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Neilon Rowan '59 February 4, 2021 11:26 AM updated: February 4, 2021 11:39 AM

Dr. Neilon J. Rowan
May 1930 - January 8, 2021

Dr. Neilon J. Rowan, professor emeritus in the Zachry Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Texas A&M University, passed away Jan. 8.

He leaves behind a legacy that impacted the transportation industry and the careers of hundreds of transportation professionals throughout his 30-year career as an educator and researcher.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests contributions be sent to Hospice Brazos Valley.

A lifelong Texan, Rowan earned his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from Texas Tech University in 1957. He went on to Texas A&M for his master’s and doctoral degrees and joined the faculty in 1959. From 1979-89, he served as assistant department head for undergraduate programs in the civil engineering department and guided many young professionals through the maze of the engineering curriculum.

Rowan’s warm and outgoing personality, down-home demeanor and genuine concern for students and young professionals aided their entry into the profession and enhanced their professional development. He encouraged students to participate in the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) and other professional organizations. He led by example, and his peers elected him to serve in 1981 as the ITE’s international president.

Rowan was also a retired Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI) research engineer. C.V. Wootan, retired TTI director, hailed Rowan as "the father of high-level illumination work.” His work from the late 1960s is now a national standard. He also was instrumental in the development of the breakaway sign technology used internationally today.

During his career, Rowan served as an expert witness in highway design and operations, rail-highway grade crossings, roadway lighting and highway safety. His research on these topics and other areas of highway safety is well known across the country, having published more than 25 definitive papers and reports. He was active developing the continuing education program in traffic and highway engineering for Texas and the Federal Highway Administration.

In 1993, Rowan was awarded the highest honor by the International Institute of Transportation Engineers, selecting him as an Honorary Member. He was the first Texan, and at the time, only the 46th person to receive the honor in the organization’s long history.

He garnered many faculty citations, including the 1989–90 Zachry Teaching Excellence Award, for which he was nominated by his students. He was also named Outstanding Professor in 1985 and was inducted into the Texas Tech Engineering Hall of Fame.

Copyright © 2021, Texas A&M Engineering Communications, All Rights Reserved

When asked to reflect on what Dr. Rowan meant to them, numerous individuals offered fond memories of one of the most well-loved professors to ever walk the hallways of the Civil Engineering Department at Texas A&M University.

Paul Reitz, TxDOT
“Dr. Rowan was instrumental in mentoring, not only myself, but many engineers through Texas A&M University. His relatable and humble demeanor made it easy for students and colleagues, alike, to seek his assistance and he would eagerly give any help he could. Always with a smile on his face, he enjoyed life to its fullest, whether in the classroom or on his ranch. His impact on our field is immeasurable and I am a better person for having known him. He will be missed!“

Kay Fitzpatrick, TTI
“Neil Rowan demonstrated his commitment to mentoring the next generation by opening his home to students, professors, and researchers once a year for an annual social. The intent of the social was to provide students the opportunity to talk to those in the business in an informal setting. I remember attending these socials in the early 80s during my graduate student years, especially the year where we had to take refuge in his house due to a tornado watch.”

Bill Stockton, TTI
“Dr. Rowan treated us as colleagues from the day we walked in the door as grad students in the old Civil Engineering Building. His manner was to lean on the door frame of the office and just talk, with that unforgettable grin on his face. He was giving advice, both about how to approach our academics and how to approach a career, but it never sounded like “advice” from a superior. It is impossible to count how much wisdom he imparted from the doorway. And, on a personal level, for nearly 50 years he invariably greeted me with, “well, Hello Willie!” What a guy!”

Jim Cline, TTI
“One of the first classes I took as a freshman was Engineering 101. Dr. Rowan showed us the original crash test movies (not videos!) of crash barrels. Had me hooked from the start in the transportation field. The chair of my committee took a new job and left the University. Dr. Rowan stepped in to chair my committee, and I was able to finish on time. He was always available to help provide guidance and encouragement.”

Srinivasa Sunkari, TTI
“Dr. Rowan was the chair of my thesis committee and a mentor to me. When I was a graduate student, he was a source of encouragement and inspiration and always welcomed me and other students with his big smile. His response for all the mistakes I made working for him was, “don’t worry about it. It means you are doing something.” He will be missed.”

Tom Urbanik, Retired
“Dr. Rowan had a unique and engaging interest in students, former students, and staff that transcended education and life that was much appreciated by all who had the pleasure of knowing him.”

Jon Epps, TTI
“I was on the Civil Engineering faculty from 1968 to 1982 with Neil and the others in transportation. Neil and the group were leaders in the field in the country at that time. They helped bring recognition to CE and TTI with the great work with students and the research programs. Neil was always enjoyable to visit with and to work with.”

Ingrid Potts, TTI
“Dr. Rowan was my first professor at A&M. Having come from Ohio and, more recently, the Chicago area, I remember it being a bit of a challenge to understand him as he lectured with a bit of a Texas ‘drawl.” In particular, I remember struggling even with the word “yella.” I also will forever remember him quoting, “We measure it with a micrometer, mark it with a piece of chalk, and then cut it with an ax.” That really hit home with me about how we try to get our measurements to several decimal points, but in reality, roads are built with “axes” so to speak. And finally, I remember Dr. Rowan as one of the kindest souls I’ve ever known!”

What is repeated through many of these memories, and which likely resonated with every student who had the privilege to know Dr. Rowan, is his genuine concern for students and the value he placed on mentoring the next generation of transportation professionals. He was a rare individual who impacted the careers of so many of us and whose passing leaves a mark on us all. I remember his smile, his laughter, his pragmatic approach to transportation, his commitment to excellence, and his willingness to go to great lengths to ensure a student graduated. He was always in our corner and served as a bellwether for our profession in countless ways.


From the Institute of Transportation Engineers:
Neil Rowan is a mentor, role model, and counsel who has impacted the careers of hundreds of transportation professionals throughout a 30-year career as an educator and researcher. His warm and outgoing personality, down-home demeanor, and genuine concern for students and young professionals has aided their entry into the profession and enhanced their professional development and has encouraged their active participation in ITE and other professional organizations. He lead by example, and his peers elected him to serve in 1981 as the ITE’s international president.

A professor of civil engineering at Texas A&M University and a research engineer for the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI), Rowan is held in very high regard by both peers and students. TTI Director C.V. Wootan hails Rowan as "the father of high-level illumination work. He is the chief proponent of roadway illumination. His work done in the late Sixties is now a national standard." He also was instrumental in the development of the breakaway sign technology used internationally today, and he has served in senior level TTI management positions.

Born, raised, and educated in Texas, Rowan earned his B.S. in civil engineering from Texas Tech University in 1957. He went on to Texas A&M for his M.S. and Ph.D. degrees and has been a member of the faculty there since 1959. From1979 to 1989 he served as assistant department head for undergraduate programs in the civil engineering department. In this capacity he guided many young professionals through the maze of the engineering curriculum. He currently serves on the university's Academic Appeals Panel and the committee for the College of Engineering Scholarship & Awards. His involvement in education is further enhanced by his role in launching ITE’s educational emphasis, an area of ITE that continues today.

He has garnered many faculty citations, including the 1989–90 Zachry Teaching Excellence Award, for which he was nominated by his students. He was also named Outstanding Professor in 1985. He was honored recently by his alma mater when he was named to the Texas Tech Engineering Hall of Fame. He is a member of Phi Kappa Phi and Chi Epsilon, the honorary engineering societies, and he is the faculty advisor for the student chapter of Chi Epsilon at Texas A&M.

Since 1981, Neil has served as an expert witness in the areas of highway design and operations, rail-highway grade crossings and roadway lighting. His research on these topics and other areas of highway safety is well-known across the country, having published more than 25 definitive papers. In addition, Neil was active in the development of the continuing education program in Traffic and Highway engineering for Texas and the Federal Highway Administration.

In 1978, he was named Transportation Engineer of the Year by the Texas Section, and he received the Highway Research Board Award in 1973 for a paper of outstanding merit. In 1966 he received a Certificate of Commendation from the National Safety Council for his contributions toward the development of breakaway sign supports.

Rowan's chronology of contributions to ITE begins long before his stint as International President, and continues to this day. Beginning with his participation at the state level, he had achieved presidency of the Texas Section by 1973. In 1975, he was elected to the International Board representing District 5. Neil helped to initiate and guide the development of the Transportation Technician Curriculum of ITE through his service as a member of the Steering and Advisory Committee. During his term as international president, Neil initiated the Institute Voluntary Contributions Program that since 1981 has provided nearly $250,000 to help fund programs not able to be accomplished within ITE’s operating budget. Neil also has been a member of the Philanthropic Advisory Committee since its formation. Today, he serves on the Task Force on Transportation Engineering Education and the Philanthropic Advisory and Steering Committee.

©Institute of Transportation Engineers



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