June 1, 1927 • March 25, 2018
PROFESSOR DAVID BILLINGTON ’50 received four honorary doctorates and won numerous awards from prestigious academies and engineering societies. But the best and most enduring tributes to his skill as a teacher may be the students he inspired to follow in his footsteps.
“You can use as a measure of a faculty member’s influence and support of their students what happens to those students [after graduation], and so many of David’s students have become professors of civil engineering — male and female,” says mechanical engineering professor Michael Littman. “I know of at least 10 of our former graduate students who have gone on to become faculty members and have done very well.”
Billington, who died March 25, 2018, at 90, taught two of Princeton’s most popular courses, “Engineering in the Modern World” and “Structures in the Urban Environment,” which drew students from all disciplines.
“What made David so good is that he was a storyteller. He made his courses about people. He would focus on the work of individuals who were inspiring, and he would tell stories about them to help you understand what motivated them, what their contributions were,” says Littman, who now teaches “Engineering in the Modern World.”
Syracuse University engineering professor Sinéad Mac Namara *07 recalls, “When Professor Billington lectured, he could hold a room like no one I have ever seen. He had an inclusive air that drew you in, whether you were a freshman majoring in classics, a senior civil engineering student, or a passing visitor. He had a way of teaching about disparate areas of study that made you feel like you were learning about the whole of the human endeavor in one fell swoop, and that you were perfectly capable of understanding it all.”
After joining the civil engineering faculty in 1960, Billington — among a small number of Princeton professors who had no Ph.D. — worked with architecture students and discovered the aesthetic and functional bridges designed by Swiss engineer Robert Maillart. The result was Billington’s lifelong devotion to engineering as an artistic as well as a technical discipline. In defining what he termed “structural art,” Billington believed designers could create structures that were elegant within engineering’s constraints of efficiency and economy.
“You always left his lecture or his office with the feeling that there were problems out there that needed elegant solutions, and that you were just the person to figure it out,” recalls Annie Evans ’04, who took Billington’s courses 35 years after her father, Randy ’69, did.
Billington generously shared his teaching resources with professional engineers and faculty of other universities. “There is nothing like these two courses anywhere else, and if they do exist somewhere, they were borrowed from David Billington,” says Maria Garlock, who teaches “Structures in the Urban Environment.”
As a mentor, Billington was a fierce advocate for his students and a champion of women in engineering, according to Mac Namara. He was especially proud that, of his six children, it was daughter Sarah who became an engineer.
Garlock recalls how Billington supported her both as a working mother and a colleague. “He would lift me up through the challenges I met moving into academia. In the same way he believed in me, I would see him give that borrowed confidence to students who were struggling.”
Now his students who went into academia are trying to emulate what Billington was to them. “They’re paying it forward to their students,” says Garlock. “So his spirit still remains in many different ways.”
Fran Hulette is PAW’s former Class Notes and Memorials editor.