Maryland bridge chief's career spans 60 years

In Earle Freedman's modest office at the State Highway Administration headquarters in Baltimore, there hangs a simple paper sign with a quotation from a legendary engineer that reads in part: "It is a crime to build an ugly bridge."

By that standard, the man known by colleagues as "Jock" is about to embark on his seventh decade of fighting crime. Monday, the 80-year-old Freedman will mark the 60th anniversary of his hiring by the State Roads Commission, the predecessor of today's SHA.

For all that time Freedman has worked on planning, building and repairing the more than 2,500 bridges owned by the state. Since 1974, he has headed the state's Office of Bridge Development — overseeing the design, inspection and maintenance of some of Maryland's most noteworthy spans in addition to all the modest, two-lane bridges from the Eastern Shore to Western Maryland.

It's been a long time since Freedman designed bridges, but his influence has been felt on every new construction or rehabilitation project in the SHA system in the past 35 years.

"I review every one of them," he said. "If something looks a little different from what you've seen before, you raise questions."

Maryland's bridges are inspected at least every other year, Freedman said. With bridges, he added, you can't tell their condition just by knowing their age.

He might as well be talking about himself.

Maryland's longest-tenured employee, who first reported for work before either of today's leading gubernatorial candidates was born, shows no signs of slowing down or edging toward retirement.

"If you retire, what would you retire to?" said Freedman, who lives in Pikesville with his wife, Trudy. "Thank God I've got a wife who says 'you do what you want.'"

But the bridge chief is finding himself at the point that what went around is coming around again. He's overseeing the replacement of Beltway bridges for which he developed cost estimates in the 1950s. He would move on to doing the designs himself.

"Some of mine are history. Others are still there," he said.

Freedman began his career at age 20 in 1950, fresh out of a program at the Johns Hopkins University that turned out some of the best civil engineers of that era. He might have spent his career with the city, but he recalled that Baltimore then had a rule saying it couldn't hire anyone who had not reached 21. So when he saw a listing for a state job, he applied and got it.

State Highway Administrator Neil J. Pedersen, among others, is happy he did.

"Jock is generally recognized nationally as one of the foremost bridge engineers in the country," Pedersen said. "He has an ability to identify cost-effective solutions — often in very challenging circumstances."

The highway chief, himself a 28-year SHA veteran, said Freedman is also "a national leader" of a movement to design more aesthetically pleasing bridges.

Freedman said that as he looks back on his life's work, he sees bridges that give him a sense of pride — and others he cringes to think about. He didn't want to discuss it in detail, but there's a particular pedestrian bridge over the Amtrak tracks in Aberdeen that makes him wonder what he was thinking.

In 2004, the state honored Freedman's first 50-plus years of service by putting his name on a new bridge carrying Reisterstown Road over the Beltway — one notable for its brickwork and antique-style lighting fixtures. But that is not his favorite among the many he worked on.

Freedman said the bridge in which he takes the most pride is the Naval Academy Bridge that replaced the old Maryland Route 450 bridge over the Severn River on the way into Annapolis. The graceful, curving span — built especially high to let Naval Academy sailing ships pass underneath, opened in 1994.

The bridge is not Freedman's design, but as chief of the bridge office he supervised an innovative selection process that produced the national award-winner.

David P. Belington, Gordon Y.S. Wu professor of engineering emeritus at Princeton University, said Freedman put together a design competition in which a jury of engineers and lay people evaluated five competing designs without knowing who submitted the plans.

"There wasn't really anything like that in this country in the 20th century," recalled Belington, who served on that jury. The result, he said, was "a very fine bridge, both technically and visually."

Freedman said Maryland's governors have not often intervened in matters of bridge design, but the Severn River bridge was a positive exception. He said that he and Gov. William Donald Schaefer toured the site and that the governor had one request: an overlook where women from the nearby neighborhoods could bring their strollers and enjoy the magnificent view.

"And that's how that overlook got onto the bridge," Freedman said.

Freedman said the competitive and collaborative design process the SHA used for the Naval Academy bridge was later adapted for the biggest Maryland bridge project in recent decades: the $2.5 billion replacement of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge over the Potomac River.

That project, which Freedman affectionately calls "Woody," is nearing completion with interchange work on the Virginia side of the river. The bridge itself — a dual span with 12 lanes — opened fully in 2008 to national acclaim in engineering circles.

One person who worked closely with Freedman on that project is Mal Kerley, chief engineer for the Virginia Department of Transportation. He said Freedman, his Maryland counterpart at the time of the project, was instrumental in its completion.

"That was and has been a very successful project — on time, on budget," Kerley said.

The Virginia official describes Freedman as an old-school bridge engineer who can spot design flaws without relying on computer analysis.

"Jock's always been good to work with. He's a classic gentleman," Kerley said. "You can learn from Jock Freedman."

Kerley, who chairs the American Association of Highway Transportation Officials' subcommittee on bridges, said he knows of no one else who holds a position similar to Freedman's at the age of 80.

"There is not one state bridge engineer that's even 70 other than Jock," he said.

Freedman said the chief worry of anyone with responsibility for bridges is that of catastrophic failure such as the fatal collapse that occurred on Interstate 35W in Minnesota in 2007. He recalled that a previous state highway administrator said his recurring bad dream was having a school bus on a falling bridge.

Does he share that nightmare? "Absolutely," Freedman said. But he says Maryland is down to fewer than 100 structurally deficient bridges now, with 20-30 under rehabilitation and none in imminent danger.

Freedman said Maryland has been fortunate in that it completed many of its most-needed bridge projects — such as a new Choptank River span in Cambridge, when funding was available. And while the state finances have been clouded by recession in recent years, Freedman can still find a silver lining.

"We've been able to attract some of the good young people coming out of college who wouldn't have considered state [employment]," he said.

Freedman and his wife have two daughters, five grandchildren and a great-grandchild. He said that when they travel, his wife has become accustomed to his habit of stopping to examine the local bridges.

But it isn't just bridges from which he derives design inspiration. In one case, he said, the tree-shaped look of a pier on the Naval Academy Bridge was inspired by a design element on a California shopping center. Other ideas come from the architecture he sees on the streets of the city.

"I don't think the people of Baltimore appreciate some of the buildings and facades we have here. They're beautiful," he said.

Much has changed in the years since he first began designing bridges, Freedman said. "In the old days, you never worried about the environment," he said. "You could do what you wanted and we screwed up."

Now, he said, the bridge designer has to have many of the skills of an environmental engineer, and there's no tolerance for project runoff into the streams below.

"Sometimes you wonder if it's gone too far the other way," he said.

Over the years, Freedman said, he's fielded many offers of more lucrative jobs in the private sector. He's turned them all down.

"I liked what I was doing, and thank God I'm making enough where I can live the kind of life my wife and I are satisfied with," he said.

Pedersen said the agency is in no hurry to replace its oldest team member. He said that at staff meetings, SHA managers sometimes talk about issues being 10 or 20 years down the road, when the only person still there will be Jock.

"He is remarkably healthy and he's as sharp a mind as anybody at the State Highway Administration and has an ability to solve problems in a very pragmatic way that people half his age aren't able to do."

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