Ralph Stephenson, an icon in every sense of the word, passed away on March 11 in Mt. Pleasant, MI.
Stephenson was a driving force in the development of the Institute for Construction Management, the forerunner to the Construction Association of Michigan’s Training and Education Center (CAMTEC).
During his 50-plus years of engineering work, Stephenson amassed a very long list of achievements and has earned a deep level of respect from his colleagues, clients and those for whom he was a mentor.
One way that respect was reflected is in the trust accorded him by those who completed the Michigan Society of Professional Engineers’ (MSPE) Standing Neutral Training Program.
The methodology and goals of the training program were based largely on Stephenson’s seminars on dispute resolution.
“Known to many as ’Mr. Construction,’ his success as a problem-solver was probably his best known quality,” said Dewey Little, longtime construction writer. “Much of the magic he brought to projects came from his inborn curiosity about technical matters.”
However, it is not known by many that he also was an accomplished trumpeter. Early in life Stephenson was attracted to the discipline of music studies and he actually entered Lawrence Institute of Technology on a music scholarship.
Stephenson played for the renowned Detroit Symphony Orchestra and used the money he earned from that job to help with his college expenses.
When he first entered the engineering field, Stephenson was confident that he could become a competent engineer and make a good living.
However, he felt that the executive level in the engineering field promised him the best chance to stick with a goal he had made while he directed field engineering and demolition projects for the United States Army during World War II.
“My objective became to get as much experience as I could,” said Stephenson. “I felt that it would be wise to change my career in some manner every three years to keep from getting into a rut, as can happen in anyone’s career.”
After graduating from Lawrence Tech in 1943 with a degree in mechanical engineering, Stephenson joined the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Upon leaving the Army three years later, he went on to earn a masters degree in civil engineering from Michigan State University.
1948 was a great year for Stephenson as he graduated with a masters degree, was offered a position as a structural engineer of Smith, Hinchman & Grylls Associates in Detroit and married his longtime girlfriend, Betty.
In 1992, he moved his business to Mt. Pleasant, setting up his office built on the banks of the Chippewa River.
Stephenson also was a pioneer in developing most of the techniques used in the Critical Path Method (CPM).
He later co-authored “The Critical Path Method,” a book that was a required university textbook for many years.
He also wrote several books on construction management and was asked to give technical and management seminars in the United States, Canada and Europe
Stephenson also was involved with the founding and promotion of the Michigan Junta, one of the oldest constructor fellowships in the state.
The group was created to improve the construction profession by advancing the professionalism of its members. Formed in the mid-1960s, the Junta is based on the principles of Ben Franklin’s “American Philosophical Society for Promoting Useful Knowledge.”
His connection to the Construction Association of Michigan began in 1963 (when it was known as the Builders and Traders Exchange of Detroit).
He spearheaded the growth and development of Exchange’s Institute for Construction Management.
As director of ECM, he designed a curriculum based on the type of courses that were needed in the industry but not available.
He sought instructors that had solid practical experience and helped develop course content that encouraged thoughtful solutions to challenging situations.
Perhaps his wife, Betty, summed up most precisely the quality of character that will be Stephenson’s most enduring legacy.
“He never turned away anyone with a problem or in need of help finding a job,” she reflected. “That was the ethical and moral standard by which he lived.”
Stephenson was cremated March 14 and according to Betty, the family will hold a memorial service later in the spring.
Anyone wishing to make a donation should do so in the name of Ralph Stephenson to the charity of their choice.