NZ Geomechanics News

Obituary – Professor Michael J Pender

19 June 1943 – 15 December 2021

Michael John Pender, or Mick to his friends, colleagues, and students, obtained his BE(Hons) and PhD in Civil Engineering from the University of Canterbury in 1966 and 1971, respectively. In 1972, he received a post-doctoral fellowship at the Engineering Department of the University of Cambridge. Upon his return to NZ in 1974, he worked at the Ministry of Works and Development Central laboratories in Lower Hutt where he was in charge of the Geotechnical Laboratory. In 1977, he joined the University of Auckland as a Senior Lecturer and was named Professor of Geotechnical Engineering in 1985 – a position he held until his retirement in March 2021.

At the University, he served as the Head of Department, and was on the University Research Committee, Scholarships Committee, Discipline Committee, Honours Committee, and various appointment committees. Moreover, he also served as expert consultant in many engineering projects through UniServices. He was a Visiting Professor to the European School for Advanced Studies in the Reduction of Seismic Risk (ROSE School), University of Pavia.

He was a passionate teacher and excellent mentor. He received the 2005 Faculty of Engineering Distinguished Teacher Award and the 2005 University of Auckland Sustained Excellence in Teaching Award. From 2002 – 2007, he was on the “Top Teachers List” in the School of Engineering. He had supervised numerous PhD, ME, and Part 4 Project students, many of whom are now leaders in the New Zealand’s geotechnical industry. 

He was an outstanding researcher and problem solver. For nearly a half-century, Mick dedicated his research to understanding the properties of NZ geomaterials, most of which are unique to NZ. Consequently, much of his effort was directed toward explaining to the local geotechnical profession how these properties were different and that they could not simply import understanding from overseas. Highlights include the soils in Wellington derived from the in-situ weathering of greywacke, the elucidation of the properties of residual soils in Auckland, the stability of slopes in closely jointed Wellington greywacke, the properties of coal and the measurement of in-situ stresses in the Huntly West mine, and measurement of the compressibility of the materials in the Wairakei-Tauhara geothermal field. Prior to his retirement, he also worked with colleagues on the properties of volcanic soils from the Central North Island. The NZ Geotechnical Society bestowed him the 1996 Geomechanics Lecture Award (NZGS’ premier award), and he delivered a lecture on the topic “Aspects of geotechnical behaviour of some New Zealand materials”.

A parallel workstream that occupied his time was the design of foundations for buildings, bridges, and other infrastructure. For many years, he promoted the integrated design of structure-foundation systems and recognised the need for better collaboration between the structural and geotechnical communities. He led the introduction of LRFD (Load and Resistance Factored Design) into geotechnical practice in NZ. Some of his recent work had involved field testing of shallow and deep foundations subject to cyclic loading to better understand the nonlinear stiffness and damping of these foundations under earthquake actions. Before his death, he was in the final stages of preparing a monograph on the Design of Earthquake-resistant Foundations (which we, his colleagues, hope to complete before the end of 2022).

His service to technical societies and the engineering profession was unparalleled. He was a Distinguished Fellow of Engineering NZ; a Life Member of the NZ Geotechnical Society; and a Fellow, Life Member, and former President of the NZ Society for Earthquake Engineering. From 1991 – 1995, he was the Australasian Vice-President of the International Society for Rock Mechanics. In 2012, he was elected as an International Honorary Member of the Japanese Geotechnical Society, a testament to his well-established international collaborations.

He was adept in both numerical and experimental aspects of geotechnical engineering. The constitutive model he proposed to explain the deformation mechanisms of overconsolidated clays appeared in Géotechnique in 1978; reputable researchers in the field are still citing the paper! He loved to tinker with various experimental equipment. For example, in early 2000s, he developed a free-standing and portable laboratory pressure system (pressure regulator) that is still being used in our Geomechanics Laboratory.

Colleagues and students benefited significantly from his wisdom and mentorship. He had an open-door policy, and everybody was welcome in his office (often with classical music playing in the background). Discussions with him were not only confined to geotechnical problems and concepts but also to arts, religion (he had a firm Catholic belief), and philosophical issues. He loved woodwork and furniture-making; he had an impressive set of tools for this purpose in his basement workshop. Following the Christchurch earthquake, he made his own “tiltmeter” to measure how much the downtown buildings had leaned as a result of the shaking. 

His office library had books that covered all these wide-ranging topics – even giving away some of his early-edition books when he found the office library of his younger colleagues a bit wanting. Even in the digital age, he was a frequent visitor to the university’s Central Library, always curious about newly-arrived books on topics of his interest.    

To honour his retirement, Mick presented an “Exaugural Lecture” at the University of Auckland in May 2021, wherein he presented his thoughts on research, teaching, and professional work. The lecture, held in front of an overflowing audience, was well-received and showed his endless enthusiasm for engineering, great intellect, and wonderful memories. His lecture is available on YouTube:

Following his death, the messages we received from many people (both from NZ and around the world) who had been influenced by Mick’s passion for teaching and research had a common theme – Mick was a great mentor, a true scholar and a gentleman, and a great role model and inspiration. He will be missed by all who knew him.

The Geomechanics Group, University of Auckland

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NZ Geomechanics News
NZ Geomechanics news>Issue 103 - June 2022
New Zealand

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