CEE Update Faculty Retirement: Thomas O'Rourke

Thomas D. O’Rourke
Dr. Thomas D. O’Rourke

Professor Thomas D. O’Rourke retired on September 15, 2020 after 42 years of teaching and research. O’Rourke received his B.S.C.E. from Cornell in 1970, an M.S.C.E. in 1973 and a Ph.D. in 1975 from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. While at Illinois, his research focused on the Washington, D.C. Metro, culminating in a Ph.D. dissertation focused on the deep, braced excavations for the Metro station at the National Portrait Gallery. This was the start of a life-long interest and career path in geotechnical engineering.

During his education, there were three professors who were influential to O’Rourke: David Henkel, Ralph Peck and Ed Cording. Dr. Henkel was a well-known geotechnical engineer and a professor at Cornell for many years. Dr. Peck was a mentor, and a member of O’Rourke’s Ph.D. committee at Illinois, and Dr. Cording was his advisor and friend. O’Rourke learned a great deal from their classes, but mostly he learned from the way they conducted themselves and the way they worked with people. The advice of these mentors would help shape O’Rourke’s success.

Throughout his career, O’Rourke has focused his research on developing solutions to engineering problems concerning foundation performance, ground movement effects on structures, earth retaining structures, pipelines, earthquake engineering, tunneling, and infrastructure rehabilitation. These explorations have contributed greatly to the understanding of natural extreme events, such as earthquakes and hurricanes, that disrupt underground infrastructure.

Traveling to many sites in the wake of an earthquake, O’Rourke analyzed the devastation and gleaned data to learn new ways of developing technology for underground lifeline systems. For example, he was a member of 10 different earthquake reconnaissance missions, including a historic mission to Armenia in 1988 at the invitation of the Soviet Academy of Sciences.

From 2004-2014, O’Rourke was instrumental in developing the Large-Scale Lifelines Testing Facility and participating with other universities that were a part of the George E. Brown, Jr. Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation (NEES) project. He worked closely with Associate Professor Harry Stewart and Lab Manager, Tim Bond on the project.

O’Rourke authored or co-authored over 400 papers and published reports. He supervised 24 Ph.D. and 23 Master of Science students, and taught thousands of undergraduate and graduate students during his years at Cornell. O’Rourke held distinguished, high-level positions, giving his time and knowledge to many notable organizations and committees. Additionally, he provided consulting services for more than 130 projects in 13 different countries.

O’Rourke is an Overseas Fellow at Churchill College and the University of Cambridge in the U.K. He was three times an Erskine Fellow at the University of Canterbury, Christchurch in New Zealand and a Fulbright Fellow, Senior Specialist Program with the Office of the Prime Minister and Cabinet in New Zealand in 2007. O’Rourke was also President of the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute from 2003-2004.

During his tenure at Cornell, O’Rourke has been the recipient of many outstanding awards and distinctions: U.S. National Academy of Engineering (1993); Fellow of American Association for the Advancement of Science (2000); Distinguished Member of the American Society of Civil Engineers [ASCE] (2014); International Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering (2014); Corresponding Member of the Mexican Academy of Engineering (2017) to name a few.

Even though O’Rourke has retired, he plans to continue to perform large displacement lifelines research in the Bovay Laboratory, and also serve as the Associate Director of the Cornell Program for Infrastructure Policy. This is the work he enjoys and looks forward to accomplishing.

Throughout his career, O’Rourke has maintained full travel schedules, flying to many domestic cities as well as international ones. Perhaps in retirement his travels will have fewer constraints and allow more time for family leisure. His wife, Pat, is a substitute teacher for the Ithaca School District and a member of the Board of Trustees in the Village of Lansing. Their daughter, Adele, graduated from Cornell ILR in 2016, was president of her police academy class, and is a police officer in the State of Washington. Most definitely there is one U.S. state on his travel itinerary.