Germany and Austria were still occupied by Allied forces, Hawaii and Alaska weren’t yet states, and chimpanzees—let alone humans—had not gotten anywhere near space exploration.
That was the situation around the world when Edwin “Ed” Burdette came to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville as an undergraduate in the mid-1950s.
Aside from a brief period spent earning his doctorate at the University of Illinois and one and a half years working in Memphis, he’s been in UT’s civil engineering department ever since, having seen a number of changes in his given area of expertise as well as the university and the world around him.
Although he still maintains a presence and an office on campus, Burdette “retired” at the end of June and that transition has given him the opportunity to reflect on his experiences, memories and what he hopes his legacy will be across six decades at UT.
“I grew up five miles from Martin, Tennessee, on a farm where we had no money, no running water, no phone, no car,” said Burdette. “I started out riding with friends to UT-Martin, but Knoxville was the next step. We called it ‘Big UT’ back then because Martin started out as a two-year school.”
Burdette said that UT cost about $335 per quarter at the time, far beyond his means.
In order to pay for school, he said he’d borrow the money to attend a quarter, work for six months to pay it back, and then repeat the process.
While he would eventually come to be known as an icon in the structural engineering realm, Burdette began his studies more interested in agriculture.
It was while taking a structural engineering elective that he found his newfound love, and the rest was history.
Speaking of love, Burdette found that at UT as well. He met his wife, Patsy Hill, during his graduate studies and they’ve now been married nearly six decades.
As a sign of how different the academic community was at the time, Burdette was actually given tenure at UT twice: First when he earned his master’s degree and again when he returned to campus with his doctorate.
“I feel sorry for how hard the process is for people to go through now,” said Burdette. “They have to put in so much work, so many years, so much pressure. I came at just the right time.”
When he left to get his doctorate there was no professor in the department to hold one. When he came back, there were at least three. By comparison, there are more than twenty faculty in the department with doctorates today.
One special memory of his time at UT stands out.
The Elk River in Middle Tennessee was in the process of being dammed, and the Tennessee Department of Transportation and federal authorities asked him to conduct structural tests on bridges that would be submerged.
For a structural engineer, the opportunity was a pot of gold.
“They had four bridges that they funded us to do full-scale testing on,” said Burdette. “We had to work our tails off, but we got to test each of those bridges to the point of structural failure.
“That clearly is my favorite project.”
Burdette has had many projects and many students over the years, and is able to recall aspects about many of them, a theme that resonated at his retirement ceremony.
When what he considers his legacy, Burdette points to his students.
He paraphrases a quote from the gravestone of a former Illinois chancellor, itself taken from Christopher Wren’s memorial in London: “If you would see his monument, look about you”
“I asked all the students I’ve had over the years who attended my ceremony to stand up,” said Burdette. “Then I said, ‘If you would see my monument, look about you.’ “