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September 24, 2008

John Fondahl, developer of planning methods used to keep large construction projects on schedule, dead at 83

Civil engineering Professor Emeritus John Fondahl, whose research helped construction companies efficiently schedule the complex activities of large projects, died Sept. 13. He was 83.

A half-century ago, Fondahl laid the theoretical foundation for the sophisticated software now used to manage projects, said Bob Tatum, professor emeritus of civil engineering.

Fondahl's affiliation with the university began in 1955. Fondahl, then working for a private construction company, was the project engineer on the construction of the Nimbus Dam and Powerhouse near Sacramento when Clark Oglesby, a professor of civil engineering at Stanford, brought his class to the work site for a field trip.

Oglesby needed help with a new construction program he was planning for civil engineering students at Stanford; Fondahl had hands-on expertise as well as academic experience, having taught at the University of Hawaii. He joined Oglesby, and they launched the first graduate program in Construction Engineering and Management. Until then, construction site management had been viewed by civil engineers as a vocational rather than an academic pursuit.

Fondahl taught at Stanford for 35 years, until his retirement in 1990.

He was born in Washington, D.C., in 1924. At McKinley Tech High School, he was the valedictorian and captain of the championship rifle team. Five years after graduation he married his high school sweetheart, Doris-Jane Plishker. They were husband and wife for 62 years, until his death from melanoma.

Fondahl had been in college for a year when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941. He joined the Marines and shipped out to the Pacific Theater, where as a sergeant he participated in the hellish fight for the island of Iwo Jima. His father, a Marine lieutenant colonel, was also on Iwo Jima. When the two met there, the younger soldier was so battle worn and dusty that his own father did not recognize him.

At Stanford, Fondahl became an influential expert on the use of mathematic techniques to graphically schedule the interwoven, overlapping activities of major construction sites, revealing the bottlenecks—materials, equipment, blueprints, number of workers, improper sequencing of events—that could slow down a project.

He made important contributions to the Critical Path Method of planning and scheduling, especially a technique known as precedence diagramming. A paper he published in 1961 was particularly influential, though not entirely in the way he had expected.

Large construction companies were then just beginning to use computers to help plan and manage projects. Fondahl wanted to show that the work could still be done without the aid of computers, which were large, cumbersome and very expensive. His publication, "Non-Computer Approach to the Critical Path Method for the Construction Industry," sold more than 20,000 copies and was translated into more than 20 languages.

Ironically, the techniques he proposed were readily adaptable to computers, hastening the switch from hand calculations to electronic number-crunching.

Fondahl also pioneered the use of time-lapse photography as a management tool for construction projects. In another effort, in 1960 he founded the Construction Institute at Stanford, one of the university's first industry affiliate programs. In an early example of startup companies that grew out of research at Stanford, Fondahl and two former students founded the Construction Data Systems Corp. The firm assisted contractors in applying the new scheduling techniques to complex infrastructure projects. He also helped found the Project Management Institute.

"My dad was known for being reserved and quiet," said Meredith Fondahl, one of his four daughters. "But he was highly regarded for sitting in the back of the room and looking like he was not paying attention and then asking a very precise question about what was being discussed."

As a father, he taught his daughters how to pour concrete. As a professional, he enjoyed his role as a member of the board of directors of Caterpillar, the construction equipment giant. Likewise, he cherished the Golden Beaver Award he received from the Beavers, a heavy engineering construction association.

Fondahl traveled around the world to teach, from Chile to Japan, sometimes taking his family with him. Home was a house on a hill in Los Altos that offered a grand view of San Francisco Bay. He took pleasure from gardening there in his retirement.

A memorial service is being planned for late October in Memorial Church.

Fondahl is survived by his wife, Doris; daughters Lauren Fondahl of San Francisco, Gail Fondahl of Prince George, B.C., Canada, Meredith Fondahl of Occidental, and Dorian Martinka of Sunnyvale; sons-in-law Ken Bilski and Joe Martinka; Meredith's significant other, David Wickline; and grandchildren Gwynne Bilski, and Arielle and Peter Martinka.



Dan Stober, Stanford News Service: (650) 721-6965,


Bob Tatum, professor emeritus of civil and environmental engineering: (650) 723-2918,

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