Persevering with an engineer’s mind
At 85 years old, Paul Gordon (BS ’52, MS ’12) has completed UIC’s Master of Engineering online program. An accomplished structural engineer, he’s collaborated with architects including Mies van der Rohe and Harry Weese; built sections of the Calumet Skyway and nine bridges on the Northern Illinois toll road; and worked on portions of the Marina Towers, John Hancock building, and the Sears Tower. But perhaps Gordon’s greatest achievement isn’t who he’s met or what high-rise he’s built. It’s that he never quits.
Flunking his entrance exams and facing anti-Semitic discrimination were only some of the setbacks Gordon faced on his return from a stint as an Army sergeant (349th Infantry Regiment, 88th Infantry Division) in Italy at the end of WWII. Initially, he worked as a surveyor, laying out Chicago’s Edens Expressway, and then enrolled at the University of Illinois at Navy Pier—UIC’s original campus—to study civil engineering in 1948. He got in on round two. And the classes were challenging. “I remember going to a convocation where the speaker said that only 20 percent of us would graduate. But I still had a soldier’s mind, and I was determined to finish school,” he said. “I knew it was an economic opportunity, and there was no going back.”
Undoubtedly, Gordon’s early life experiences played a major part in developing the grit he exemplifies. Growing up on Chicago’s West Side during the Great Depression, he and his family—like many—moved around the city, and so the boy repeatedly changed schools and got bad grades. After finishing high school, he found an escape in the United States Army. “I was very happy there. I was a sergeant, only 19 years old in charge of a platoon of infantry, and I was a hero,” he said.
In 1950, between his two years at Navy Pier and two years in Urbana (the course taken by all Chicago veterans at the time), Gordon married. He completed his civil engineering degree in 1952, welcomed twin daughters into the world in 1953, and grew his own structural engineering firm in 1959 out of the business his boss one day decided to abandon. “I spoke to his clients on a daily basis, and they said ‘You’ve been doing the work anyhow. Why don’t you open your own office and continue these projects with us?’ And so they advanced me the money to do it,” he said. Suddenly, Gordon was, in a way, in charge of the ranks again.
A few decades later, at the time when a master’s degree became a necessity for engineering, Gordon’s thriving business overwhelmed his time. But he knew he had to maintain his licenses in twelve states and wanted to stay current in the field, so he began searching for something to fit his needs. “When I found out UIC offered a Master of Engineering online program, I called the program coordinator, Carolyn Williams, who was very encouraging and helpful in setting me on the right path,” he said. Gordon began the program in 2007, with the Illinois veteran’s scholarship granted when joining the army, studying structural engineering under Professor Mohsen Issa, Department of Civil & Materials Engineering. With its flexible courses and accommodating support, Gordon found that the program had the same resilience he saw in himself. “For the student who’s out in the working world, who wants to do things efficiently and quickly because he has no time to waste, UIC is the perfect place.”
Despite his retirement, former colleagues still seek his guidance and expertise in structural evaluation and design. And even though he possesses the authority, he continues to take courses at UIC and mentor his younger classmates. After all, he still has 120 credits offered by his scholarship, and Gordon’s plan—as it has always been—is to keep going.