Remembering a pioneer
ASPE founder Donald Dickerson was a legend in the plumbing engineering community.
My mentor, colleague and friend Donald F. Dickerson passed away on March 24. This was a sad day for the plumbing engineering community.
Don started the American Society of Plumbing Engineers in 1964. He was a young engineer who saw the need for an association dedicated to the advancement of plumbing engineering. He was a visionary who saw the need for an organization that is flourishing today.
Don was the first president of ASPE. In many ways, he remained ASPE president emeritus. That is how involved Don stayed with the society. He was there to help every other ASPE president and board member who followed him. It was not uncommon to receive a phone call any time of the day with the first question being, “What are you doing with my society?” That was his way of asking for an update.
A man is often judged by his accomplishments. Don has many. His are just too long to list. Basically, Don was involved in every part of his profession. He was also involved in his community. He was a great patriot and veteran who loved his country.
Personal accomplishments are one thing. But I believe the true judge of a person is what they leave behind. Don leaves a huge number of individuals that he mentored, including his own children. Don’s daughter, April Trafton, is the president of Donald F. Dickerson and Associates, the firm Don started in 1961. His son, Richard, is the current president of the Los Angeles Chapter of ASPE. Other young plumbing engineers were also his children. I fall into that category.
Meeting an icon
I remember the first day I met Don in 1977. By the time I entered this profession, Don was already an icon. His reputation was well-known. Knowing that I would meet him, I had many people already describe him. Based on all the comments I received, I respected, despised, hated and loved Don before I ever met him. That is basically how my colleagues built the image of this man. But I put that all aside, wanting to form my own opinion after meeting Don.
It was a month after my wedding that I had to attend an ANSI A40 meeting in New Orleans. Don was the vice chairman of the committee representing ASPE. When I introduced myself, Don immediately took me under his wing. I loved the man from day one. Here was a giant in the profession and he took the time to help me with my career. It didn’t end at that meeting. Don was always on me, always checking in, always talking about plumbing engineering. We loved to banter about codes and how to straighten them out.
One of the lines that I will never forget was when he told me, “Don’t let what these bastards say ever bother you. You just do what is right.” The implication was very clear. You do what is right and you will always win, even if you lose an issue.
Had it not been for Don, I am not sure that I would have ever become president of ASPE. Don was the driving force behind many past presidents. I always felt a special bond with Don. Maybe that is how he just made you feel, but that is the way I always saw it.
You see, both Don and I installed plumbing systems before we designed them. We had the appreciation of a plumber in the field. We also knew what some contractors thought of plumbing engineers. That was an image we were both bound and determined to change. He was very successful at gaining respect for the plumbing engineering profession.
A true mentor
When I was elected president of ASPE, it was a very joyous day for me. One of the first to congratulate me was Don Dickerson. He added his usual gruff dig, “I’ll be watching you. Do a good job.”
For the next four years, I had the wonderful opportunity of running ASPE. For the entire tenure, Don would call me a couple times every month. Sometimes my wife would see from the caller ID that it was Don and she would ask, “Do you want to speak to him now?”
I always answered, “Yes!” The conversations were never short, but they were always enjoyable. Sometimes he would get mad at me, sometimes he would thank me. But every conversation included tips from him. Some good, some not so good.
That is what I loved about Don until his dying day - he spoke his piece. He was never afraid to voice an opinion. As opinionated and blustery as Don was, he always listened to your opinion. If you could justify a position, Don saw no problems with changing his opinion.
When I reached the end of my presidency with ASPE, I was really looking forward to seeing Don at the biennial convention. Unfortunately, Don ended up in the hospital. It was so rare to have him not in attendance at an ASPE convention.
When we spoke, Don paid me the highest compliment. He said, “You did good, kid.” Here I am in my late 50s, with hair as white as snow, and Don still called me kid. That was a true honor.
The ASPE board nicknamed Don “The Grand Poobah.” It was meant as a term of endearment. Don started calling himself The Grand Poobah.
We will all miss Don. The young engineers will miss Don the most. He emphasized education, technology and research. He was a guiding light, someone who took an interest in all the young engineers. Our profession is much richer thanks to Don.
Don, I guess it is time for you to straighten out the plumbing engineering in heaven. God must be getting an earful about now. Thanks for all you did. Grand Poobah, you were a great leader.
And thanks for being a great friend.