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In Memoriam: Professor Emeritus Richard D. Woods

Richard D. “Dick” Woods, Professor Emeritus of Civil and Environmental Engineering, died on January 28, 2021 with his family by his side.  

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Richard Woods

Richard D. “Dick” Woods, Professor Emeritus of Civil and Environmental Engineering, died on January 28, 2021, with his family by his side.  

Woods was born on September 4, 1935, in Lansing, Michigan. Upon obtaining a BS in civil engineering from Notre Dame University, Woods served in the United States Marine Corps as an engineering officer from September 1957 through August 1960. He returned to Notre Dame, where he received an MS in civil engineering in 1962. He obtained his PhD in civil engineering from the University of Michigan in 1967 and was hired as assistant professor that same year.  

“In addition to being a pioneer of his field, he was an extremely gracious and kind colleague who truly loved the University of Michigan. He will be dearly missed,” said Professor and Donald Malloure Department Chair Jerome Lynch.

At U-M, Woods developed and defined “soil dynamics” alongside his former mentor and PhD advisor Frank E. Richart Jr. and colleague Dick Hall. If Richart was known as the “theoretician” of the group, one might call Woods the “workhorse,” as he designed the field testing equipment and conducted the earliest lab procedures. 

The group’s hard work paid off; in 1970, the men published the definitive book on soil dynamics, Vibrations of Soils and Foundations, and by the 1980s, Woods was regarded as the leading soil dynamics experimentalist in the world, being particularly well known as an expert in in-situ testing.

Professor Woods was a co-founder and early president of the Geo-Institute of the American Society of Civil Engineering (ASCE). He played a role in establishing the United States Universities Council on Geotechnical Engineering and Research (USUCGER) and the Environmental and Engineering Geophysical Society (EEGS). Over the course of his career, Woods also served as chairman of the ASCE’s Soil Dynamics Committee, chair of the ASCE’s Geotechnical Engineering Division Executive Committee, president of the United States Universities Council on Geotechnical Engineering and Research, president of the Environmental and Engineering Geophysical Society and the U.S. Secretary to the International Society of Soil Mechanics and Foundation Engineering.

“Our department has lost a long-time faculty member, Richard Woods, known by all as Dick. He served as an effective department chair and was a world-renowned engineering scholar. The world, state, University and everyone coming into contact with Dick benefited immeasurably from the opportunity to get to know, enjoy and respect him,” said Professor Emeritus Donald Cleveland.

Cleveland shared a fond memory of his time working with Woods:

Dick was an impressive physical specimen. I learned this firsthand at one of the departmental picnic parties where we had a touch football game. As a defensive lineman I was opposed by Dick in the tackle position. At the snap of the ball his football background kicked in and he pancaked me with ease as I attempted to pass around him. He then bent over and graciously picked me up.

Woods’ research earned him several accolades, including the 1969 ASCE Collingwood Prize and the highest honor a geotechnical engineer can receive: the Karl Terzaghi Lecture Award from the ASCE Geo-Institute. Woods delivered his Terzaghi Lecture on multiple instances around the world in 1997.  

He was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 2003, became an Honorary (Distinguished) Member of the ASCE in 2004 and was named a “Hero of the Geo-Institute of ASCE” in 2012. 

Awards aside, perhaps the greatest testament to Professor Woods’ legacy is the sweeping admiration and gratitude of his peers and students.

“The broad civil engineering community, the geotechnical engineering community particularly, knows about and cherishes many of Professor Woods’ accomplishments and contributions,” said Professor and Chairman of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Rutgers University Nenad Gucunski. “I was truly fortunate to know Professor Woods, to learn from his example what it means to be a committed researcher and instructor, and how respect and care for students and colleagues are essential in building a healthy and connected academic community for life. I am glad, proud and grateful that I was one of the 21 doctoral students he has advised. There are only several people whom we can say impacted our lives. Professor Woods certainly did mine.”

In addition to his research, Woods was a devoted educator as well. He taught fifteen different courses at U-M, seven of which he developed, and chaired or co-chaired twenty-one PhD theses in his thirty-five years as a professor. Even when serving as associate chair, interim chair and chair of the department throughout the 1990s, Woods continued to teach anywhere from three to five courses each year. As recently as 2013 he taught the physically grueling courses “Soil and Site Investigations” and “Experimental Soil Dynamics,” leading students in field tests across southeastern Michigan. He also taught a course on professional ethics and developed a CEE capstone design course during his tenure. 

And although he “retired” in 2002, Professor Woods taught one semester per year at Notre Dame from 2002 to 2010. Returning to Ann Arbor, he taught graduate courses and advised U-M PhD students through 2019. Woods was chair of the Richart Distinguished Lecture committee up until his death and regularly visited the office. His absence will be felt deeply, and his presence will be missed.   

“Professor Woods was an amazing mentor to students, faculty and staff. He advised over twenty PhD students, taught many hundreds in his courses and had a devoted world-wide following of thousands of researchers and engineering practitioners. But I had a unique opportunity of his friendship and guidance for 35 years at the University of Michigan for which I will be forever grateful,” said Professor Roman Hryciw. 

A mass of Christian burial will be celebrated on March 13, 2021 at Saint Joseph Catholic Church located at 6805 Mast Rd. Dexter, Michigan. Visitation will be from 11 AM to 12 PM and the mass will begin at 12 PM.

Dick Woods Student Impact Fund 

In honor of Professor Emeritus Richard D. “Dick” Woods (1935-2021), CEE has created the Dick Woods Student Impact Fund to support students with a demonstrated financial need. With this fund we remember Professor Woods, who was always ready to help CEE students in need.


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Mason Hinawi

Marketing Communications Specialist
Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering