Obituary: Alexander Chajes, professor emeritus of Civil Engineering

Alexander Chajes, 81, professor emeritus of Civil and Environmental Engineering, died June 13.

Born in Vienna, Austria, he was the only child of Johanna and Meier Chajes. When World War II broke out, his parents sought passage to the U.S. In 1940, after two years of trying, his family was fortunate to obtain a visa. 

Because of the war to the west, they traveled east from Vienna with a group of about a dozen Viennese Jews. The two-month trip took them from Vienna to Berlin, then to Moscow and on to Manchuria, China, via the Trans-Siberian Railway. From there they traveled south across Korea and finally across the Sea of Japan to the Japanese island of Honshu. On Honshu, they made their way to Yokohama where the group boarded a ship for a 17-day voyage across the Pacific Ocean to Vancouver and on to Seattle. From Seattle they took a five-day bus trip across country to reach their final destination, New York City.

Chajes’s teenage years were spent in Brooklyn, and after high school, he earned admission to Cooper Union, where he received his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering in 1952. He took a job at the Grumman Aircraft Division on Long Island, where he worked until 1955.  While working at Grumman, Chajes attended evening classes at the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, earning an M.S. degree in civil engineering in 1955. 

Shortly after receiving his master’s, Chajes enlisted as an officer in the U.S. Navy Civil Engineer Corps. He served as a lieutenant, junior grade, in the Navy from 1955-58. Following his service, he returned to work for Grumman until 1960, when he enrolled in the doctoral program at Cornell University. He received his Ph.D. in civil engineering in 1964 and then took a position as an assistant professor at UMass.

He taught courses in structural engineering and mechanics and conducted research in the area of structural stability. He retired in 2005.

During his 41-year career, Chajes advised many master’s and doctoral students. He was the author of numerous papers in journals and conference proceedings as well as two books, Structural Analysis and Principles of Structural Stability Theory. Chajes was a registered Professional Engineer, a fellow and life member of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), and in 2008 he was granted an honorary membership to the Boston Society of Civil Engineers Section.

Of all his contributions to the profession, Chajes will be most remembered for educating thousands of civil engineers. He won five different teaching awards during his career, including the Distinguished Teaching Award in 1982.  He educated his students in the finer points of history and culture along with engineering. 

Robert Stephens, president of the Boston Society of Civil Engineers Section, said, “Professor Chajes’s greatest achievement has been his lifelong dedication to the education of civil engineering students. His ability and passion to share his knowledge of structural engineering in an engaging fashion is a legacy that is carried on by generations of his former students.” 

Even after retiring, Chajes continued to teach and to give lectures at the Renaissance Center. He was an accomplished painter and woodworker as well as a scholar of history and the arts.

In honor of his many contributions to the university, the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering established the annual Alexander Chajes Lecture in 2005.

Chajes leaves his wife of 57 years, Diane, their daughter Susan and her husband Keith Wofford, son Michael and his wife Beth, and three grandchildren.

Memorial donations may be made to the Chajes Endowment Fund, payable to UMass Amherst and mailed to College of Engineering Development Office, 140 Marston Hall, University of Massachusetts Amherst, 130 Natural Resources Rd., Amherst, 01003.  Note ‘Chajes Endowment’ in the memo line. Gifts may also be made to the North Amherst Library Gift Fund, c/o the Jones Library, 43 Amity St., Amherst 01002.

A memorial service will be held Monday, June 18 at 2 p.m. at the Jewish Community of Amherst, 742 Main St.  Shiva services will be held Monday and Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the Chajes residence.