Remembering Harry E. Bovay, Jr.

In late May of 2011, the National Academy of Engineering lost a friend and supporter and the engineering profession lost a leader and philanthropist with the passing of Harry Bovay, Jr. Mr. Bovay was 96. The NAE Center for Engineering Ethics and Society (CEES) owes its existence to his support.  

CEES posted a tribute to Mr. Bovay in 2010. Here we combine some information and commentary from that article as well as the obituary in the Houston Chronicle.

A civil engineer by training, in 1946 he started his own company, H. E. Bovay, Jr., Consulting Engineers, later Bovay Engineers, Inc., and later in life he had success in the telecommunications industry. He was elected to the NAE in 1978, at which time colleagues supported his nomination by writing of his contributions to the design of energy-conserving utility systems as early as 1948; the development of a novel computer program for air duct analysis to operate air conditioning systems at optimal levels; and his oversight of the first chemical plant to make alkylate and the first plant to make toluene synthetically from petroleum.

As a young man Bovay traveled across the southwest with his father, observing him broker business deals and build bridges. In addition to learning engineering concepts, Bovay observed the importance of ethics and fair dealing, early lessons that would benefit countless others later in Bovay’s life.

In 1991 he formed the Harry E. Bovay, Jr. Foundation, which focuses on education and community development in rural areas; college scholarships in rural communities to help high school seniors who have taken a leadership role in community service; educators’ grants available to teachers from these same areas to pursue advanced education degrees; improvements in parks and community centers; and reading initiatives.

In 1997 he and his wife, Sue, now deceased, funded The Bovay Endowed Chair for the History and Ethics of Professional Engineering at both Texas A&M and Cornell Universities to support the teaching of engineering ethics. In 2002 Bovay made a gift to the Murdough Center for Engineering Professionalism at Texas Tech University in its effort to produce a case study film. The school used these funds to produce “Incident at Morales,” a professional-quality video depicting a young engineer struggling with critical ethical issues regarding a life-threatening condition on a project design. This excellent film case study is a great resource for high school and college-level students, as well as for professional engineers. (The video is available through the National Institute for Engineering Ethics here

Wm. A. Wulf, former president of the NAE, visited Bovay a number of times in Houston to discuss contributions shortly after the National Academies launched a capital campaign, but it was after Wulf created the Center for Engineering Ethics and Society that Bovay saw something at the Academies that truly fell in line with his funding goals. He ultimately gave the money that brought the Center to life and funding from Bovay today helps to keep the NAE’s Online Ethics Center in operation.

A poem that hung on the wall of Bovay’s father’s office was for decades a favorite of his. The Bridge Builder, (reprinted in entirety, below) by Will Allen Dromgoole and published near the turn of the 20th century, tells the story of an old man, who, though it will be of no use to him, takes the time to build a bridge over a stream he has just traversed so that those coming after him will not face the same struggles. This lesson, of the importance of duty, kindness, and selfless responsibility, often is realized too late, the years needed to build the foundations to support such culminating work frittered away chasing other ends.

Fortunately for so many, Harry E. Bovay, Jr. built bridges—spanning forward and back—his entire life.

An old man, going a lone highway,
Came, at the evening, cold and gray,
To a chasm, vast, and deep, and wide,
Through which was flowing a sullen tide.

The old man crossed in the twilight dim;
The sullen stream had no fear for him;
But he turned, when safe on the other side,
And built a bridge to span the tide.

"Old man," said a fellow pilgrim, near,
"You are wasting strength with building here;
Your journey will end with the ending day;
You never again will pass this way;
You've crossed the chasm, deep and wide-
Why build you this bridge at the evening tide?"

The builder lifted his old gray head:
"Good friend, in the path I have come," he said,
"There followeth after me today,
A youth, whose feet must pass this way.

This chasm, that has been naught to me,
To that fair-haired youth may a pitfall be.
He, too, must cross in the twilight dim;
Good friend, I am building this bridge for him."