In February next year I shall go to the Society of Mining Engineers (SME) conference in Denver. One evening I shall dine with Andy Robertson and his party. We will celebrate his induction into the Mining Hall of Fame.
This is a signal honor for him and due recognition of his many contributions to the mining industry. He well deserves it. Not that he needs more recognition–most people I speak to know and respect him. He is well-known for his superior intellect, his accomplishments, and his human gentleness. For he is first and foremost a gentleman in all meanings of the word.
At this link is a detailed report on what he has done and why he is selected for induction into the Mining Hall of Fame. Here is a key statement from the link:
He is passionate about improving the design, construction, operation and closure of tailing dams since integrity of these dams is crucial to protecting current and future (perpetuity is a long time) generations from extreme events and ‘black swans’. To make tailing dams of today and the future safer, he advocates: a) ever improving technology for the design, construction and long-term stability of tailing dams; b) fiscal capability – to construct and operate tailing dams that do not leave a debt burden on our grandchildren; and c) governance – so that today’s designs account for the needs of succeeding generations and changes in societal expectations. With the goal of making tailing dams physically and environmentally safe, he continues to serve on multiple peer review panels and independent design review boards for some of the highest and most challenging tailing dams in the world.
I have known Andy since our days together at Wits. He was doing his PhD and I my masters thesis. He was kind and helpful then and he has continued to be kind and helpful ever since. I joined SRK soon after he founded the company. A short while later he announced his intention to go to Vancouver. Professor Jennings and I took him up in a plane one Saturday morning and showed him all the Witwatersrand slimes dams and told him what we knew of them. He soon outpaced us and expanded practice beyond anything we did.
Here is what I wrote a long time ago about that time a long time ago:
Once Andy had finished his master’s thesis at Wits, Professor Jennings got him involved in the rock mechanics of the De Beers pit as the thesis topic of his PhD. For eight months Andy worked as a research assistant, focusing on the topic of rock slope stability. With his future in mind, he also took the opportunity to buy a diamond—at the De Beers discounted employee price. Jennings tried to persuade him to become a lecturer, but Andy preferred his own thoughts to lecturing and research. Married and with four children, he joined Frankipile, a contracting company that specializes in designing and installing piles and foundations.
Andy worked for Frankipile for four years, neglecting his thesis and waiting patiently for Jennings to retire. For the Professor had said that upon his retirement he planned to establish a consulting company, and that he wanted Andy and Ken Lyell to found the company with him. Jennings had rightly noted these two young men as the brightest of his student bunch. Frankipile had also offered Andy a shareholding, and so he needed to decide whether he wanted to invest in a company where Andy knew he would not be staying, or invest in something of his own.
As Jennings grew close to retirement, his health was failing. He finally told Andy he would never start Jennings, Robertson and Lyell. So Andy began to look elsewhere. He had already incorporated Geotechnical Instrumentation Ltd. to sell and install geotechnical instruments. Now Andy talked with Fritz Wagener of the company Jones & Wagener about joining them and starting a soft soils division. All was going well, until Jones grew apprehensive that the newly formed South African professional Engineers Association would not take kindly to a consulting engineer who had a commercial interest in an instrument supply company. The talks about Andy joining were put on hold.
Andy next chatted with Oskar Steffen, then lecturing at Wits, about partnering with him. Fortuitously, Oskar had decided that in spite of Jennings’ desire for Oskar to become the next professor of soil mechanics, Oskar wanted to go out and consult.
Hendrik Kirsten, at that time working in the Wits mining department, asked Andy if he too could join. Hendrik was an obvious third partner, for he brought great knowledge of underground rock mechanics to complement the surface rock mechanics that Andy and Oskar knew.
The three prospective partners went to talk with Dick Bieniaski, head of rock mechanics research at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). Bieniaski told them he was delighted to think that there would soon be a genuine rock and soils consulting firm in town, but then added, “There is only enough work for one of you. One of you can keep busy and do well, but three?”
Undaunted, the three partners rented space in the same building in downtown Johannesburg where Jones & Wagener had their office. Fritz Wagener was a great friend and ally to the trio, helping them with all kinds of administrative “favors.”
One of the first to join the new company was John Robertze. John and I became immediate friends after I joined SRK. When he first saw me mishandle a drawing board he said, “Jack, you are an engineer; you cannot draw even a straight line. Better you stay away from the board and let me do it.” He prepared the construction drawings for all the slimes dams I designed and constructed in South Africa. Some of those dams are still in operation. Sadly, John died last year.
When Andy decided to relocate to Canada, he determined to focus on tailings. Thus, one misty morning, he picked up Professor Jennings and myself and drove us out to a small airport north of Johannesburg. We flew off and began circling every slimes dam we could find, talking about its design, its success, its shortcomings, and how it might fail. This was all great fun until the coffee took effect. Jennings, being the senior, demanded we land somewhere. The amazed pilot scouted the local landing fields, chatted earnestly over the radio, received permission to land, and down we swooped. The rest you must imagine. But after only a few minutes on a lonely grass runway we were ready to take off again, resuming our tailings reconnaissance.
In Vancouver, Andy joined up with Doug Piteau who had started out with Piteau, Gadsby and McCloud (PGM), and then left to found Piteau Associates . Doug had been with Andy at Wits, also doing his PhD thesis. Andy again undertook to do the soft soils part of consulting. But his background in rock mechanics soon brought him into contact with Rick Call, then working for Pincock, Allen and Holt (PAH), which he left some years later to found Call and Nicholas. Andy liked and respected Rick Call; they decided it would be a good idea to bring together Piteau Associates, SRK, and PAH. But Doug did not like this idea. Doug literally forbad Andy to get involved in rock mechanics work with or without Rick Call and PAH. I never met Doug, but Andy tells me that the early death of a child from leukemia and the financial troubles involved with the breakup of PGM had embittered Doug. So Andy withdrew from the firm, visited Tucson and established Robertson Pincock, with the objective of making it the tailings consulting arm of PAH. John Welsh, who had been tailings engineer at the Colorado Henderson Mine, joined the firm to do the day-to-day work.
One late Sunday evening Andy phoned me at the farm we enjoyed near Rustenberg. Andy told me to be in Tucson the following week. I protested that Oskar Steffen, my boss, might not agree.
“I have already cleared it with Oskar,” said Andy. Hence we were on the next plane to Tucson. Later I moved to Vancouver at Andy’s insistence and managed SRK until the disastrous mining downturn of 1983. Andy fired us all, himself included. To put bread on the table, I returned to South Africa. Andy continued to market. About six months later he called me to tell me to return. He had secured the job of designing the Cannon Mine tailings facility. I came back and Andy sent me to the USA. At this link, I recalled those days.
The years slipped by and today I still work for Andy. My office is besides his, although I seldom see him for he still travels extensively on peer review assignments. Occasionally he returns and we chat about family, jobs, the mining industry, and InfoMine & EduMine.
It was Andy’s idea to start this blog. He persuaded me to do it, although I knew not what a blog was. “You can do it,” he said, and while I doubted, he was correct. A while after starting this blog I wrote a piece about the SME. Here is a link to the story about green tomatoes. I wrote:
Picking up this theme of eat or be eaten, Ernesto Sirolli of the Sirolli Institute told us of the trillion of dollars wasted in Africa in trying to promote community development. His tale of teaching Zambians to grow tomatoes, which when ripe were eaten by the hippos, should stand at a cautionary tale to all who see sustainable mining in primitive countries as simply providing locals with hoes and harnesses and vegetable patches.
As a result of this posting—read it all for it is fun–the blog was taken off InfoMine and banished to the wilderness. For the SME protested mightily. When Andy found out about my banishment, he gently urged me to continue blogging and arranged for all the support I still get from InfoMine in writing. He did, however, concur to keep the image of this blog separate from InfoMine, for I have continued to offend. But Andy still supports me and laughs at my provocative postings. For he is wise, prudent, forgiving, and a gentleman.
He is the best and the only one of such characteristics I have ever been lucky to meet and work with. He is unique. I owe him everything and would do anything for him and his family. I am proud to have written the first draft nominating him to the Hall of Fame. And I am proud to say that along with Clint Strachan and Resa Furey we have him nominated & inducted. It should be a good party at the Brown Palace Hotel in Denver in February.