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Graduation Year: 1968
Degree at Duke:
Bachelor of Science
- President and Chief Operating Officer, H. J. Russel Construction Co.
Duke was very focused on making sure that you were the best engineer that they could produce.
Kenneth “Ken” Chestnut, Sr. has helped shape the skyline and built some of the most iconic structures from San Francisco to Atlanta. However, he is just as proud of his role in shaping future generations of civil engineers.
From his early days at Pratt in the 1960s, Chestnut understood his role as pioneer and took seriously his responsibility as role model for a generation of African-American engineers that followed him. As a high school student at Wilmington, N.C.’s segregated Williston Senior High School, Chestnut’s interests in math and mechanical drawing were burgeoning; he imagined a career in building buildings. With the encouragement of a guidance counselor he applied to the civil engineering program at Duke.
“I told her, they’re not admitting people who look like me, nor could I afford the cost to attend Duke,” he says.
What he didn’t know was that a year earlier, in June 1962, the Duke Board of Trustees had codified the policy that undergraduate students would be admitted without regard to race. Chestnut would become one of a handful of the first African-American students to matriculate from Pratt, graduating in 1968.
A grant from the Rockefeller Foundation allowed Chestnut to attend Duke without worry about tuition costs. And when his brother, Wade Chestnut, an undergraduate just up the road at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, dropped off Chestnut in fall 1964 it was his first sight of Duke's campus.
Chestnut didn’t have time to become homesick, as he was quickly thrust into what he says, in an understated manner, was a “very challenging curriculum.”
He recalls his professors as always pushing students toward excellence and having tremendous knowledge, not just about the subjects they taught, but also how it was applied in the real world of design and construction.
“They were very focused on making sure that you were the best engineer that they could produce,” he says.
In his senior year, Chestnut was invited to interview with J.A. Jones Construction in Charlotte, where he met Edwin Jones, who interviewed him. He joined J. A. Jones immediately upon graduation from Duke and was assigned to the Embarcadero Center Project in San Francisco.
“Edwin Jones became a mentor to me,” says Chestnut.
Chestnut was later drafted and after a short stint in the Army, including a tour in Vietnam, he rejoined J. A. Jones, where he quickly advanced to a project manager. It was at Jones that he was made manager of construction for a large Mobile Oil R&D facility in Dallas. That turned out to be one of the most satisfying professional experiences of his professional life. In 1980, Chestnut again became the pioneer, at age 34; he was among the youngest project managers in the company, in charge of a $36 million building project with hundreds of employees. The building, designed by the renowned architect I.M. Pei, was an exacting in its building specifications. Chestnut made trips to Boston to visit the Kennedy Library because Pei wanted a similar kind of pre-cast concrete for the Mobile facility. On occasion, Pei himself would come by the site to review its construction.
“He was very focused on the importance of the design,” says Chestnut. “What struck me was how he was so focused on what might be considered a small detail: from a sight line, up to the whole appearance of the finished product. He used just basic shapes but put those together in a way that just had an astounding visual result. It was a very challenging project that was part industrial, part office and part research facility. It is a beautiful-looking building. It stands out as a pinnacle of my career.”
Chestnut is also very proud of his work with the firm Gilbane Building Co., Dallas, on the justice center in San Antonio, Texas, and the restoration of the county’s historic courthouse in the mid-1980s. The challenge with that project, he says, was to blend a new building with the city’s distinctive architecture. As the project drew to completion, Chestnut was awarded the “Hidalgo Award,” Bexar County’s highest award for civil service.
The award was the culmination of the “trust and relationship we build with the county and its leaders,” he says.
Over the next two decades, Chestnut would be involved with such high profile projects as the construction of the Olympic Stadium and Venues, the Georgia Dome, and the Cosby Center at Spelman College in Atlanta; a 45-story office building in San Francisco; bank buildings in Charlotte, NC; and a high-rise atrium hotel in Louisville, KY.
Chestnut recently retired from his position as President and Chief Executive Officer of IBG Construction Services LLC, Atlanta, a company he founded. Chestnut now works as a consultant to the firm and provides guidance on strategic issues.and has more time for the day-to-day particulars of any particular job site, a challenge he sometimes missed in his role as CEO.
“I enjoy being out on projects,” he says.
Chestnut has led his life with a philosophy of balancing its physical, mental and spiritual facets. Since young adulthood, he has held various leadership roles in his church, and continues to do so with St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Atlanta, where he served on the Vestry and Building Steering Committee and recently served as Senior Warden. He is also a long-time supporter of the Boys & Girls Club.
“It’s important to keep a young person on a positive track,” he says.
To that end, he has worked through various professional channels to reach out to young people, particularly underrepresented minorities, about engineering as a career option.
“You have to get young kids engaged early,” he says. “We used to do that in the junior or senior year of high school, but that is too late. You have to start in middle school or even sooner.”
Chestnut was a member of Duke’s Dean’s Council from 1994 to 2003 and worked for many years to increase minority enrollment in engineering. His words of wisdom worked for his son and namesake Kenneth, Jr., who received a mechanical engineering degree from MIT and now works in software development. His daughter, Felicia, graduated from the University of Oklahoma and works as an interior designer for Children’s Healthcare. His youngest son, Bertram, was an art major at Guilford College, Greensboro, N.C. and is a Graphic Artist. Among his favorite activities these days are fishing, spending time with his six grandchildren and mentoring young engineers and contractors.
“I was recently talking to a young person, and the subject of slide rules came up,” he says. “I told him, ‘when I get back to my office I’m going to show you my old slide rule that I used at Duke. However, it’s a different world now, with technology and everything at your fingertips.’” But, he added, “We still need engineers more than ever.”
Originally published Fall 2013. Written by Karyn Hede.