Fred Mirmiran, who arrived in America with pocket change and founded a civil engineering firm before becoming a medical philanthropist, died of a heart attack Thursday at the University of Maryland St. Joseph Medical Center. The Sparks resident was 78.
“His gift to us was profound,” said Dr. Gary Goldstein, former president of the Kennedy Krieger Institute, one of the charities Mr. Mirmiran assisted. “Fred was an organized, purposeful person. He created an enormously successful company and it was obvious that he was proud of what he had accomplished and how he had made his way in America.”
Born in Qazvin, Iran, he attended Tehran’s Alborz School, a boarding academy for gifted students founded in the 19th century by U.S. missionaries.
“My dad moved to the U.S. when he was just shy of 18 years old to pursue the American dream,” said his son, Arsh Mirmiran. “He told the story of how he had to change planes seven times before he made it from Tehran to Washington, D.C. He literally showed up with a suitcase and a pocket full of money, nothing else to his name, and no family here.”
He studied English at Georgetown University and befriended an aide to Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver, to whom he was introduced and quickly impressed.
“Kefauver found him charming and suggested he attend the University of Tennessee for engineering,” his son said. “He was picked up at the airport by the school’s president. That was the real start of his academic career.”
Mr. Mirmiran discovered that in the 1950s in Tennessee, because of his skin tone, he had trouble finding housing.
“After the prejudice was made clear to him, he was really taken aback, as the attitude of Americans was not in line with what he had imagined when coming here to pursue the American dream,” his son said, adding that his father found housing but also participated in sit-ins and rallies to support black Americans.
“He never forgot the experiences and was always a proponent of providing opportunity for others from different backgrounds and walks of life throughout his career,” said his son, a Baltimore resident who is a Federal Hill and Sharp-Leadenhall developer.
Mr. Mirmiran became a civil engineer in New York City and received a master’s degree at the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute.
He took a job with the old Matz Childs & Associates engineering firm in Towson. The firm became involved in scandals within the administrations of former Baltimore County executives Spiro Agnew and Dale Anderson, and was sold.
Mr. Mirmiran went on to work at its successor, KCI, and opened a Tehran office for it in the mid-1970s. After returning to Baltimore, Mr. Mirmiran joined Johnson, McCordic & Thompson, and bought into the company in 1979. The firm became Johnson, Mirmiran & Thompson, or JMT. Mr. Mirmiran built the company a headquarters in Sparks and expanded it to more than 1,000 employees with offices in 11 states.
“He told me that the single scariest and most tense moment in his career was after the buildings above the McPherson Square Metro station in Washington, D.C., were braced and the blasting began on the rock below,” his son said. “There was no problem. He breathed a sigh of relief.”
Mr. Mirmiran designed the Paper Mill Road Bridge in Baltimore County, and his firm designed the Woodrow Wilson Bridge interchanges. It did surveying work for Oriole Park at Camden Yards, what is now M&T Bank Stadium, the Baltimore Convention Center and what is now Xfinity Center at the University of Maryland, College Park.
His son said his father was not formally religious.
“He often recited the Zoroastrian tenets of ‘good thoughts, good words, good deeds,’ which basically boiled down the teachings of most major religions,” his son said.
In 2004, Mr. Mirmiran and his wife, Farideh, founded the Mirmiran Family Foundation, a charity.
“They gave an average of almost $500,000 per year away since they started it, mostly to nonprofits and institutions in Baltimore City,” their son said.
Recalling that Mr. Mirmiran gave $1 million to the Kennedy Krieger Institute, Dr. Goldstein, its former president, said: “Fred was at a meeting one day with Kennedy Krieger trustees and announced his gift spontaneously. He looked another donor straight in the eye. On the spot, that donor said, ‘I’ll match that.’ Fred achieved a very clever maneuver.”
The Mirmiran foundation also gave $1 million to University of Maryland Shock Trauma and the United Way of Central Maryland. It also assisted the American Red Cross, the Ronald McDonald House, Johns Hopkins Medicine, Bayview Medical Center, the Sheppard Pratt Hospital and the Maryland Highway Safety Foundation.
“He was an incredibly principled individual,” said Dr. Thomas M. Scalea , Maryland Shock Trauma physician in chief. “He always led from the front. Anytime he asked someone to do something, he had already done it himself. He was a man of immense vision.”
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Mr. Mirmiran’s son said his father was an advocate for highway safety and worked to fine drivers from making hand-held cellphone calls and later expanded the ban to texting while driving.
He also assisted the Maryland Food Bank, the American Heart Association, March of Dimes and The Journey Home, a group that seeks to end homelessness.
In 2011, Mr. Mirmiran and his wife were named the United Way of Central Maryland’s philanthropists of the year.
In his free time, Mr. Mirmiran played golf at Hillendale Country Club in Phoenix in Baltimore County. He was also an avid cyclist.
A memorial service will be held at 10 a.m. July 19 at the Towson Center at Towson University.
In addition to his wife of 33 years and his son, Mr. Mirmiran is survived by three daughters, Sholeh Mirmiran of Copenhagen, Sherine H. High of Pennsylvania and Sheilah F. Brous of Towson; six grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
This story was updated July 2 with plans for a memorial service.
An earlier version of this obituary included incorrect information on survivors. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.