Calling him a late bloomer would be as inaccurate as saying Alaska is not cold in winter‑‑conditions he is acquainted with when working at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – Alaska District’s Northern Area Office in Fairbanks.
Richard David, a civil engineer in the Construction Division, earned his civil engineering degree from the University of Alaska Fairbanks when he was 50 years old. He joined the district after a stint as a Department of the Army intern during 2008 and 2009.
“I have always been interested in science,” David said. “It’s an interest in the unknown that drives me.”
While never experiencing any career uncertainty, professional engineering was a new and intriguing endeavor he decided to pursue. As it turns out, David is a Renaissance man in fields requiring technical skill. He is a certified carpenter and welder. He also has a commercial driver’s license and 17 years of experience in the oil industry’s drilling fields.
"Richard earned his engineering degree relatively late in life. I see that as an advantage,” said Paul Schneider, assistant area engineer at the Northern Area Office. “I think engineering is less difficult to understand and apply when you start with a good foundation of practical experience."
David is originally from Allakaket, a small village in Interior Alaska of nearly 100 people. He brings a unique and intimate knowledge of tribal culture to the district team as a member of the Koyukon Athabascan people.
“Being Alaskan Native, I feel I can help my fellow Alaskans around the state with whatever dilemma that hits them,” he said.
With that enthusiasm to serve others, David volunteered with the district’s Emergency Management Office during the 2013 spring flood crisis at the village of Galena. Almost all of the residents lost their homes due to the flood that was caused by ice jamming on the Yukon River.
On June 25, the president declared the flood-affected areas a federal disaster and the Corps began aiding the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the recovery efforts.
For 45 days, he contributed expertise to plumbing and electrical projects for the volunteer agencies also assisting with the cleanup.
“Richard executed valuable oversight as the construction project coordinator during the event,” said David Spence, the Alaska District’s emergency manager. “His ability to provide support to the critical development and oversight of repair operations in Galena was instrumental.”
As project coordinator, David worked side by side with the residents of Galena. He ensured that appropriate permits were requested, appropriate materials delivered and the scope of the volunteer agencies work was validated, Spence said.
Located about 300 miles upriver on the Koyukuk River from Galena, Allakaket provided David with his first experience responding to natural emergencies. In 1994, he performed general foreman duties aiding recovery efforts for a flood that ravaged his hometown. He managed construction projects and directed manpower.
His involvement at Allakaket allowed him to effectively contribute to the most recent Corps and FEMA missions in Galena.
“It gave me a broader view of what to expect of certain aspects of the job and the recovery effort,” David explained.
His helping hands and familiar face were a welcome sight to community members in Galena as well. David’s wife, Lorraine, is related to a prominent local family that he had never met. Helping with the effort was nothing short of a reunion when her aunts and uncles introduced themselves to David. The cordial greetings were greatly appreciated.
“It was nice knowing that I have direct backup from the group in Galena,” he said.
While working in stressful situations like emergency response operations, David recognizes the challenge of communicating with the public. He has sage advice when working with people that reside in the heart of Alaska.
“First thing to do on a visit is to get to know the elders and other political figures,” he said. “It gives you more knowledge when you meet with different agencies dealing with the recovery efforts.”
David’s big heart motivates him to volunteer to help those in distress, but also leads him to inspire young minds to pursue their dreams. During his tour of duty in Galena, he spoke to his friend’s two high-school level and college-prep classes.
“There were approximately 20 to 30 students,” David said. “The subject was how I decided to become an engineer and what skills and knowledge I had to become an engineer.”
For David, the passion for tactile work courses through his veins and is an infectious quality for those listening to him describe his profession. It has led him to become an expert in arctic engineering.
Alaska’s climate presents a laundry list of challenges that require creative engineering solutions. The district faces tough elements such as extended times of darkness and light during the year; extreme temperature ranges; permafrost; fragile environments; a short construction season and remote work sites to name a few.
The stinging cold is eased by district teammates like David, however. While studying in the skin-cracking sub-zero temperatures of Fairbanks, he focused his education on permafrost engineering. The concentration helped him understand concrete and pavement designs which benefits building foundations currently under his review. He quickly learned the complexities due to Alaska’s northern climate.
When not engineering in the far north, he loves to snowmachine, coach youth basketball and build birch dogsleds, a tradition passed down through four generations in his family. David fancies himself an avid outdoorsman taking every opportunity to hunt and access Alaska’s expansive wilderness.
“I’d like to go out into the woods and stay out there,” David dreamed. “If I had the chance, I’d just be a hermit and live out in the woods.”
David’s Alaskan moxie is his life force while he continues a career with the district. He admits that the blood flowing in his veins needs some help in the winter, however.
“I just wish it would warm up a little bit,” he joked.
(This story was written by John Budnik.)