Inspiring the Future Generation

When it comes to building Chicago’s famed skyline, there are few people who are more knowledgeable than Bob Johnson.

After earning his bachelor of science degree in civil engineering from Illinois Institute of Technology in 1969—the same year that the building formerly known as John Hancock Center was completed—followed by his master’s degree in 1971, Johnson began his engineering career at a moment in time when the Chicago skyline was undergoing rapid change.

“I had a good 45 years,” Johnson says. “I happened to be in the right place at the right time when my employers had some really neat projects that I was the engineer on."

“The one I’m probably most proud of is 900 North Michigan….It’s a one-of-a-kind building. The first 30 floors are all structural steel; above the 30th floor, it changes over to all reinforced concrete [for] 36 floors. So you’ve got a 36-story concrete building stacked on top of a 30-story steel building. It’s a long story why we got to that point, but it’s a one-of-a-kind design.”

For nearly half a century, Johnson made his mark on the Windy City as a structural engineer specializing in high-rise buildings. Though his projects included the 871-foot-tall 900 North Michigan, Harbor Point Condominium, Michigan Plaza North and South, and Chicago Mercantile Exchange buildings, Johnson’s greatest impact on the city might just be inspiring the next generation to create the future.

“The history of the world is written on the science and engineering achievements,” Johnson says, looking back at technological breakthroughs from the aqueducts and sewers of ancient Rome to Illinois Tech’s Martin Cooper and the invention of the cell phone in 1973. “These kids are going to see someone go to Mars….In the classrooms, it’ll be one of those students who develops the hardware.”

Johnson’s STEM outreach began more than 30 years ago with a talk to his daughter’s first-grade class and continued on at events like the Chicago Regional Bridge Building Contest, Future City-Chicago, and the Illinois Tech STEM Expo. He has helped thousands of students experience what a career as an engineer entails through events like those mentioned above and, most recently, at Illinois Tech’s Office of Community Affairs’ Family Fun Day in October 2022.

“Their eyes open up when they can see how certain things work in the real world,” he says.

Numerous organizations have recognized Johnson for his outreach since the 1990s. He has received the First Herald Award from the American Engineering Association, the Robert Cornforth Award from the National Council of Structural Engineers Association, and the Citizen Engineer Award from the American Society of Civil Engineers-Illinois, among others. Most recently, Johnson was inducted into the hall of fame at his high school—William Howard Taft High School in Chicago—in October 2019.

Perhaps his greatest recognition, however, has come from the students themselves. Years later, Johnson recalls an experience at an engineering conference when he ran into one of those students from his daughter’s class.

“Do you remember when I talked to your class about engineering?” Johnson remembers asking the student. “‘Sure I remember your talk about engineering in the class. Why do you think I became an engineer?’ [The student] answered. That made my day….I wonder how many more are out there.”

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