UC Berkeley News
Press Release

UC Berkeley Press Release

Alexander C. Scordelis, renowned structural engineer, dies at 83

– Alexander C. Scordelis, professor emeritus of structural engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, and among the world's most influential experts on long-span bridges and pre-stressed concrete, has died at the age of 83.

He had been battling a long illness when he died of pneumonia on Monday, Aug. 27, at the Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Berkeley.

Alexander Scordelis
Alexander Scordelis (Peg Skorpinski photo)

"He was unique in that his research was very focused on the analysis and design of shell structures and bridges, and in these two fields, he was unsurpassed," said Frieder Seible, dean at UC San Diego's Jacobs School of Engineering and one of Scordelis' former Ph.D. students.

Shell structures are typically seen in the dome roofs of large stadiums and airports.

The complexity of the structures Scordelis studied required a great deal of analysis. "We have a lot of analysts who are good at developing complex structural models, but very few can actually interpret these models," said Seible. "Alex was a master in that. He could connect analyses with the actual behavior of bridges better than anybody I know."

During his 41-year career at UC Berkeley, his research influenced such notable architectural achievements as the soaring dome of St. Mary's Cathedral in San Francisco. The current structure, built in 1970 after the old cathedral was destroyed by fire in 1962, boasts a cupola that rises 190 feet from four corner pylons, each designed to bear 10 million pounds of pressure.

Drivers in California also can see the impact of Scordelis' work on the state's bridges and freeways.

"Scordelis provided a lot of the tools and background for the slender flyovers that made California's highways famous," said Mark Ketchum, one of Scordelis' former Ph.D. students and vice president of OPAC Consulting Engineers. "These ribbon-like superstructures, seen on multi-level interchanges, are very different from the heavier designs that were the norm in many parts of the country. Professor Scordelis' coordinated research program of analysis, model tests, and design procedures allows bridge designers more confidence that their structures will perform adequately, allowing them to push boundaries farther."

Scordelis was well-regarded by state officials for his expertise in structural engineering. In 1989, California Gov. George Deukmejian appointed him to the Board of Inquiry into the Loma Prieta Earthquake. The board issued a defining report in 1990 on the earthquake's impact on California infrastructure. One of the report's recommendations was to form a Seismic Advisory Board, which the California Department of Transportation did in 1991.

Scordelis was a longtime member of that board. He also chaired the Golden Gate Bridge Seismic Instrumentation Advisory Panel, served as a consultant on the Golden Gate Bridge seismic retrofit project, and was on the advisory panel for the design of the new eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.

For all of Scordelis' accomplishments in his academic field, colleagues say what stood out most was his dedication to teaching.

"He always made sure we all understood everything to the very end, otherwise, he wouldn't allow us to leave the office," said Seible, who credits the attention Scordelis gave him as a visiting student with attracting him to come to UC Berkeley for his Ph.D. "He was a perfectionist in that way."

Former students also recalled Scordelis' Socratic style of teaching, particularly in early morning large lecture classes.

"He had a way of keeping you on your toes in class by asking a question and then naming a specific student to answer it," said Ketchum. "His task was to make sure everyone paid attention, especially at 8 in the morning."

Ed Wilson, UC Berkeley professor emeritus of structural engineering and a former undergraduate student in one of Scordelis' classes, added that Scordelis "always worked harder than his students. He was very demanding and not one for tolerating carelessness, but he was always fair. Many of his students have gone on to change the engineering profession."

"It's important to say that Alex was a person of enormous integrity, honesty and openness," said longtime colleague and friend Karl Pister, dean and Roy W. Carlson Professor of Engineering emeritus at UC Berkeley, and chancellor emeritus at UC Santa Cruz. "He was not only a decent person, but a sensitive, thoughtful and caring one who was respected internationally."

Scordelis was a proud native of San Francisco, where he was born to Greek immigrants on Sept. 27, 1923. His parents, who owned a grocery store in the Marina District, maintained close ties with their Greek heritage and their hometown in Ioannina, located in northwestern Greece.

At 16, Scordelis enrolled as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley. He joined the Reserve Officers' Training Corps after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and interrupted his studies to serve in World War II in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He was deployed to Europe, fought in the Battle of the Bulge and was among the troops that liberated concentration camps toward the close of the war. He was awarded the Bronze Star for meritorious achievement and a Purple Heart for wounds sustained in combat.

He left active service in 1946 with the rank of captain, and continued in the U.S. Army Reserve for several years, ultimately leaving the service with the rank of major.

His family credits Scordelis' experience in the war with helping him develop leadership skills at a very young age.

After the war, he returned to UC Berkeley to complete his bachelor's degree in civil engineering in 1948. A year later, he earned his master's degree in civil engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Scordelis joined the UC Berkeley faculty in 1949 as an instructor, becoming assistant professor in 1951, associate professor in 1957 and full professor in 1962. He held several leadership positions during his tenure, including assistant dean of the College of Engineering and vice chairman of the Division of Structural Engineering and Structural Mechanics.

Scordelis received many accolades and honors throughout his career, including the Berkeley Citation, the campus's highest honor for faculty; the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) Ernest E. Howard Award for contributions to the advancement of structural engineering; and the Award for Excellence in Engineering Teaching from the American Society for Engineering Education. He was also a three-time recipient of the Leon S. Moisseiff Award, established by the ASCE to recognize milestone papers in the field of structural design.

In 1978, Scordelis was elected to the National Academy of Engineering, the highest professional honor for an American engineer. He was also elected a Fellow of the American Concrete Institute, and was awarded honorary memberships to the American Society of Civil Engineers and the International Association for Shell and Spatial Structures.

Upon his retirement in 1990, Scordelis' children and their families established the Alexander C. Scordelis Fellowship in Structural Engineering to assist outstanding UC Berkeley graduate students in structural engineering who are aiming for careers in academia.

He is survived by his wife of 59 years, Georgia Scordelis, of El Cerrito, Calif.; son, Byron Scordelis of Saratoga, Calif.; daughter Karen Holtermann of Berkeley; and four grandchildren.

A Trisagion (rosary) will take place on Thursday, Aug. 30, at 7:30 p.m. at the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Ascension, 4700 Lincoln Ave., Oakland. Funeral services will be held at the cathedral the following day, Friday, Aug. 31, at 10 a.m. A memorial gathering will take place on the UC Berkeley campus in the coming weeks.

In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to the Berkeley Engineering Fund, designated for the Alexander C. Scordelis Fellowship in Structural Engineering, College of Engineering, University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720-1722.

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