In Illinois, UI civil engineering professor is king of the roads

In Illinois, UI civil engineering professor is king of the roads

URBANA — In Illinois, it could be said that all roads lead to Professor Marshall Thompson.

There are few miles of roadway — interstates, highways, local roads — in this state that have been built without expertise from the civil engineer, who has paved his way to prominence, quite literally, in the road-construction industry.

"When Marshall calls, you should pay attention. He won't steer you wrong. He will give you some good information," said David Lippert, one of Thompson's former UI engineering graduate students, who always picked up the phone and listened when Marshall called during his nearly 30-year career at the Illinois Department of Transportation.

"He's just brought a lot of innovation to IDOT over the years just by the way he works, and his personality, his outgoing, folksy, friendly personality," said Lippert, now an engineer with the Illinois Center for Transportation, in the UI's civil and environmental engineering department.

Growing up a small-town boy outside Astoria in western Illinois, Thompson worked for IDOT during his high school summers.

A contractor on a job site encouraged him to apply for a scholarship, and with that $1,000 a year in assistance, he attended the UI, earning his bachelor's, master's and Ph.D., all in civil engineering.

He has spent every decade since as a professor in the UI's civil and environmental engineering department, teaching classes, advising grad students, conducting research and consulting. He's been retired since 1996, but at 79, still has an office in the Newmark Civil Engineering Laboratory, where he remains a regular, serving on graduate student committees, doing research and occasionally consulting.

Recently, he was recognized by the UI's civil engineering department as a distinguished faculty member, and to Thompson's surprise, many of his former students attended the ceremony, some making an overseas trip to be there.

"I was very pleased" with the turnout, Thompson said. "It was good to see them."

Adventures in Vietnam

Thompson's former students include the founders of Epsa-Labco, the foremost civil engineering firm in the Dominican Republic. Thompson served as the keynote speaker in July at a conference arranged by Epsa-Labco.

In addition to his teaching legacy, Thompson's most notable contributions have come in his research and development in soil stabilization, which has been instrumental in highway and airport construction, specifically with runways. You can't have a good highway or runway if the ground it's built on isn't stable, after all.

Thompson's research into the incorporation of lime in soil has helped improve stabilization methods. A huge amount of lime has been used in highway construction in Illinois as a result.

Early in his career, he said, that work and research in cement stability got him quite a bit of recognition, and a trip to Vietnam.

"A bunch of my students ended up in Vietnam," said Thompson, referring to UI engineering students in the late 1960s who were in ROTC and went there with the Army Corps of Engineers. Struggling with clay soils while trying to build a highway across the Mekong Delta in Vietnam, former students called on their professor. Thompson answered and headed to Vietnam as a consultant for the U.S. Navy, which was in charge of all construction operations in southeast Asia, he said.

"The (UI) administration, they thought I was kind of crazy going over there at the time," Thompson said. "It was very challenging professionally."

But Thompson accomplished his mission, helping build National Highway 1 across the delta. The highway still stands today, he's happy to report.

His other notable research has led to innovations in flexible design procedures for pavement that have not only had an impact on state roads, but county and township ones, as well.

Saving state a bundle

When Thompson was at IDOT, Lippert said, he was involved with most major projects, helping save the state millions when his research found that asphalt could be used as an alternative to concrete in some situations. Up until the early '80s, almost all roads were concrete, Lippert said.

"Illinois wins as far as lower-cost roads," he said. "With Marshall, what's impressed me the most over the years, is he's in tune with what the contract community is doing, what counties are doing, different states, different speciality contractors and the academic side of it, too. He's brought several things to the state over the years."

Thompson doesn't like doing research for research's sake.

"I want to help do things a little better, quicker and less expensive, and I like to emphasize putting things into practice," he said.

Vermilion County Highway Engineer Doug Staske said Thompson is well known industry-wide. For many years, he said, Thompson has hosted the annual transportation highway engineering conference that draws about 1,500 engineers nationwide.

"He's a very nice guy, very competent, very conversant and easy to get along with," Staske said.

When he's not in the office, Thompson enjoys watching his grandchildren in various sports activities and playing golf. One of his claims to fame, he said, was playing with the late Nobel Prize winner, UI physicist and electrical engineer, John Bardeen.

"He was good. He loved to golf. That was his outlet from the heavy-duty thinking," Thompson joked.

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