds. He raised than $1 million, much of it from international donors, over the next decade. Today, the endowment stands at $2 million and the university has advertised the position.
“Lynn Beedle was the most giving, unassuming, forthcoming and inspiring engineer of our time,” says Hakam Jarrar, managing partner of Option One International W.L.L. in Kuwait.
Beedle, a native of San Francisco, joined Lehigh’s faculty in 1947 and earned his master’s degree in 1949 and his Ph.D. in 1952 from the university.
During World War II, he served in the U.S. Navy, commanding underwater explosion research at the Norfolk Shipyard in Virginia and serving as deputy officer-in-charge for the Bikini atomic bomb tests in 1946.
At Lehigh, Beedle also served 25 years as director of the Structural Stability Research Council. His other awards include the John Fritz Medal, given by a consortium of five national engineering professional societies and named for John Fritz, founding Lehigh trustee, who endowed Fritz Lab.
Beedle is survived by his wife, Ella; four sons, Lynn Jr., David, Edward, and Jonathan; a daughter, Helen, who is an adjunct professor of music at Lehigh; a brother; two sisters; and nine grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. on Saturday at First Presbyterian Church, 2344 Center St. in Bethlehem.