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02 February 2010

History Lesson

In February 2007, John C. Anderson, FCSI, Distinguished Member of the Institute, charter member and first president of the Minneapolis-St. Paul Chapter, and fourteenth president of the Institute, passed away. A visionary, John foresaw the value of computers for bringing automation and consistency to specifications, and was a founder of the Construction Sciences Research Foundation (CSRF). John continued to serve CSI and the construction industry in many ways long after his term as president; in addition to serving as a CSRF director, he also was active in AIA, a member of AIA's Professional Development and Intern Development Program Committees, and a member of the National Panel of the American Arbitration Association.

In 1986, the Minneapolis-St. Paul Chapter named its highest award in his honor - the John C. Anderson Award of Excellence. Because he was a member of the Minneapolis-St. Paul Chapter and an important influence in my life, I prepared a tribute to honor his memory at our chapter awards banquet. While working on that project, I confirmed something I had previously suspected - for an organization that is heavily involved in documentation, we have done a poor job of keeping our own records.

Beginning at what seemed a logical point, I asked what was available at Institute and in our chapter. In each case, all I received was a copy of John's Fellow's biography, which had little information. Going on to CSRF, I got even less. Fortunately, John's daughter was able to give me an outline of his work history, and I was able to contact some of the firms he worked for. Most of them no longer existed, and of the two most recent, one offered only the briefest comment.

Our organization is at least middle-aged. We haven't been here as long as AIA, which celebrated its 150th anniversary, but we have been here more than fifty years. About twenty of our chapters have reached that milestone, and we had our fiftieth annual convention a few years ago. As CSI grows older, we must face reality - our members will not be with us forever.

In the past few years we have lost other members known for their leadership - Gary Betts, Andrew Drozda, J. Stewart Stein, Hans Meier, Larry Dean, Walter Damuck, Philip Todisco - as well as many members who were prominent in their regions and chapters. As of this writing, twenty-four of our fifty-four Institute presidents are no longer with us, and about a third of our Fellows are gone. With each passing we lose a little more of what CSI is, and how we came to be where we now are. Because of our lack of records, much of CSI's early history is, or soon will be, lost forever.

Does knowing our history make any difference? In a sense, it does not; we will continue to have meetings, offer education and certification classes, develop and update standards, and so on, regardless. In another sense, it is very important, as knowing your history establishes a foundation for what you do. It also honors and preserves the memory of those who worked so hard to take CSI from a small group of specifiers to an organization recognized for its leadership in standardization of construction documents. From a strictly practical perspective, knowing what we have done in the past lets us see what has been tried before, what has succeeded, and why.

A few years ago I began work on a website for CSI Fellows, at This website is the online repository for Fellows' biographies and other information related to CSI Fellowship. When I began converting the biographies, I started with the more recent ones, as better information was available. Fortunately, Dick Eustis encouraged me to concentrate on the elder Fellows, and I have been spending more time on earlier classes of Fellows. Obviously, I am limited by the information I have; merely reformatting a brief existing biography does nothing to add to it.

I encourage each chapter and region to dig into its records and put in writing how it began, who the leaders were and what they did, and how they affected our industry. I have been told that some chapters do have good records, but even then, the information is often disorganized and inaccessible. If your chapter stores its records in cardboard boxes in the back of a garage, find someone to collect and organize them. Computers and related technology make this task much easier than it once was; the cardboard box of mildewed paper has been replaced by the files in online storage where they can be accessed by anyone - but someone still has to remember to save the information.

In case the message isn't clear - make this an agenda item for your next chapter or region meeting! As I have found through experience, the time to get this information is limited, and the longer you wait the more difficult it is. And at some point, it becomes impossible.

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