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School of Engineering's Founding Dean Leaves Behind a Legacy of Service

On January 17, 2019, the UAB School of Engineering lost a beloved and historic figure when Joseph Appleton, Ph.D., the school’s first dean, passed away at age 91.

""Joseph Appleton moved to Birmingham in 1963 to become director of a fledgling undergraduate engineering program within the University of Alabama. Photo courtesy of UAB Archives.

Appleton, born in 1927, grew up in Albertville, Alabama before attending Auburn University, where he received a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering in 1947. He went on to earn a master’s degree and a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois. He served on the faculty at Illinois and North Carolina State before moving to Birmingham in the early 1960s to become director of a fledgling engineering program within the University of Alabama.

Making History

UAB became an independent university in 1969, and two years later, the School of Engineering was officially created with Appleton as the school’s founding dean.

Speaking on the occasion of the School of Engineering’s 40th anniversary in 2011, Appleton was quick to point out that the momentum gained by the engineering program in the 60s was important to the early success of the school. “When you talk about the 40-year anniversary of the School of Engineering, you have to recognize that an engineering program was created many years before that,” he said. “The school would never have been established if not for the efforts of several individuals who raised the money and lobbied to provide engineering training in Birmingham.”

Appleton was a major part of those early efforts. When he was named director of the undergraduate program in 1963, he arranged for classes to be held in conference rooms and laboratories all over the city until an engineering building could be built on what is now University Boulevard.

He served as dean from 1971 until 1978, at which time he stepped down as dean but remained on the faculty. Over a 30-year career in Birmingham, Appleton was appointed to numerous committees within the university, and he helped establish the School of Engineering as an important contributor to the university’s success in a variety of disciplines.

“Joe was a very important part of early collaborations and a great person,” recalled longtime biomedical engineering professor Jack Lemons, Ph.D.

""Joseph Appleton and his wife Patricia are seen here at a School of Engineering reception where his portrait was unveiled. Today, the portrait hangs in the hallway leading to the Dean's Office Suite in the Hoehn Engineering Building.

Fouad Fouad, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Civil, Construction, and Environmental Engineering, recalls Appleton as a friend and a mentor. "Dr. Appleton hired me at UAB in 1981," Fouad said. "He was very generous with his time. When we traveled together to professional society meetings, he would introduce me to national leaders in different engineering fields, which had a tremendous impact on my career. For years after that, whenever I mentioned I was from UAB, people would respond 'Oh, Joe Appleton's school.' People around the country knew that he had started this program almost single-handedly, and those of us who came later were respected because we worked with Joe Appleton."

A Decorated Engineering Career

Appleton received many honors for both his professional and academic work. He was named Distinguished Service Professor of Civil Engineering during his time on the faculty, and upon his retirement, he was named Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus.

He was active in several professional organizations, inlcuding ASCE (Fellow and Life Member), ACI (Fellow and Life Member) and NSPE (Life Member). He was honored by membership in Tau Beta Pi, Sigma Xi, Chi Epsilon, Phi Kappa Phi, Omicron Delta Kappa; he received the Birmingham Engineer of the Year Award in 1977 and Distinguished Service Award in 2012 from the Engineering Council of Birmingham. He authored a number of technical articles in the area of structural engineering. He was a registered Professional Engineer and served as a consultant in the area of structural engineering.

Outside of engineering, Appleton was a member of the Exchange Club of Birmingham: President in 1981-82 and “Exchangite of the Year” in 1992. He was also a member of the Irondale United Methodist Church and at the time of his death was a member of the Lillian Grissom Sunday School Class. He was preceded in death by his wife, Patricia Ann Zimmerman. He is survived by six children and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Among his professional colleagues at the School of Engineering, Appleton is remembered as more than a coworker. "Whether we were teaching classes,  traveling to professional meetings, or at home, Joe was always very kind and generous with his time," Fouad said. "He and Pat were very kind to me and my wife, Mona. They encouraged us in every way. I felt like he was a parent who wanted to give me every opportunity to succeed. He was truly a gracious and honorable person."

Appleton's obituary picture. Shared Memories

When news of Appleton's death spread over the weekend, former students and colleagues shared their memories on social media.

  • Harry L. Parker: "Worked for Dean Dr. Appleton one summer while in the School of Engineering. Wonderful man and Boss. He inspired me through my years there in school."
  • Jane Herbst: "Dr. Appleton encouraged me to pursue a degree in Engineering even though I had a degree in another major and some serious math and physics classes to take. I always have appreciated the discussion we had. Sad to see that he is gone."
  • Bob Barnett: "I hate to hear that. He was a great guy and pushed UAB Engineering program from it infancy."