The collapse of the eight-lane Interstate 35W bridge near Minneapolis last August brought heightened awareness about the design and maintenance of bridges and roadways across the nation. When researchers in the UI department of civil and environmental engineering want to test new designs for bridges, buildings and piers, and how those structures will weather assaults such as earthquakes, they have the support of an enterprising team of craftsmen led by Tim Prunkard, technical service supervisor. Prunkard oversees a crew of seven full-time lab mechanics, one part-time employee and several graduate and undergraduate students who help researchers build and test models.
After graduating from Jamaica High School at the age of 17, Prunkard began an apprenticeship as a machinist, and did electrical work with his father and brother. Before joining the university’s staff in 1994 as a lab mechanic in the Materials Research Lab, Prunkard worked in an array of manufacturing industries – including heavy equipment, aerospace parts, casket products and nuclear power – in the Danville and Clinton areas and extended his apprenticeship to include tool and die making.
Tell me about the work your crew does.
We set up test equipment and destroy it, and some of it’s monstrous in size. We do a lot of life-size scale testing – earthquake testing and destruction testing. The National Science Foundation is involved with a grant here and we have testing equipment that allows us to do better full-scale models of bridges, piers and buildings. We move around these huge reaction boxes that are close to 40 tons each, hang them on the wall and bolt them up there. We have to have safety on our minds all the time.
With the aid of computers, five different universities, including the UI, can test structures simultaneously in real time and gather all that data. We’re on the cutting edge of making all this happen.
I’m now quoting jobs that are three years out. When I came to this job, it was unusual to have a 30-day backlog.
In addition to that, we handle most of the shipping and receiving for this building, and often will take care of any other little jobs, such as hanging a picture or cleaning up a mess, that people in the building need done.
What have you enjoyed about the trades you’ve mastered?
I really liked being an instrument maker. I liked working with my hands, creating things, taking ideas out of other people’s brains and making them a reality. I had a knack for building things. I enjoyed the satisfaction of knowing you’ve accomplished a task that is not only the best that you can do, it’s the best that anyone can do.
It’s a little trying sometimes as a supervisor because you hear more often about things that are wrong than things that are right. Because of that, I’m big about giving the people who work with me credit for what they do. When someone comes in and thanks me for a job, I’ll point him or her to the person who did the job, and say, ‘Thank them.’ This is the No. 1 civil engineering college in the world, and we have a group of people in this shop who are outstanding and make the department of civil engineering what it is.
I came to this shop as an instrument maker, and my goal when I took the supervisor job was that everyone who came into the shop would be comfortable working with the people here and with coming back. The employees here care about what they do, about each other and about me. That means that I’m willing to yell at someone, too, if they’ve put themselves in danger.
What do you like to do when you’re not working?
My wife, Jackie, and I are very involved in the Catlin Church of Christ.
I sometimes walk across campus and wonder why I am here. I hated school – that’s why I graduated early. But then I married a teacher; Jackie recently retired after teaching 33 years in the Jamaica school system. And my daughter, Lindsey, will graduate from Southern Illinois University this spring and is now student-teaching. My son, Luke, is a building service worker in Facilities and Services Division. I’m also serving my eighth year on our local school board.
I also like to hunt and fish when I can.