Emeritus Karl H. Lewis, a doctor of philosophy in Civil Engineering who
played a pivotal role in changing the cultural diversity of engineers
produced at the University of Pittsburgh, died on March 5, 2019 in
Pittsburgh, PA. He was 83.
on January 15, 1936 in St. Lawrence, Barbados to Everett and Ione
Lewis, Karl was known as “Kirby” by his secondary school classmates in
Barbados because he was great at most things he put his mind and hands
to do, similar to Rick Kirby who was a superman comic in England. Before
coming to United States from Barbados, he was a Victor ludorum (Latin
for “the winner of games.”) as well as captain of the Cricket and
football teams. Arriving in America, Karl lived in New York City with
his aunt. He went to Howard University where he majored in Civil
Engineering. Subsequently, in 1966, he received his PhD in Civil
Engineering with specialization in Geotechnical from Purdue University
and then accepted a tenured track professorship at the University of
faculty member for less than 5 years, Lewis founded the Pitt
Engineering IMPACT Program in 1969 to recruit, retain and successfully
graduate black and other underrepresented engineers. He officially
retired in 1999, but remained very active at the University of
Pittsburgh until recently.
Passion, mentorship and intellectual generosity
the 173-year history of engineering at the University of Pittsburgh,
few professors have had such a tremendous impact on the careers and
lives of engineers around the globe, as did Dr. Karl Lewis. His legacy
of engineering education and his contributions to the profession are respected by generations of engineers who, to a person, note his passion, mentorship, and encouragement," said, James R. Martin II, U.S. Steel Dean of the Swanson
School of Engineering.
so many Pitt alumni, Dr. Lewis was and always will be the face and
spirit of engineering. His focus on mutual support – which purposefully
taught students to learn from each other, and not simply from a textbook
– imbued a sense of humanity within our profession, one that we must
revisit as we educate the next generation of engineers.
personally feel a direct connection to the pioneering efforts of Dr.
Lewis, who by virtue of tireless efforts created a safe, fertile space
in which a diverse community could take root, grow and begin to
flourish. He built a bridge to a better future. It is our mission to do
"May we all be better engineers – and better people – for the wealth of life that Dr. Lewis shared with us.”
Enduring contribution to fundamental issues about equal access
Lewis’ work centered largely on ensuring all students were afforded the
right to be the best in their profession. From IMPACT students to
students in Civil Engineering, he helped everyone the same regardless of
race, religion or national origin. As an immigrant in America, he
understood the struggles of equal access so he wanted to ensure everyone
received the same level of support with the same level of dignity.
he officially retired almost 20 years ago, Dr. Lewis maintained a
relationship with his former colleagues, students and Swanson School of
Engineering alumni. His generosity was far reaching.
became a big success story for the University. As early as 1975,
IMPACT had been recognized by agencies such as the American Association
for the Advancement of Science as one of the outstanding
science-engineering projects of its type. IMPACT was one of the first
two recipients of the Chancellor’s Award for Achievement in Affirmative
Action. It has also received excellent ratings from the PA Department of
Education. A 2001 study conducted by the Engineering Workforce
Commission of the American Association of Engineering Societies, Inc.
(AAES) showed the University’s commitment to recruiting women and
minorities was successful. Pitt’s Engineering program was ranked first
in the State in total number of Black engineering graduates.
Pitt ranked third out of more than 600 schools the AAES surveyed in the
United States in the number of engineering doctorates awarded to
Blacks. It was also ranked 22nd in the number of
engineering Bachelor of Science degrees and in the overall number of
engineering degrees awarded to Blacks. IMPACT became the model for other
predominantly White institutions (PWI) that were looking to increase
the number of minority students that successfully graduated with an
2004, an IMPACT alumnus established an endowment in Dr. Lewis’s honor
at the University of Pittsburgh, named the Dr. Karl H. Lewis Engineering
IMPACT Alumni Endowed
Fund. Following the momentum of the endowment, Dr. Lewis was nominated
by a couple of his former IMPACT students and received a Golden Torch
Lifetime Achievement in Academia Award in 2006 from the National Society
of Black Engineers in recognition of his work to increase the number of
minority students in engineering. In addition, he was entered into the
Swanson School of Engineering’s Hall of Fame the same year.
Lewis often said, “I didn’t want recognition. I just wanted to change
the system. Some people came back and thanked me, but that wasn’t my
point. I had people that helped me change the narrative. People like to
help people that help people. Since IMPACT was successful, we had a lot
of support. Mr. K. Leroy Irvis became a very close friend of mine and
one of my biggest supporters.”
Family pride and joy
Lewis’ biggest achievement was his loving family. He often shared
stories of his son Kirby excelling in engineering and law at the greatest
institutions in the world. His yearly visits, driving from Pittsburgh
to Boston with a pit stop in New York, to see his beautiful
granddaughters was the center of his pride and joy. Everyone knew Karl
as a private man, but if you ever had the chance to hear him speak of
his family you would have witnessed how his face always lit up when he
shared stories about them and their accomplishments. He wanted most for
his family to be secure. His past-time was day trading. Karl said he did
this because an engineering salary wasn’t enough to retire on, so he
wanted to ensure that his family had financial security. Many of his
students had conversations with Karl once they started their career and
he would emphatically share the importance of saving and investing in
the early years of their career. He shared his discipline of reading the
Wall Street Journal daily and watching the markets. Karl emphasized
building financial wealth to leave a legacy for your family. Anyone that
knew Karl understood his love for his family and ensuring they were
better off than he was growing up.
grandmother sent him to New York to live with his aunt so he could have
a better life than what he could achieve in Barbados. That never
stopped him from loving his country. He often commented how beautiful
his country was and enjoyed visiting there with his family.
is survived by his lovely wife Gretchen; son Kirby (Janelle) of McLean,
VA; grandchildren: Alexandra, Evelyn, and Veronica; beloved siblings:
Doris E. Green of Queens, NY (1 nephew and 4 nieces in Doris’ family);
Gloria “June” Lewis-Callender of Laurelton, NY (1 nephew and 1 niece in
June’s family); Grace White of Queens, NY; Neville Lewis of Corona, CA;
brother in-law Karl Schultz of Sherwood, OR; and a host of IMPACT alumni.
A memorial service is planned for Friday, June 21, 2019, at 7:30 PM at the Heinz Chapel at the University of Pittsburgh.
Contact: Paul Kovach