Tom Walski can see the beauty, challenges and opportunities in something many of us often take for granted: the humble but essential water main.
Walski, who served as executive director of Wyoming Valley Sanitary Authority from 1989 to 1992, is a veteran engineer and educator who recently was given the Civil Engineer of the Year 2017 award from the American Society of Civil Engineers, Lehigh Valley Section (LV-ASCE).
The award is bestowed annually to recognize outstanding achievements and contributions of a civil engineer to the engineering profession, to the education and support of younger and future engineers, and to the community. The Lehigh Valley Section covers eastern Pennsylvania from the Lehigh Valley to the New York state line.
In addition to his roles at Bentley and the sanitary authority, Walski has served as an associate professor for Wilkes University, and engineering manager for Pennsylvania American Water. After being educated locally, he earned his master’s degree and Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University. He spoke with us about his background and profession.
Q: Tom, tell us a little about your roots and your family.
A: I grew up in Plains and graduated from Sacred Heart High School and King’s College with a degree in math. My wife is Dee. I have three children: daughter Kristi (Mississippi); sons Adam and Peter (Philadelphia); and a puppy, Lady who keeps us on our toes.
Q: Why did you become an engineer?
A: It actually came from an interest in improving the environment. When I was young the air quality around here was terrible, solid waste was basically thrown into strip mines, drinking water was terrible and the Susquehanna was pretty much an open sewer.
When I graduated from King’s, I wanted to combine my skills in math and computers with my desired to improve the environment. One of my math teachers at King’s, Martin Hudak, said I should get into “mathematical modeling” and it was a great fit for me.
So I went to graduate school at Vanderbilt University to study environmental engineering. I tried working in some managerial as well as technical positions, but my preference is to work on the technical side of the profession.
Q: How has the profession changed over the course of your career?
A: When I started, engineering, calculations were done with slide rules, which are clever devices but fairly slow. Engineers spent most of their time doing calculations rather than developing solutions. Now, with computers, the computational burden has be greatly reduced and engineers can focus on solving problems.
Q: What are some of the challenges of engineering and maintaining water systems?
A: It costs a lot of money to build, operate and maintain a water system, especially an old one as we have in this area. Water is one of the biggest bargains in the world, yet people complain about paying for it while spending several times that amount each month on their cellphone or cable bills. You can survive a long time without a cellphone or cable but try living without water.
Q: What advice do you have for young people considering careers in engineering?
A: It is a challenging and rewarding profession. You work with great people solving interesting problems. I’m happy I followed this career path.