Stefanko award

Robert Stefanko

When Robert Stefanko graduated from the Pennsylvania State University in 1948 with his B.S. in mining engineering, a university career in teaching and research was not in his future plans.

He took a job with the Westmoreland Mining Company in Indiana County, Pennsylvania, and began to build his career in the mining industry. Then came the day and the event that turned his life around. On August 6, 1951, while he was inspecting a section of mine, the roof caved in. His back was broken, paralyzing him from the waist down. Despite numerous operations, he was confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

With a wife and small daughter to support, he had to take careful stock of the opportunities open to him. “The words part,” he recalled later, “was that almost no one gave me any encouragement. But individuals are different. What may be a complete disability for one man is not for another.” For him, paraplegia was never a complete disability, only a deterrent that had to be dealt with.

While employed by the mining company, he had done some evening instruction of mining extension courses for Penn State and had enjoyed it, so teaching was the option he elected to follow. He returned to Penn State in 1954 as a graduate student. Upon receiving his M.S. in 1957, he was appointed as an instructor and began work on his doctorate, receiving it in 1961.

His Research

For obvious reasons, Bob’s research as a graduate student – as well as his research though the years – was aimed primarily toward increased safety in underground mining. His initial interest was in ground control in the immediate area of active mining. From that he progressed to work on instrumentation for determining underground stresses, which led ultimately, to his development of Penn State’s Rock Mechanics Laboratory and the laying of the groundwork for the current geomechanics program in the Department of Mineral Engineering – one of the most outstanding in the world.

From rock mechanics, he moved on to other research areas, including mine ventilation, the use of diesel engines to power underground mining equipment, mine electrical systems, innovative mining equipment, removal of methane from mines prior to mining, and coal mine pillar and span design.

Out of the projects on underground mine electrical systems that he initiated had developed the Mine Electrical Laboratory of the Department of Mineral Engineering – one of only two of its kind in any university and probably the leader in mine electrical research.

As he moved up through the academic ranks, Bob’s faith in people, his team spirit, and his unselfish willingness to share his accomplishments with others led him to foster the professional growth of many younger faculty. He would invite them to be co directors of his research projects or members of his research teas, and then, as the work advanced, he would encourage them to undertake research on their own, essentially handing over to them areas of interest he had originally developed. Then he would move on to new areas that he had been wanting to get into and repeat the process.

His Leadership of the Mining Program

In 1964, he was named head of the then Department of Mining in Penn State’s College of Earth and Mineral Sciences. At a time when many university mining programs were closing their doors because of a lack of enrollment, he expanded the scope of Penn State’s program by actively soliciting funded research, and alleviated enrollment problems by attracting qualified students from other countries into a mining graduate program that eventually developed into the largest in the nation. He often remarked that the research and graduate enrollment provided the critical mass needed to keep the department going through the lean years. Through the many foreign students trained here, Penn State’s mining expertise has been extended all over the world.

He well knew that the day would come when mining instruction on the university level would be critical to the well-being of the nation. And so, when the worldwide energy situation reached crisis proportions in the early 1970s, Penn State’s Mining Engineering program was ready and able to take care of greatly increased enrollments – in large part, due to his foresight.

Through is leadership of the Department of Mining, the academic foundation was laid for the most comprehensive undergraduate, continuing education, and research programs in mining engineering in the nation. In addition to fostering development of the B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. programs, he promoted in 1969 inauguration of the two-year associate degree in mining technology – the first program in the nation designed to provide qualified professionals to fill a gap between the mining engineer and the miner.

Continuing education programs were Bob’s special interest. he felt strongly that knowledge gained though research should be shared with those working in the mining industry. To this end, he introduced short courses in mine ventilation, rock mechanics, the use of diesel equipment underground, and mine electrical systems. In addition to teaching short courses himself, he encouraged other mining faculty to offer courses in their areas of expertise. The result is a program of some thirty courses offered annually at Penn State that is one of the largest and most comprehensive in the nation.

He was instrumental, too, in the establishment in 1965 of the Elders Ridge, Pennsylvania, Mine Mechanics and Electricians School, a Penn State mining continuing education activity that has graduated more than 1,300 students over the past sixteen years, and the new miner and miner retraining programs begun in 1974 that have trained more than 18,000 mine workers for more than 200 companies.

He was a prolific writer, producing more than sixty published articles and many voluminous research reports and project proposals. During the last few years of his life, he completed a book, Coal Mining Technology – Theory and Practice, which is to be published by the Society of Mining Engineers.

In 1969, in recognition of his dedication to the principles of continuing education, he was named Assistant Dean for Continuing Education for the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, responsible for coordinating and encouraging continuing education efforts in all of the college’s departments. He stepped down as head of the Department of Mining, but continued as professor of mining engineering, and kept on with his teaching and research. In 1976, he was promoted to associate dean.

Through all of his professional years, he was an active member of the Society of Mining Engineers of the American Institute of Mining, Metallurgical, and Petroleum Engineers (SME of AIME), serving on and heading many committees, and chairing the SME Council of Education (1972-1973) and its Coal Division in 1974. He was a member of the SME board of directors from 1975 to 1981 and of the AIME board from 1977 to 1980. In 1979, he attained the position that provided him his greatest professional gratification – the presidency of the SME.

His Many Honors

Bob was honored widely for his work. In 1970, he received the Howard N. Eavenson Award of the SME’s Coal Division for his studies of rock mechanics with relation to mine roof support and for his establishment of the Rock Mechanics Laboratory at Penn State. In 1977, he was accorded the highest recognition awarded in the field of mineral engineering education – the AIME’s Mineral Industry Education Award. In 1978, he received the Faculty Service Award. In 1978, he received the Faculty Service Award of the National University Extension Association for his work in developing mining engineering continuing education activities. In 1980, he was named a Distinguished Member of the SME, and also that year received the Donald S. Kingery Memorial Award presented at the Pittsburgh Coal Mining Institute annual meeting in recognition of contributions toward improving health and safety in underground coal mines.

He served as an advisor to various governmental agencies including, on the state level, the Pennsylvania Governor’s Energy Council, the State Department, and the Civil Service Commission, and on the federal level, such agencies as the U.S. Bureau of Mines, Department of Energy, and the National Academies of Science and Engineering.

He found time, too, for community and church activities, serving as a Sunday school teacher and lay speaker at St. Paul’s Methodist Church in State College, Pennsylvania, and as a member of the board of directors of the local chapter of the Easter Seal Society for Crippled Children and Adults.

A Native Pennsylvanian

Robert Stefanko was born in Masontown, Pennsylvania, in the heart of the state’s bituminous coal mining area, on February 19, 1926. His father, an immigrant from Czechoslovakia, had given up coal mining to become a shoemaker. At Masontown High School, Bob, an inch over six feet, played football, developing a lifelong enthusiasm for the sport. Upon graduating in 1943 in the midst of World War II, he enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserve and was sent to the University of Virginia where he was awarded a B.S. in naval science in 1945.

After his release from active duty at the war’s end, he enrolled at Penn State where he waited on tables, corrected papers, and tutored in math to augment his G.I. Bill benefits. It was during his college years that he began dating Margaret Bokach, who came from a small town near his hometown. Following his graduation from Penn State, they were married.

Margaret was to become a priceless asset to him – there can be no disputing that her truly tender loving care of him for thirty years played a major role in lengthening his life. She was available whenever he needed her; she travelled everywhere with him and put his well-being and his career ahead of everything else, gathering her well-deserved satisfaction from his many achievements.

Their daughter, Carol Ann, now Mrs. Donald Gloyer of Hagerstown, Maryland, was just three months old when Bob was injured. She received her B.A. in speech from Penn State in 1972 and a master’s degree from the University of Florida in 1973. She and her husband now have two daughters, the younger one born two months after Bob’s death.

Bob died July 25, 1981, after a year’s illness that followed failure of his last kidney – he had lost the first one about twenty years earlier. His death occurred within two weeks of the thirtieth anniversary of the mine accident that confined him to a wheelchair.

More than a decade before, he had told an interviewer: “You have to establish realistic goals and then work hard to achieve them. The handicapped person has a special problem since it is difficult to assess what is realistic. The tendency is to underestimate one’s remaining talents.

“However, since man in general rarely performs anywhere near his potential, a handicapped person is not at too great a competitive disadvantage with the complete loss of some of his talents if he concentrates on developing those remaining to the highest degree.”

Bob Stefanko certainly developed his remaining talents to the highest degree and to the lasting benefit of his profession, his students, his colleagues, his friends, and his family.

Award Recipients

Year Recipient Position
James T. Arnone Managing Member, Williamstown Services LLC
John L. Weiss Vice President, John T. Boyd Company
Charles E. Zebula Executive Vice President - Energy Supply, American Electric Power
2015 Peter V. Merritts President, Corsa Coal, Northern Appalachian Division
2014 Christopher J. Bise Professor and Robert E. Murray Chairman of Mining Engineering at West Virginia University
2013 George Luxbacher Senior Vice President, Operations, Glenn Springs Holdings, Inc.
2012 James J. Bryja Senior Vice President of Northern Appalachia and Powder River Basin, Alpha Natural Resources
2011 Joseph Leonard Emeritus Distinguished Professor of Mining Engineering, University of Kentucky
2010 Joseph A. Sbaffoni Director of the Pennsylvania Bureau of Deep Mine Safety
2009 Edward C. Dowling, Jr. President, Chief Executive Officer (CEO), and Director, Anatolia Minerals
2008 David R. Maneval Retired Professor, University of Alaska, Fairbanks
2007 Barbara J. Arnold President and Owner, PrepTech, Inc.
2006 J. Blair McGill Operations Manager for Eastern Associated Coal LLC, a division of Peabody Energy
2005 Joseph A. Gallo Vice President of Underground Mining Operations, PBS Coals, Inc.
2004 Jan M. Mutmansky Professor Emeritus, Mining Engineering, The Pennsylvania State University
2003 Raja V. Ramani Professor Emeritus, Mining Engineering & Geo-Environmental Engineering, The Pennsylvania State University
2002 David A. Beerbower Vice Preisdent of Safety, Peabody Energy
2001 Kenneth G. Woodring Executive Vice President of Mining Operations, Arch Coal, Inc.
2000 James K. McWilliams Vice President of Civil and Mining Engineering, American Electric Power
1999 Madan Singh President, Engineers International Inc.
1998 Stanley C. Suboleski President, United Coal Co.
1997 George R. Desko Owner and Chairman, Canterbury Coal Company
1996 Robert L. Frantz Professor Emeritus, Mining Engineering, and Associate Dean Emeritus, Continuing Education & Industry Programs, College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, The Pennsylvania State University
1995 Thomas V. Falkie Chairman, Berwind Natural Resources Corporation
1994 John T. Ryan, Jr. Chairman and President, Mine Safety Appliances Company
1993 H. Beecher Charmbury Professor Emeritus, Mining Engineering, The Pennsylvania State University
1992 Joseph W. Hunt Professor Emeritus, Mining Engineering, and Assistant Dean Emeritus, Planning and Development, College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, The Pennsylvania State University