Book Review by Andrzej F. Szczepanski, Ph.D.

A Man Who Spanned Two Eras:
The Story of Bridge Engineer Ralph Modjeski

author: Jozef Glomb, translation: Peter J. Obst, edited by: Halka Chronic

In early October 2002 a translation of Prof. Jozef Glomb's biography of Ralph Modjeski was published in Philadelphia. This story was long overdue in being included among the biographies of Polish contributors to American culture available to readers in the United States. Ralph Modjeski (Rudolf Modrzejewski) had been active in bridge building during a crucial period just before the start of the twentieth century when the transportation infrastructure of America was being built up. The situation required sturdy and economical construction. Modjeski was able to meet these requirements by applying innovative, structurally sound solutions to the tasks before him, rising to the top level of his profession. As time went on his esthetic sensibilities came to the fore and he designed structures that, along with being fully functional and of record size, were esthetically pleasing as well. Unfortunately, his contribution to bridge building in America, where he established a legacy in suspension bridge design for years to come, was not always fully appreciated.

Prof. Glomb picked a challenging project -- to tell the story of a multifaceted man, not merely an engineer or businessman, but an extraordinarily able and artistic individual in the full meaning of those words. As the story unfolds we see Modjeski, a man of above average talent, also subject to human failings and weaknesses presented by the possibilities of his success during a vital era in technological development. The author met the story-telling challenge quite well, and even though sometimes the details become a bit technical at times, he never looses the reader's attention.

Ralph Modjeski's life is a fascinating story that includes the "immigrant makes good" motif, but there were many of those as the nineteenth century gave way to the to the twentieth. Modjeski is unique in that he refused to become a single dimensional person totally submerged in his profession. He found time for music, the piano being his chosen instrument, and a wide variety of social contacts and involvements that included Polish and American luminaries of his time. Most importantly, he never gave up on his Polish heritage, remaining fluent in the Polish language and maintaining contact with his roots in Poland.

In reviewing this book I have had an advantage over most readers because I had a chance to peruse the original 1988 Polish language book on which this version is based. In many instances the American edition benefited from a careful editing by Halka Chronic, Ralph Modjeski's granddaughter. She reorganized Prof. Glomb's somewhat haphazard telling of Ralph Modjeski's early history and trimmed some of his speculations about personal relationships within the Modjeski family. This created an altogether more readable story leaving the readers to draw their own conclusions from the essential facts. She was also able to include family information that was unavailable to the author in 1988. Footnotes added to this English language edition serve to clarify the relevant references to Polish history which are often unfamiliar to Americans. American readers are also the beneficiaries of a short foreword written by Ambassador Przemyslaw Grudzinski, Poland's official representative in Washington, DC. In a few paragraphs he manages to seize the essence of the meaning contained in the somewhat enigmatic title "A Man Who Spanned Two Eras." This clear bit of prose encourages the readers to go on and read the details of a fascinating life. His foreword is followed by a preface written by Prof. Zbignew Bzymek of the University of Connecticut, one of Prof. Glomb's friends, who manages to give us some background on the author while recounting the development of modern technology as it related to bridge building.

In any case, we are fortunate to have this nicely produced book, filled with many fascinating photographs, that enables us to share the story of a prominent Polish-American with our English-speaking friends. It is a book that nicely balances the professional and personal parts of Modjeski's life, presenting both in a way that only someone from the engineering and teaching professions, someone like the author Jozef Glomb, an engineer and professor at the Silesian Technical University, would be able to do. It is also fortunate that the author entered into cooperation with Peter Obst, an experienced translator, and Halka Chronic, Ralph Modjeski's granddaughter and retired editor, to bring his book into the English language for the first time. The result is an absorbing account of a most unconventional life and career that belonged to Ralph Modjeski, one of the great American engineers who laid the foundations for engineering large bridge structures and who also shared our common roots and immigrant experience.