In my journalism career I’ve interviewed people from all walks of life. One should never dabble in complacent stereotyping, but if there was one stereotype that definitely has a basis in truth, it’s of the self-effacing, spotlight-avoiding civil engineer.

“It’s really about the team.”
“I was just one of many players on this project.”
“I couldn’t have done it without having great people around me.”

And so forth.
Of course, they’re right. And the general lack of ego is what makes me enjoy covering this industry as a journalist. On the other hand, sometimes I just want to wag my finger in an award-winning engineer’s face and say, “ You deserve it, stop denying it!”

Ted Zoli, HNTB Corp.'s technical director for bridges, is one of the more recent examples. He just won a MacArthur “genius” grant. His first emotion? “Sheepish.”

The humility is for real. His colleagues mention it in their effusive praise. Says Steven L. Ernst, Senior Engineer for  Safety and Security at the Federal Highway Administration: “I am impressed with his modesty.” He’s even more impressed with Zoli’s work with the US Army Corps of Engineers Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC), as bridge engineers began the painful task of figuring out  how best to protect the nation’s structures from terrorist attacks.

“Ted’s inventiveness has always impressed me,” he says. “He continues to be consulted by both the highway community and the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Protectorate.  I am certain that his intervention in these sensitive research activities and his early investigative work has done more to advance the science of bridge protection than any other individual.  We are in his debt.”

James C. Ray, Research Structural Engineer for the ERDC, says much the same thing. “A very notable characteristic of Ted is his selfless dedication to the job at hand,” he says. “I am continually impressed and inspired by his unchanging concern for what is right.  Even though he is a private consultant where profit is of key importance, I have witnessed Ted on numerous occasions put what is right as the priority over every other consideration, including money.  His concern for his fellow man and our country are utmost priorities, and these days that is a rare and admirable quality.”

Zoli will probably want to strangle me like Homer Simpson does Bart for perpetuating this laudatory lovefest for this occasion. After this  I'll go back to trying to be objective. No get-out-of-jail-free passes in future coverage—just acknowledgement of accomplishments now. In a culture where we fawn over celebrities, reality shows and shock jocks, he seems to serve as an example of the types of people we ought to be lauding and supporting– engineers, builders, teachers, geniuses who want to do the right thing. We’re becoming better at appreciating our military heroes. Let’s get better at appreciating the right people on the civilian side, too.