Former Lehigh Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs Alan W. Pense '59G '62 Ph.D., a renowned figure in the world of metallurgy research and a leading researcher in the welding, joining and failure analysis of large structures, passed away May 11, 2022. He was 88.
Pense helped lead the creation of Lehigh’s Advanced Technology for Large Structural Systems (ATLSS) Engineering Research Center, one of the most unique research and structural testing facilities in the world. For more than 40 years, Pense performed important forensic studies of damaged steel structures across the United States, including pioneering studies of fatigue-damaged bridges and other infrastructure in the 1970s and 1980s.
“Al made many important contributions to the development of high performance steels for bridges and military applications, and his research enabled the first high performance steel bridge in Pennsylvania to be constructed in 2000,” said ATLSS Director Richard Sause. “Al was instrumental in bringing the multi-million dollar U.S. Navy fleet-of-the-future program to Lehigh in the 1990s, and he was widely known in the steel community for his work in creating and implementing a new generation of materials for large-scale steel structures.”
Sause said Pense also had a remarkable wit and sense of humor.
“Those of us who were at Lehigh when he was Provost remember his infamous April Fool’s memos,” he said. “It was a wonderful experience, and a lot of fun, to have Al as a mentor and colleague. I learned so much from him, and, simply remembering him, makes me smile.”
A professor emeritus of materials science and engineering at Lehigh, Pense had a long and distinguished career at the university. After completing his Ph.D. in metallurgical engineering at Lehigh in 1962, he stayed on as a faculty member, starting as an assistant professor. He was promoted to associate professor in 1965 and professor in 1971.
Pense became chair of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering in 1977. He served as associate dean of the College of Engineering and Applied Science from 1984 to 1988, then dean, from 1988 to 1990. Pense was appointed Lehigh provost in 1990 and retired in 1998.
“Al was one of the brightest, most personable and humorous individuals I have had the pleasure of working with,” said John N. DuPont ’94G '97 Ph.D., the R.D. Stout Distinguished Professor of materials science and engineering. “He had an uncanny ability to immediately see the ‘big picture,’ whether he was working on a complicated bridge failure or a difficult administrative issue.”
DuPont said Pense could articulate complicated and sometimes contentious issues to a large crowd of people in a way that was both engaging and informative. He said Pense’s induction into the National Academy of Engineering in 1993 was a strong testament to his many contributions to the field of engineering.
“I think most people felt better after a meeting with Al because, no matter how difficult a problem there was, Al always found a way to put people's mind at ease and assure them there was always a solution,” DuPont said.
ATLSS founding Director John W. Fisher, professor emeritus of civil engineering at Lehigh, worked with Pense on various bridge problems and other failures throughout their careers, one of the first being the Yellow Mill Pond Bridge on I-95 in Connecticut.
“Cracks had been observed at a coverplate end,” Fisher said, “and Al and I started a lifetime effort of examining cracking problems in bridges and other steel structures in the U.S.”
Between 1970 and their retirements as active faculty, Fisher said, they were involved with a large number of bridge cracking and fracture problems. They published as co-authors at least 20 papers and reports on these problems starting in 1977 and continuing until 2001. Fisher said they worked as a team with graduate students during those years.
“I have many memories of our time together as we traveled to these bridges and evaluated the problem that had been detected by the state,” Fisher said.
He recalled the time they traveled to the I-24 Tied Arch Bridge at Paducah, Kentucky, across the Ohio River, to evaluate the cracking of the box tie girder, which was not very big. Pense had to get inside it to see if there were issues.
“Since he was smaller than I, he was able to get inside and inspect the area,” Fisher said. “It was this joint effort that led us to prepare the successful proposal to NSF (National Science Foundation) to establish ATLSS as an Engineering Research Center here at Lehigh in 1986.”