Tom (Thomas) R. Niedernhofer – 1980 BSE – Civil Engineering HR Urban Search & Rescue Program Manager – US Army Corp of Engineers
Shelley (Mary) Niedernhofer (Wells) – 1983 BSE – Civil Engineering Design & Construction Program Manager – National Park Service Currently living in Oakland, California
Q. Tell me about your experience at SIUE.
Tom: I started attending the fall of 1975. I lived in Alton so I commuted for three years, and I moved into the Esic apartments my last year. I was one of a group of four who commuted—my brother Paul Niedernhofer (’77 BSE Civil Engineering), Mark Wakeford (’81 BS Mass Comm) and Bill (William) Cassiday (’79 BS Business Admin/Accounting). I went to junior high and high school with Mark and Bill. Starting out, I knew that I wanted to major in engineering. I grew up from day one in an engineering family. My dad drew me to the field. He had a career in engineering, and it seemed like the right kind of organized life for me. I started in the electrical engineering field. After two quarters, I transferred over to civil engineering along with a friend of mine and I got into structural engineering. The transfer put me a couple of quarters off, so I graduated in March of 1980.
Shelley: I started in the fall of 1978. I graduated from high school at an early age, I was only 16. I started at Belleville Area College at the age of 17, and I was studying psychology. I only attended one year. I wasn’t emotionally ready at the time to be attending college or studying psychology, so I took a year off. I started in SIUE in 1978 and, after my experience at Belleville, I wasn’t interested in studying psychology again. I was always good at math and science, so I decided to give engineering a try. There aren’t any engineers in my family so it was completely new to me. Tom was a good influence because he was studying the field, too, and we had other similar interests. I had a good experience on campus overall. Compared to my first school experience, I thought the university setting was better. It was a lot more diverse and the curriculum was better suited for me. The level of instruction was very good, and a lot of the classes challenged me. After graduating in ’83, I felt like I had a pretty good start as an engineer. Compared to other engineers, I thought I had a better fundamental background, and I could pick up projects better.
Q. Why did you choose SIUE?
Tom: Proximity and cost. My dad was going to pay for tuition if I maintained a B or better which meant that I could never get a C in a class. I blew that in the first quarter. When I started at SIUE, tuition was $168.70 per quarter. I could rent my books, gas was cheap, and it was only a 35 minute drive from Alton. There was a lot going on in the Edwardsville area. It was a friendly campus, it was a small campus, it was a great school and it wasn’t easy. SIUE was a good school with a great reputation. The engineering professors were great. Those guys were really tough. I mostly remember Dr. Alfred Korn (retired) and Dr. Harry Duffey (retired). They were both tremendous individuals, they were hard and they would not cut you any slack. For those reasons, they made us turnout the way we did—they prepared us for the engineering field.
Shelley: I lived with my parents in Highland and commuted back and forth. I had to pay for college and worked full-time while I attended. Going to SIUE was the only way I could afford to go, and I’m glad I did it. I was one of the very few females in the engineering department at the time—there was maybe one to two percent at the time. Dr. Korn and Dr. Duffey would kind of ride my butt. I was a pretty strong B or C student. I could have been an A student if I didn’t have to work outside of school. But, I never felt like I got a break from these guys. At the end, Dr, Korn said, “You know we gave you a hard time, but you had a really good attitude so you’ll do great.” In hindsight, I’m really grateful for that because, in the engineering industry, women weren’t accepted as much back then like they are today. Those teachers were preparing me for that. Now that I’ve experienced it, I’m really grateful for that. Not only did they teach me the principles of engineering, but they were also teaching me very valuable lessons about my future career.
Q. How did you first meet?
Tom: I first met Shelley in 1978. I saw her one day walking through the rec center. Back in those days there was a national craze in foozeball. Some of the older students were really serious about it and the school used to host national tournaments. These guys were jaw dropping players. You could go over to the rec center during break and watch them play, and that’s where I saw Shelley for the first time. I went and got my guys and said, “Hey, you have to see this girl.”
Shelley: I grew up with foozeball after living in Germany, so I was just watching them play. After we met, we realized we had very similar interests. Tom is really into restoring old Porsche cars, and I used to live up the street from the Porsche factory in Germany. When we met, he was telling me about his cars, and I could respond quite a bit. So, we had common interests and become good friends.
Tom: While we were at SIUE, we hung out and did stuff together, but we mostly hung out as friends. We went on a few dates after I graduated, but then I moved out of the area in June of 1982. After graduation, I had gotten a job in Belleville at IDOT, but I wasn’t getting to do the kind of structural engineering that I wanted to do. So, I took a job down in Fort Meyers, Florida, at a structural design firm. We worked on buildings with one to 20 stories. There was no way that we were going to be able to date long distance, so that’s the circumstance that made us take different paths.
Shelley: We were good buddies for a long time. I didn’t hear from Tom after he moved away. We were so young back then. When I graduated, I got married and moved to England for a little while. Then, I came back to the States with my husband and lived in Denver. I worked at a large waste water treatment plant in Denver. I then switched jobs to the National Park Service. I got divorced in 1995 and met Tom again in 1996. I was visiting some old girlfriends.
Tom: It was in 1997. I had moved back to the area in 1986 because I got a job with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. They had a big office in St. Louis, and they were looking for structural engineers. A friend of mine contacted me and got me back to the area. Shelley came back for her twenty-year high school reunion. She tried to get some of her SIUE buddies together to play golf, so I met up with her during the Fireman’s Picnic on Main Street in Lebanon.
Shelley: We had these reasons to keep communicating, and our friendship just started to re-grow. We sort of stayed in touch through work stuff. It was weird how we kept crossing paths. We had a mutual friend, Holly Stone, who worked in the search and rescue area and worked with Tom. Through that, it seemed like we kept reconnecting a lot. We later found out that we had traveled to all of the same places for work—we even stayed in the hotel in San Francisco and didn’t know it. I later took a job with the Grand Canyon and managed their design program. I moved to Flagstaff in 2001. Tom ran into Holly Stone again around that time, and she encouraged him to visit me in Flagstaff.
Tom: That was around October of 2002. Shelley ran triathlons for fun, so I went to Flagstaff to watch her. Holly was still in contact with her at the time and told me to look her (Shelley) up, so I did.
Shelley: After that, we talked frequently through email and phone calls…just stayed in touch.
Q. Tell me about the proposal. – engaged in December 25, 2002
Shelley: When he came out in November, it was as if we were back in our college days. It didn’t seem like time had passed. Tom was on a temporary assignment in San Francisco and asked me if I would come out for Christmas. It was a beautiful day in San Francisco – sunny, no fog. The shuttle dropped me off in the square by the fountain (of Tom’s apartment building) and Tom came down to meet me. We went up to his apartment, and we were talking. When he proposed, it wasn’t as if he got down on one knee like a knight in shining armor. He did it the Tom way which was the perfect way. He looked at me and said, “What if we got married?” I said, “Are you asking me?” He said, “Not yet, we’re just talking.” It’s just like Tom to want to make sure things are in perfect order before you move forward. So, he waited a little later and asked, “Will you marry me?” And, I said “yes!” Later we went to dinner at the beautiful Italian restaurant and sat on the balcony. Then I had to figure out what to do about a job. I was blessed to transfer with the National Park Service. I called the people in the regional office and told them I was getting married and moving to the area. They created a position and hired me. It was sort of like it was meant to be.
Q. Tell me about the wedding.
Tom: We got married in March of 2003 in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California. It’s a quaint little town that has a European flair to it. It seemed like everything just lined up perfectly. I don’t know why life takes the path that it does. When we reconnected that Thanksgiving, I had never been married before. Not that I didn’t try, I just didn’t try hard enough. Things were never right. This seemed right. It seemed like we picked back up from SIUE. Of course, now, she gives me too much work to do around the house. She’s such a good person.
Shelley: I knew back in college days that we should have been married but we were way to young back then. You don’t always see stuff as clearly as when you’re older. We have so much in common. We couldn’t figure out where to get married. Tom was from St. Louis and I had lived in Denver. A lot of my friends and family lived there and more lived in Flagstaff. Neither of us wanted a big wedding. So, we decided to get married in a beautiful place. We invited our close friends and family. We were married in the gazebo in Carmel-by-the-Sea, and it was really beautiful. It was the first day of spring, so the flowers were beautiful…the calla lilies, the daisies…just beautiful. And, it’s been beautiful every since. We spent our honeymoon in Germany. Tom had a friend who lived in Denmark, and he let us borrow a 356 1959 silver Porsche coupe and drive it around. We put 2,000 miles on it!
Tom – Work History
When I graduated in 1980 and went to Florida in ’82, I was designing buildings one story up to twenty stories. It was great work, but we didn’t get a lot of time off. I also knew that I wouldn’t be able to buy into the company. So, I thought that I would try something else and ended up with the Corps of Engineers in St. Louis. They had a tremendous structural engineering branch in the St. Louis office. And, they do great work up there. I’ve also worked on a lot of other jobs that come on with emergencies around the country.
Do you remember the earthquake in ’89, in Loma Prieta, California, when part of the Bay Bridge fell down? The federal government asked the Corps to send engineers out to do post-damage structural assessment. That earthquake created the first need for urban search and rescue in that area. I was so intrigued by how much damage the earthquake had caused that I kept coming back to those types of disasters. When you would volunteer to do response work, your regular job stops. You might be out 14 days or 30 days and then eventually return to your other job. When these national disasters happen, government agencies are responsible for the repair work or damage assessment. In 2002, I was asked to come out and manage the urban search and rescue program for the Corps of Engineers. Prior to 2002, I worked as a volunteer with the program.
When I came out to help set up the position in San Francisco, they asked me to write a job description and position description at the end of my assignment. They then asked me if I was going to apply for the job. They convinced me to take a chance and try something different in life. So, that’s what got us to California. I moved to San Francisco, proposed to Shelley and she relocated with me.
Tom has also worked on rescue response for Hurricane Andrews, Northridge earthquake and other disasters. He was the leader engineer for the night shift at the Oklahoma City bombing. He also worked after the 9-11 World Trade Center disaster.
Q. What advice would you give to current engineering students or recent graduates?
Tom: Dr. Duffey was probably the one guy who gave me the best advice. At the end of my sophomore year, we had a heart-to-heart talk. I used to work to pay for school, and I also spent a lot of time working on my cars, so school was slipping away. Harry said, “You made it this far, you need to buckle down and finish this up, because you’ll never regret it.” I would say the same thing to current students: work hard. If you’re at SIUE, you’re already at a great school. Take it and run with it for all it’s worth. It’s just a tremendous school, and I’ve been so lucky in my career. I never thought that I would work for the Army Corps of Engineers, but I do. I’ve gotten to travel all over the world, and I’m not done. It’s amazing what you can do with an engineering degree. What you do at SIUE is the foundation for the rest of your life.
Shelley: I’d give the same advice as Tom. Just don’t quit when it seems really tough. Push through it, and finish your degree. Engineering curriculum is really rigorous. I can remember working and trying to finish my homework late at night, and it seemed really trying. But just push through it. Also, I find my work at the National Park Service to be really rewarding. My career has taken me on a path I could have never planned. So, I would tell students to not discount public service. Some of the facilities that I’ve worked on will be enjoyed by millions of people from all over the world. I’m not doing any of the things that I thought I would do. But, I guess that goes to show that life happens when you’re busy planning it. I try to put myself back to where students are now. It was all about survival back then, getting to the goal, making enough money so you can pay for college. After that, life is an empty palette. You can make it whatever you want it to be. At the time, I would have never expected life to turn out the way it did. A lot of it has to do with SIUE and the opportunities that it provided for me. I think that’s a big message to the students who are as we were, struggling to make it through the curriculum.
Tom: Shelley worked with Jimmy Carter—she helped build a facility in Plains, Georgia and got to meet Jimmy and Rosalynn. You never know where public service will put you. Where else would you get that experience?
Shelley: I’ve been in same room as George W. Bush, and I’ve met many of the Secretaries of the Interior several times. I’ve been places where people normally spent a lot of money to vacation there, and I’ve been there for work. I’ve hiked the Grand Canyon rim to rim several times. I’ve flown over Lake Meade. The list goes on. While doing all of that, I’ve been involved in an effort to build these facilities for the public to enjoy. I’ve help build places where people can find peace and refuge from their everyday lives. As soon as I started working for the National Park Service, I feel in love with the agency. Our uniforms are green and gray, so we like to joke that your blood starts to flow green. When you have a bad day at work, it’s never bad enough to make you want to leave the service. So, I would say, don’t discount public service because your work can be far more rewarding than the money you earn. It can be more important to have an impact on our nation than to have a really, really high salary.
Tom: A few months after I graduated, I was still working for this guy who had a tremendous restoration shop—he worked on antique Mercedes. Dr. Dan Coty (retired) stopped by and my brother was in the shop at the time. He said, “You guys are new graduates, and you want everything right now. You have to be patient because it will come.” He was right. We did expect everything right now. We wanted all of the money, the great jobs, everything, right away. We wanted everything that life would eventually bring us after time and hard work. The friends that we’ve made at SIUE are still our good friends. We all have the same memories, same common goals. The friends you make in college are your friends for life.
Tom and Shelley attended the SIUE Alumni Networking Reception in San Francisco in September of 2009.
Tom: We didn’t know any of the other attendees, but we realized that we had common friends and acquaintances. We all had the same foundation, because we all attended SIUE.