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Joseph “Bud” Ahearn: Living Life in Service of Others and the Making of a Distinguished Engineer

Written by: Marijke Wijnen

Saying Joseph “Bud” Ahearn is a people’s person is an understatement. He goes out of his way to engage every person in a room and make them feel good about themselves. Despite being a retired Air Force Major General and the retired Vice Chairman and Sr. Vice President of CH2M HILL, Bud is incredibly humble. His humbleness stems perhaps from his deep belief, learned from his family and his Jesuit education, in a life lived in service of others.

His engineering trajectory, in fact, can be traced back to a simple act of childhood kindness. As a child growing up in South St. Louis, Bud was the best baseball player on the street, so he got to pick first for his team. Much to the outrage of the other boys, Bud always picked an uncoordinated boy first, who desperately wanted to belong.

One day, this boy's father learned of Bud’s generosity towards his son. He came out to the street, grabbed Bud by the arm and took him for a walk. He asked, “Are you any good at science and math?”

Young Bud responded, “Yes, Sir.”

“Do you like bridges?”

“Yes, Sir.”

It turned out this gentlemen was the chief engineer for America’s best bridge designers. He invited Bud to come down to his office and see what he did. Bud was awed. Next thing he knew he was admitted to Notre Dame and he signed up for bridge building and thus started his 50 plus year career as a distinguished engineer.

He served in the Air Force for 34 years, which he loved for its sense of excitement and shared purpose. His first assignment was in California where he helped build the terrestrial infrastructure for a new spacebase. But his many years of service brought him around the world. When he retired he joined the private sector and had a 20 year career with CH2M HILL. There he was involved in building the third Panama Canal and building 22 venues for the London Olympics and many other domestic and international projects.

He retired from CH2M HILL and has shifted his full attention to transforming STEM education and cultivating the next generation of engineering leaders. He explained:

“I’ve been a long standing proponent of studying the art and science of leadership. That came from a value call that I made that the human art of engagement, art of influence, art of leadership, art of teamsmanship, art of followership, art of gentle personship is every bit as significant over the lifespan as any technical skill you might pick up along the way.”

His sense of the importance of building belonging, which he displayed on the streets of South St. Louis, has stayed with him throughout his lifetime and is central to his philosophy on leadership.

“Great leaders love to build and to belong to a potent human force so significant that they can make their purpose happen.”

And he seems to continually make his purpose happen. He was a founding member of the modern iteration of Engineers Without Borders, which matches engineers with high need communities, and of Bridges to Prosperity, which builds foot bridges in developing countries to combat poverty and rural isolation.

On his recent trip to Notre Dame, he met with student club leaders of Notre Dame’s Engineers Without Borders Chapter, who recently completed a well in Cameroon and strategized leadership techniques to make them the most efficient Engineers Without Borders Chapter in the country.

He emphasized that these organizations play a dual purpose of providing much needed infrastructure in the developing world, but also cultivating the type of engineering leaders that our world needs.

Bud explained, “[Students] found themselves interdependent. They saw teamwork at work. They saw followership. They saw authentic, inspirational leadership at work. So they came back and they said ‘whoa.’ Next thing you know we’re building the organization.”

Now there are 16,000 students doing 450 projects in 40 different nations of the world.

Bud is also concerned with ensuring that our primary and secondary schools prepare highly qualified students in the STEM disciplines. To that end he established a cutting-edge, STEM charter school in Douglas County, Colorado, where students engage in extensive experiential education, often bridging disciplines. For example, students in one classroom wrote their own music, which they played on instruments they had built themselves.

Bud’s advice, for students and young people looking forward to their careers and life, is to try to align their interests, talents, and skills. They should ask themselves, “What are you really good at? And where do you want to focus that positive force for good?”

According to Bud, there are four components to remarkable people:
“Living life with purpose, building and belonging, serving, and heroic aspiration.”

And Joseph “Bud” Ahearn embodies every single one.