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UMass Lowell Saddened by Passing of Engineering Professor John Christian

06/08/2022
By Jonathan Strunk

UMass Lowell is sad to share the news of the passing of John Christian, a professor of civil engineering who joined UMass Lowell in 2015 after a distinguished teaching, business and engineering career.

His family shared his obituary with the university community:

John T. Christian, 1936-2022, passed away on June 5 in Alexandria, VA. John was a civil engineer with an international reputation in soil dynamics, earthquake engineering, geotechnical reliability, and computational mechanics. Having graduated with three degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), he spent the majority of his engineering career in the Boston area.

John was born on November 2, 1936 to Thomas and Evelyn (née Maestri) Christian in Brooklyn, NY. At a young age, his American family relocated to Brazil where his father ran the telephone company. He attended high school at the McCallie School in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and graduated in 1953. From McCallie, John matriculated to MIT.

In 1959, he met his future wife, Lynda, at a get-together between MIT and Wellesley College students. She was a third generation Wellesley College student majoring in Ancient Greek (BA 1960). They played chess and discussed prepositions. From that moment on, they were devoted to each other. On June 6, 1960, two days after her graduation, John and Lynda married in her parents’ backyard, which was carpeted in Oriental Carpets courtesy of her father, Arthur T. Gregorian.

Together, they became a spectacularly educated couple: John earned his Bachelor’s (1958), Master’s (1959), and PhD (1966) degrees in civil engineering at MIT. From 1959 to 1963, he interrupted his education to serve as an officer with the US Air Force serving in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. In 1968, Lynda received her PhD from Harvard University in Comparative Literature, and in 1975 she received her JD from Boston University. John encouraged Lynda in her education and career as he would later do for generations of engineering students.
From 1966 to 1973 he was Professor of Civil Engineering at MIT, after which he moved to the Stone & Webster Engineering Corporation of Boston. He retired as Executive Vice President in 1994. From there, he became a much-in-demand engineering consultant. From 2015 to 2022 he served as Distinguished Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.

John pioneered the use of computer methods in geotechnical engineering. He co-authored the first general purpose computer program for the analysis of slope stability with circular and non-circular failure surfaces. He co-authored a seminal book on Numerical Methods in Geotechnical Engineering in 1977, a book on Productivity Tools for Geotechnical Engineers in 1996, and a book on Reliability and Statistics in Geotechnical Engineering, 2003.

As a practicing geotechnical engineer, he worked on projects involving earth dam evaluation and design, the evaluation of flow through porous media, nuclear power plants, solid waste landfills, foundation engineering, offshore facilities, mooring facilities, and pipelines. He performed geotechnical analyses for many on-site nuclear spent fuel storage facilities and for the stability of mining waste embankments.

In 1999, he was elected to the National Academy of Engineering (NAE), where he served as Section 4 (civil engineering) Chairman. He became a Distinguished Member of the American Society of Civil Engineers in 2001. He was the recipient of many professional honors and awards from ASCE, the Boston Society of Civil Engineers, and other organizations, including the Terzaghi Lecture Award of ASCE in 2003, and the Geo-Institute Cross USA Lectureship in 2012-2013. At his Terzaghi award presentation, MIT’s Dean of Civil Engineering told audience members that there was only one criterium to be awarded the Terzaghi Lecture: “One only needs to be the most distinguished civil engineer in the world!”

He served as Chairman of the NAE committee reviewing the status of the Boston Central Artery/Tunnel Project which proposed management changes to expedite the project’s completion, a member of the NAE Committee on the New Orleans Regional Hurricane Projects post Katrina, the NAE Committee to review the Louisiana Coastal Restoration Project, and chaired the NAE Committee on the Bureau of Reclamation’s processes for ensuring dam security. Later in his career he was Chairman of the Engineering Accreditation Commission of the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) which is responsible for accrediting undergraduate educational programs in engineering and technology throughout the United States. As chair of the ABET, he made it his mission to improve the quality of engineering education by pushing for more diversified curricula. He told his students that if they expected to present their proposals to lay people, they needed to know how to communicate effectively in English, not merely in mathematics.

In that spirit, he was broadly educated in the classics, art, history, mathematics, and other fields, John was affectionately known to his family and close friends as, “the man who knows everything.” Famously, he once recited the names of all the signers of the Declaration of Independence when the question arose at a professional dinner. He is survived by his wife of 62 years Lynda (née Gregorian), his daughter Shirin Samiljan of Benicia, California, his son Douglas Christian of Alexandria, Virginia, five grandchildren, his brother David of Granbury, Texas, and brother-in-law John Gregorian of Savannah, Georgia. A memorial service is planned by the family for later in the year.

In lieu of flowers please make a gift to the John T. Christian Memorial Scholarship Fund at UMass Lowell. Online at www.uml.edu/givenow and note that the gift is in honor of John T. Christian. Gifts by mail can be sent to: UMass Lowell Development, Attention Sally Washburn, 1 Perkins Street, Lowell MA 01854. Or 617-320-4444 to make a gift over the phone.