Maryland bridge chief's career spans 60 years

State's longest-serving employee has no plans to retire

October 31, 2010|By Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun

In Earle Freedman's modest office at the State Highway Administration headquarters in Baltimore, there hangs a simple paper sign with a quotation from a legendary engineer that reads in part: "It is a crime to build an ugly bridge."

By that standard, the man known by colleagues as "Jock" is about to embark on his seventh decade of fighting crime. Monday, the 80-year-old Freedman will mark the 60th anniversary of his hiring by the State Roads Commission, the predecessor of today's SHA.

For all that time Freedman has worked on planning, building and repairing the more than 2,500 bridges owned by the state. Since 1974, he has headed the state's Office of Bridge Development — overseeing the design, inspection and maintenance of some of Maryland's most noteworthy spans in addition to all the modest, two-lane bridges from the Eastern Shore to Western Maryland.

It's been a long time since Freedman designed bridges, but his influence has been felt on every new construction or rehabilitation project in the SHA system in the past 35 years.

"I review every one of them," he said. "If something looks a little different from what you've seen before, you raise questions."

Maryland's bridges are inspected at least every other year, Freedman said. With bridges, he added, you can't tell their condition just by knowing their age.

He might as well be talking about himself.

Maryland's longest-tenured employee, who first reported for work before either of today's leading gubernatorial candidates was born, shows no signs of slowing down or edging toward retirement.

"If you retire, what would you retire to?" said Freedman, who lives in Pikesville with his wife, Trudy. "Thank God I've got a wife who says 'you do what you want.'"

But the bridge chief is finding himself at the point that what went around is coming around again. He's overseeing the replacement of Beltway bridges for which he developed cost estimates in the 1950s. He would move on to doing the designs himself.

"Some of mine are history. Others are still there," he said.

Freedman began his career at age 20 in 1950, fresh out of a program at the Johns Hopkins University that turned out some of the best civil engineers of that era. He might have spent his career with the city, but he recalled that Baltimore then had a rule saying it couldn't hire anyone who had not reached 21. So when he saw a listing for a state job, he applied and got it.

State Highway Administrator Neil J. Pedersen, among others, is happy he did.

"Jock is generally recognized nationally as one of the foremost bridge engineers in the country," Pedersen said. "He has an ability to identify cost-effective solutions — often in very challenging circumstances."

The highway chief, himself a 28-year SHA veteran, said Freedman is also "a national leader" of a movement to design more aesthetically pleasing bridges.

Freedman said that as he looks back on his life's work, he sees bridges that give him a sense of pride — and others he cringes to think about. He didn't want to discuss it in detail, but there's a particular pedestrian bridge over the Amtrak tracks in Aberdeen that makes him wonder what he was thinking.

In 2004, the state honored Freedman's first 50-plus years of service by putting his name on a new bridge carrying Reisterstown Road over the Beltway — one notable for its brickwork and antique-style lighting fixtures. But that is not his favorite among the many he worked on.

Freedman said the bridge in which he takes the most pride is the Naval Academy Bridge that replaced the old Maryland Route 450 bridge over the Severn River on the way into Annapolis. The graceful, curving span — built especially high to let Naval Academy sailing ships pass underneath, opened in 1994.

The bridge is not Freedman's design, but as chief of the bridge office he supervised an innovative selection process that produced the national award-winner.

David P. Belington, Gordon Y.S. Wu professor of engineering emeritus at Princeton University, said Freedman put together a design competition in which a jury of engineers and lay people evaluated five competing designs without knowing who submitted the plans.

"There wasn't really anything like that in this country in the 20th century," recalled Belington, who served on that jury. The result, he said, was "a very fine bridge, both technically and visually."

Freedman said Maryland's governors have not often intervened in matters of bridge design, but the Severn River bridge was a positive exception. He said that he and Gov. William Donald Schaefer toured the site and that the governor had one request: an overlook where women from the nearby neighborhoods could bring their strollers and enjoy the magnificent view.

"And that's how that overlook got onto the bridge," Freedman said.

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