Forget Superman, Stan Rolfe is the real Man of Steel. During his 45-year career at the University of Kansas School of Engineering, Rolfe has been conducting research on the prevention of fracture and fatigue failures in steel structures that led to worldwide recognition, while championing fundraising efforts and repeatedly answering the call to serve.
Rolfe earned his bachelor’s degree, master’s degree and doctorate, in civil engineering from the University of Illinois in 1956, 1958 and 1962, respectively. He spent seven years at U.S. Steel’s research laboratory before bringing his expertise to the civil engineering program at KU.
As the Alfred P. Learned Distinguished Professor of Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering at KU, his leadership in fracture mechanics and fatigue helped build the university into a global leader in steel and concrete research. His research has led directly to longer lifespans, improved safety and decreased costs for structures such as bridges, buildings, ships and pipelines.
With a long-time colleague from U.S. Steel, Rolfe co-authored the textbook, “Fracture and Fatigue Control in Structures,” which is credited for laying the groundwork and creating the framework for fracture mechanics as a field of study. It has been the definitive graduate text and reference book on the subject for more than 35 years, and remains a key source of critical material.
Rolfe’s deep knowledge and strong guidance extend well beyond the classroom walls. Throughout his career at KU, which he joined in 1969, he has served the entire campus in many capacities with great distinction, character and unquestioned integrity.
From 1975 to 1998, he chaired the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. He also served a year as interim department chair in 2002. He assembled a closely-knit group of top-notch faculty members whose students have made a significant impact on the engineering profession. He also shifted the department’s focus, leading a vast majority of faculty to create active research programs.
He worked to strengthen the department’s ties to alumni and industry. In the mid 1970s, Rolfe reached out to civil engineering alumni in the Kansas City area to form an advisory board for the department. The resulting connection enhanced the bond between the School and those working in industry.
Rolfe has been tireless in his effort to involve graduates in giving their talent and financial support to KU. Even after his first stretch as chair, he continued to serve as a faculty leader and the chief fundraiser for the department, and helped secure funds for the Veatch-Robinson Office Complex that houses the administration for the civil, environmental and architectural engineering department, and a new concrete lab.
In 2012, Rolfe provided strong, active leadership to the School of Engineering during a one-year term as Interim Dean of Engineering. Under his guidance, the School of Engineering maintained the momentum of facilities expansion, faculty enhancement and student enrollment growth initiatives established by former Dean Stuart Bell, helping ensure a smooth transition for Dean Michael Branicky.
Rolfe has consulted extensively on structural failures in the field of fatigue and fracture control in structures, including work in naval, nuclear and bridge arenas. He’s also made significant contributions to the field through his service on numerous technical committees charged with developing standards to protect the public by ensuring the strength and serviceability of steel structures.
He’s earned a number of highly prestigious national awards during his long and distinguished career. He’s a member of the National Academy of Engineering, which honors those who have made outstanding contributions to engineering research, practice or education. This is the highest professional distinction accorded to an engineer.
He also is a recipient of the American Society for Testing of Materials Fracture Mechanics Medal. The American Institute of Steel Construction named him one of seven “top profs” and honored him with a lifetime achievement award. In 1987, the University of Illinois selected Rolfe to receive its Alumni Honor Award for Distinguished Service in Engineering.
Rolfe and his wife, Phyllis, live in Lawrence and have three children, David, Pam and Kathy, all of whom are KU graduates, and 12 grandchildren.