Kenneth Chestnut

The average Duke Engineering graduate either goes on to graduate school or uses the degree to buy a bigger salary in the job market. The typical graduate returns to campus for reunions and major sporting events, maybe an occasional pass through town. Alumnus Kenneth Chestnut is not your typical graduate, and he is not average by any definition of the word. Through his involvement with the Dean’s Council and participation in undergraduate education, he is working to strengthen the School of Engineering.

Ken Chestnut was born and raised in Wilmington, North Carolina. He has always been interested in the construction industry: initially, he wanted to be a carpenter, but he enjoyed the mechanical drawing classwork that he did in high school, and he decided to study civil engineering.

Chestnut initially hadn’t considered Duke “in part, because of the cost, but also because it was not integrated at the time.” However, a guidance counselor at Williston Senior High School encouraged him to apply to Duke, so he did, and he was accepted. Chestnut had never been on the campus until he arrived in Durham to enroll in classes. In 1968, he graduated with a degree in Civil Engineering. Chestnut and two others, Al Hook and Charles Hall, comprised the first class of black engineers to graduate from Duke’s School of Engineering.

At Duke, Chestnut was involved in a variety of activities. He was a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers student chapter, the Alpha Phi Omega service fraternit¾ and the Duke Black Student Organization. He played intermural sports, and was active in Mirecourt House, where he lived his junior and senior years. Upon graduating, he took a job with I. A. Jones Construction Company, which had recruited very heavily on campus. Then he moved to San Francisco. After a year and a half, he was drafted and served in the Army from 1969 to 1971, including a tour in Vietnam.

In 1971, Chestnut rejoined J. A. Jones in Charlotte as an office engineer. He moved up the ranks from project engineer to superintendent and project manager. He transferred to Louisville, Kentucky, where he was the superintendent for the construction of the Hyatt Regency Hotel. From there, he moved to Dallas as a project manager for the construction of a research and development laboratory for Mobile Oil. This was a $36 million project designed by IMP for exploration and production research and development.

In 1983, Chestnut joined Gilbane Building Co., Inc., in Dallas to build a project for AARCO Research and Development. He moved to Houston for the construction of the George Brown Convention Center, then to San Antonio. In San Antonio, he was involved in the construction of a new courts building and a parking garage, and the restoration of the existing court house.

Chestnut joined H. J. Russel Construction Co., Inc., the largest minority owned construction firm in the country with revenues of $75 million, as Vice President of Operations in 1989. In one year, he was promoted to President and Chief Operating Officer, responsible for the operations and management of the company. Among the many H. J. Russel projects are the Georgia Dome, the Olympic Stadium currently under construction in Atlanta, the Cosby Center at Spellman College in Atlanta, and the Zentrum, the BMW visitor center currently under construction in Greer, South Carolina.

Chestnut is on the Board of Trustees for Oglethorpe University in Atlanta. He is also on the Board of Directors for GlenCastle Constructors, the National Association of Minority Contractors, Atlanta Chapter, and the Construction Advisory Committee for Southern College of Technology. He was selected for the 1993 class of Leadership Atlanta. In addition to his business and academic affiliations, Chestnut is an active member of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Atlanta, where he serves on the Vestry and Building Steering Committee.

Chestnut has also maintained ties to Duke University. He participated in the Fall ‘93 Race and Education house course seminar series “Race, Education, and Business.” As a member of the Dean’s Council, he has seen drastic changes in the university since he was an undergraduate. To begin with, “the academic reputation has certainly become more well known internationally,” he noted. The number of schools in the university has increased, now including for example the Fuqua School of Business, and the building and physical composition of the college has changed. When Chestnut was an undergraduate, East Campus was still the Women’s College. Additionally, Chestnut said that Duke is “much more culturally diverse, particularly with the new president [Nan Keohane]. Unfortunately, there aren’t as many blacks in engineering as I’d hoped there would be.” Part of Chestnut’s motivation to be a member of the Dean’s Council is to try to increase the numbers of minorities in the School of Engineering.

Chestnut is married to Carol H. Chestnut, and they have two sons, Kenneth Jr., a Design Engineer with Ford Motor Company, and Bert, a freshman at Guilford College, and a daughter, Felecia, an Interior Designer with an architectural firm in Atlanta.

Ken Chestnut took advantage of the opportunities that Duke provides, he became a leader in his field and community, and he is contributing to the continued success of his alma mater. He is not average, not typical. Ken Chestnut personifies the engineer that Duke’s School of Engineering strives to graduate.

Michelle Pahra is a junior in Civil and Environmental Engineering.
DukEngineer, Spring 1994