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Building Futures

An engineer uses his passion for architecture to mentor high school students

Update: The White House recognized the ACE Mentor Program of America on December 12, 2011. They received, along with eight other recipients, the prestigious Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring (PAESMEM). -- December 16, 2011

Charles Thornton is renowned for his engineering achievements around the globe: The Petronas Twin Towers in Malaysia, Taipei 101 in Taiwan and Comiskey Park in Chicago are just some of the masterpieces created by Thornton Tomasetti, the company he and a college classmate founded in 1977.

But Thornton, 71, is less well known for another one of his pursuits: Mentoring young people through a program called ACE (Architects, Contractors and Engineers.) Here, Thornton talks about his life calling as a mentor.

See also: AARP's Create the Good volunteer opportunities

What exactly does the ACE program do?

The program connects professional architects, engineers and construction managers with high school students in 400 communities around the country. We mentor about 25 students in the local high schools; our goal is to get young people, particularly women and minorities, interested in the architecture, engineering and construction trades. Students who have successfully completed our program are eligible for college scholarships.

How did this all get started?

Back in 1994, engineering schools in the United States were hurting big time because the defense industry was hiring fewer engineers. The dean of engineering at my alma mater — Manhattan College, in New York — called me and some of other alumni and said he wanted to do something about declining enrollment in the engineering program. He felt confident the demand for engineers would return, so he asked us if we'd be willing to mentor students.

Can you share some the success stories of your ACE students?

One of my favorites is Winston Peters. I met him through the Society of American Military Engineers scholarship that we'd gotten him and introduced him into ACE. He received a scholarship at Manhattan College, graduated and has been working as an engineer at major firms.

A woman I'm especially proud of is Sefonia Welch; an African American woman who went to Cornell University, studied five years of architecture. She called me three years ago and said, "Charlie, I hope you're not mad at me, but I want to get an MBA." I said, "No, I'll write a letter for you." She is with Ernst & Young and she's a member of the New York Alumni Association. It's okay if students find other interests.

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What do you like so much about the program?

It's absolutely satisfying to change a life. I've worked with kids who had no direction for their future, and then lightbulbs pop on and they realize the possibilities out there for them. It's great.

Let's talk about your early years. How did you get into the field?

My family have been brick masons since the 1800s. My father was always building something. I worked with him. We built a brick two-car garage on the lot next to us in the Bronx. In my teenage years I completely renovated an abandoned house in the Catskills, building the chimneys and fireplaces. I took a house that had been unoccupied for 40 years — it had no windows, no heat, no water and no sewer. I basically rebuilt it and made it habitable. That's how my interest in structural engineering started, and it just grew from there.

What are some of the structures you worked on that make you proudest?  

I would say the American Airlines hangars in Los Angeles and San Francisco international airports. Each building holds four Boeing 747s. I was 28 years old when I started those, and they were state of the art. To this day, they are miraculous structures; the one in Los Angeles went through the Northridge Earthquake, and the hangar in San Francisco survived the Loma Prieta Earthquake.

What else have you got in the works?

The Kingdom Tower in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, is in design right now. It is 3,300 feet, about a kilometer tall. In 2015, when it's topped out, it will eclipse the Burj Dubai project in the United Arab Emirates, which is about 2,800 ft. tall.

You were very close to your father, what would he say about your accomplishments today?

Wow. Don't let it get to your head.