December 17, 2014
Wesley W. Polk of Illinois was elected president of AASHO at the association’s annual meeting in Salt Lake City, Utah, in September 1948. His tenure in that role turned out to be among the shortest in the association’s history. By that January, he had to step down as president after leaving his position as chief highway engineer of the Illinois State Highway Department. Polk had served as chief highway engineer since 1942 and ended up retiring from that position under pressure from newly elected Governor (and future U.S. presidential candidate) Adlai E. Stevenson, who was seeking to hire somebody else for the role.
There was now a vacancy in AASHO’s top job and, in mid-January of 1949, it was filled by First Vice President Carl W. Brown. He was the longtime chief engineer of the Missouri State Highway Department and anything but a stranger to his colleagues.
“Mr. Brown is well known to all members of the American Association of State Highway Officials,” noted American Highways Magazine in reporting on his accession to the association’s presidency. “All those who have been associated with him appreciate and understand his loyal, active interest in the American Association of State Highway Officials, its progress and its welfare. Only a few men have succeeded to the presidency of the Association with the background of experience in its work possessed by Mr. Brown.”
Brown was born on January 7, 1887, in Vandalia, Missouri. He received his early education at the local public schools there in Rails County and graduated from Vandalia High School. In 1904, Brown enrolled in the college of engineering at the University of Missouri. He put those studies on hold in 1907 to work on a construction project for the Electric Railroad in the Missouri counties of Monroe and Audrain. The following year, Brown took a surveying job for an early toll road in Lincoln County, Missouri. Brown ultimately earned his civil engineering degree from the University of Missouri in 1910.
After his graduation from the University of Missouri, Brown worked as a transit-man and assistant resident engineer for the Burlington Railroad. Until 1915, he also did private engineering and contracting work – as well as some farming -- in the Show Me State. Brown was subsequently elected county engineer and surveyor for Rails County, Missouri, and served from 1915 to 1918. (In an unusual development but also an indication of the widespread respect for his abilities, he was nominated by both the Democrats and Republicans for that position.)
It was in 1918 that his career with the Missouri State Highway Department began when he accepted employment with that agency as office engineer and chief clerk. Brown quickly made a positive and strong impression in carrying out his responsibilities, and was elevated to first assistant state highway engineer in 1920. In reporting on this promotion at the time, the journal Engineering World asserted that Brown “is recognized as an excellent engineer with considerable general experience gained before his selection for a place in the department.”
Brown continued to steadily rise through the ranks of the Missouri State Highway Department and in 1936 was appointed its chief engineer. He ended up serving in that role under nine Missouri governors. As one of his obituaries would note, “During this period many of the state’s modern highways were built.” Missouri’s road-building efforts and innovations under Brown drew national attention. An article that he wrote for American Highways magazine on Missouri’s progress in equipment for centerline markings on highways reflected both his modesty and satisfaction in what the state accomplished.
“In the June, 1948, issue of Construction, the statement is made that the ‘World’s fastest striper works Missouri’s Roads,’” noted Brown in that article. “We in Missouri have been somewhat hesitant to make such lavish claims, knowing very well that they would place us on the end of the proverbial limb. Nevertheless, we are proud of our center-striping equipment, which we believe to be as economical of operation, and as efficient as any now operating in the United States.” Brown also took time in that article to readily acknowledge the “many errors” and “many failures” that his agency had to endure while working towards a high-speed, long-mileage record with respect to pavement striping machines.
Along with constructing and improving roads within Missouri, Brown also found the time and energy to be active in various engineering and professional circles. He served as president of several organizations, including the Missouri Highway Engineers Association, the Mississippi Valley Conference of State Highway Officials, and the American Road Builders Association. Brown was also a member of the Missouri Society of Professional Engineers and the American Society of Civil Engineers.
Brown also became very active in AASHO’s activities, serving on a number of association committees. He eventually became a member of the AASHO Executive Committee and was elected first vice president at the association’s annual meeting in September 1948 – a role that he had to vacate just a few months later when he took over the presidency.
As AASHO’s 36th president, Brown found himself leading an association still trying to address the post-World War II demands for adequate highways for an ever-growing and increasingly mobile U.S. population. In addition, Brown found time at least once during his tenure to meet in the nation’s capital with another Missouri native who shared the title of president. In early May, he visited the White House and met one-on-one with President Harry S Truman (likewise a staunch good-roads advocate).
Brown’s time as AASHO president involved a number of initiatives with varying degrees of success and long-term benefits for the association and its membership. That was the year, for example, in which AASHO first sponsored a national essay contest for engineering instructors and units. The level of interest and participation in that contest was high, but the program was discontinued after only two years because of the considerable amount of time required for reading and qualifying all of the papers submitted.
Brown’s tenure also saw a stronger interest within the association in increasing activity and cooperation between the state highway departments and industry. This newfound interest, in turn, led that year to a revived focus on AASHO’s respective joint committees with the Associated General Contractors of America and ARBA. In an effort to better synchronize its work with each of those organizations, AASHO initiated the policy of naming the same individuals to represent the association on both committees. This revitalized focus and the consequent change in policy proved to be an early and crucial step in what ultimately became the merger of all three organizations in 1972 as the current AASHTO-AGC-ARTBA Joint Committee.
Brown’s time as president also involved the continued push by AASHO for systematic efforts to gauge the service life of highway pavements and the impact of wheel loads in order to create better highways for increased and heavier traffic. These efforts culminated in the following decade with state-financed road tests in Maryland and Idaho, and then – in what turned out to be the largest and most significant pavement research performed in the 20th century – the AASHO Road Test in Illinois.
As he prepared to step down as AASHO president, Brown highlighted the importance of that issue while speaking at the association’s annual meeting in San Antonio, Texas, in October 1949. He also used that address to underscore another vital issue likewise impacting those traveling along the nation’s highways. “It is the duty of the highway official in so far as it is possible, to design, construct, and maintain our highways so that they will be safe,” he said. “It is the further duty of every State Highway Department to inform the public constantly of various safety measures, in other words ‘sell safety.’ With human lives at stake, the realization of our stupendous task is cause for daily sober reflection and action.”
Brown continued serving as Missouri’s chief engineer until his retirement in 1951. He spent his final years living at a farm near the town of New Bloomfield, Missouri. Brown died on September 13, 1955, in Fulton, Missouri, at the age of 68.