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A lasting legacy: Dr. Jim Nau retires after 40 years at CCEE

Dr. Jim Nau

“An incredible teacher.”

“The kind of professor and person that you never forget.”

“A trusted resource who provided advice and guidance.”

“A great teacher and friend.”

“A terrific mentor who was incredibly humble and always put students first.”

“One of the best professors and humans I’ve known.”

What do all these accolades have in common? They are praises from former students of Dr. Jim Nau, a CCEE professor, who retired this summer after 40 years with the department.

Although his former students speak effusively about Nau, he shies away from the spotlight. When asked about his four-decades-long career, he assured me there are a myriad of other professors and mentors who deserve higher praises.

“I don’t do anything special,” he shrugged. “I just teach the way I want to be taught.”

Nau always knew he wanted to be a teacher. Growing up in Hickory, North Carolina, his father doubled as an ordained minister and a professor at the local college, Lenoir-Rhyne University, home of the “Bears.”

“He made me a Lenoir-Rhyne Bear,” Nau said. “I have the fondest memories of going to those athletic events.”

Nau always had an innate interest in building and figuring out how things worked, mechanically speaking. Nau grew up building model airplanes and still enjoys working on old cars. So engineering was a good fit.

“I’ve always been pretty good with following directions,” he said, laughing.

Nau headed to Raleigh in the 1970s to earn a B.S. and M.S. in mechanical engineering at NC State before earning his Ph.D. in civil engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Nau’s fond memories of North Carolina and academia brought him back to CCEE in 1982, when he began as an assistant professor. He was promoted to professor in 2000 and has now earned professor emeritus status. He taught numerous courses at the undergraduate and graduate level including statics, solid mechanics, reinforced concrete design, structural steel design and the senior design project course.

During his four decades as a professor, Nau won countless awards and accolades for his teaching, including the AT&T Foundation Award for Excellence in Instruction of Engineering Students; the NC State Outstanding Teacher Award; George K. Wadlin Distinguished Service Award, Civil Engineering Division, from the American Society for Engineering Education; the Chi Epsilon Excellence in Teaching Award for the Cumberland District; and NC State’s Alumni Association’s Alumni Distinguished Professor award.

Working with Dr. Mervyn Kowalsky and other CCEE faculty members, Nau’s research is mainly in the area of earthquake engineering. Over the years, he has been engaged in research projects on the seismic response, repair and durability of steel and concrete bridge components. This research, supported by the Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities, involves material and large-scale experimentation at the Constructed Facilities Lab. Nau’s research interests include various means of structural repair of earthquake damaged components and systems.

But to Nau, the most rewarding part about his job was the effect he had on his hundreds of students over the years.

“It didn’t happen every semester or every course, but an overwhelming majority of the comments I got from students were positive,” he said. “I always looked at those. I always tried to take any constructive criticism the best I could to make a change if I thought I needed to. I still write on the blackboard. I don’t use PowerPoint. I don’t want students sitting there with their arms folded. I want them engaged. And I try to respond to them in a timely fashion.”

Bill Martin (BSCE 2007, MSCE 2010), president of Tower Engineering Professionals, TEP Design Build, Tower Engineering Canada, remembered having Nau for a wood design course and senior design class. He noted that, although Nau continued to make a considerable impact through research on civil and structural modeling and materials, he still emphasized teaching.

“The best teachers have a way of explaining complex topics in simple terms, resulting in a broad understanding of the material,” Martin said. “Dr. Nau embodied this ideal and explored topics until they were ‘crystal’ clear to his students. His approach to teaching went beyond just reviewing content, he demonstrated its use, leading to a full understanding and bridging the gap between theory and design. I routinely referenced his course notes early in my career.”

Martin credited Nau with his decision to pursue a career in the field of civil and structural engineering, helping build Tower Engineering from a 15-person regional engineering firm to a more than 1,000-person engineering and construction firm serving the U.S. and Canada.

“Dr. Nau’s influence has a cascading effect and his retirement, although well deserved, will create a large void in the civil engineering program,” he said. “Those are going to be some big shoes to fill. He is an incredible teacher.”

Similarly, Nau had a big influence on Sarah Mann (MSCE 2020), whose first class with Nau was Reinforced Concrete Design.

“I always looked forward to going to his class because you could tell he enjoyed teaching,” she said. “He was always willing to talk and answer questions about anything. He definitely helped motivate my interest in wanting to become a professor because I want to exemplify his teaching style and philosophies.”

Hannah Ford (BSCE 2018), a staff engineer II at Atlas Engineering, said Nau was a very gifted professor who always took the time to explain complex mathematics and engineering problems to his students in a way that promoted true understanding and knowledge.

“I can truly say that I had so much fun in his courses, but also during office hours,” she said. “Dr. Nau was open to questions throughout the day. Later in my college career, when I was applying for jobs, Dr. Nau was a trusted resource who provided advice and guidance on what to value in an engineering company. I attribute part of the reason I chose my firm, Atlas Engineering, to Dr. Nau’s advice and confidence in the engineers at this firm. It was due to Dr. Nau’s assurance that I made the decision I did, and just celebrated four years with my dream company.”

Craig Fisher (MCE 1995), principal of E+M Structural, remembered that, although he worked hard during his time at NC State and was a good student, he struggled with an incredibly challenging class during his last semester.

“Dr. Nau knew this and he could see things that others could not see — a special gift,” Fisher said. “He knew the course was hard. It was my last final before I could earn my master’s. I went to him and told him about the final. I passed the exam. To this day, I still think that Dr. Nau had an influence on that class and that final exam. I am forever grateful for his dedication.”

CCEE teaching professor Steve Welton (BSCE 1988, MSCE 1992) said he was lucky enough to have Nau as both an instructor and, later, a colleague.

“I have been honored to have Dr. Nau’s mentoring on both ends of my career,” he said. “During the last nine years, I have enjoyed the pleasure of having Dr. Nau as a colleague and a dear friend. His assistance has enabled me to have a successful transition to academia, and now to be able to serve as a teaching professor. As a former student, I am indebted to Dr. Nau; and now, as my very dear friend, he is Jim.”

This story was originally published in the CCEE Fall 2022 Newsletter.