University of Vermont

cems
College of
Engineering and Mathematical Sciences

Featured Alumnus

Peter Bernhardt '72 & '76

Spire publisher (and CEMS Assistant Dean) Dan Harvey '84 caught up recently with Peter Bernhardt '72 & '76, who is currently the president of Pizzagalli Construction, one of the largest engineering firms in the United States. Peter is also president of the CEMS Board of Advisors.

Peter BernhardtDH: Peter, from perspective of someone with a 30+ year engineering career, can you comment on Dean Grasso's idea of "holistic engineering" and the value of a liberal education?
BW: Dean Grasso has directed a huge transformation at the school — looking to a more broad-based educational experience that blends math and science with arts and humanities. I believe that a holistic/unity of knowledge approach that allows for a broader perspective in identifying and solving complex problems through an interdependence of systematic relationships (rather than just mathematical solutions) is an approach that's very relevant in today's marketplace and world.

Change is never easy. But Dean Grasso has accomplished a lot in a relatively short amount of time; he's paved the way for a cultural and mindset enlightenment that's allowed for ready acceptance of the concept of holistic engineering.

DH: You've been calling Burlington home for many years, but where are you originally from?
BW: I'm originally from Williamsville, NY, which is just outside Buffalo. I was always very active and doing things outside, especially camping and fishing. In fact, I still really love to fly fish; it's one of my favorite ways to unwind. I go every year to a Trophy Trout catch-and-release area in Pennsylvania with my best friend since 2nd grade. I always liked being outside, close to nature, and I was a big tree fort builder. I loved soccer and played throughout high school for Williamsville High School and at UVM. And I'm a long-time, long-suffering Buffalo Bills fan.

DH: What led you to apply to and attend UVM?
BW: I was very interested in forestry, and UVM has a good forestry school. I also wanted to stay in Northeast. I really loved the program, and graduated in 1972. Then I worked as a land surveyor locally for two years.

As part of the Forestry program, I had to take a Land Surveying course, which was taught through UVM's Engineering School. I had the opportunity to meet Dean Oppenlander, and I found that I really enjoyed the geometry/trigonometry and the angle and distance aspects (back to the tree fort building!) of the course. Plus I really enjoyed working with Dr. Oppenlander — a great guy and a great professor. Based on that experience, I decided I wanted to study engineering. With Dr. Oppenlander's support, I began working toward a second BS degree in Civil Engineering while continuing to hold a full-time job. Through a mixture of night school and day classes — and with the ability to take courses out of sequence — I was able to complete all the required engineering courses in 3 semesters and I received my Civil Engineering degree in 1976.

DH: OK, so it's 1976 and you have two degrees — what does a forester/civil engineer do?
BW: Well, right after receiving my BS in Civil Engineering in 1976, I went to work for Pizzagalli Construction Company in Burlington. It's kind of funny now — I answered an ad in the Burlington Free Press for an estimator position, and I didn't even know what an estimator was or did. I had to go to Bailey/Howe Library to look it up! I eventually entered Pizzagalli's Engineer-In-Training program. I guess the training must have worked because I've been with the company 33 years, and I've been president of the company for the past 10 years. I'm proud to say that Pizzagalli Construction has 1000 employees and constructs projects in 12 states throughout the Eastern Seaboard.

DH: Back to UVM for a second — what was it like to attend UVM from a more personal or social angle?
BW: I simply loved UVM. It was a great experience. And of course, I'm very appreciative of the educational track I was able to take, combining two things I really loved. I was also a member of the SAE fraternity and I really liked being part of that community. And I played soccer for UVM. It was an honor to be team captain my senior year, and we won the Yankee Conference championship in 1969 and 1971.

I do remember some funny things about the campus back then — like the fact that there was no Saga food service on Sundays. You had to go to The Lure on Williston Road or get a 99 cent pizza from Zachary's for dinner. We'd all call home on Sunday night: there was one pay phone on the floor, and we'd line up for 10-minute limit phone call. Burlington was — and is — a great town. It's a wonderful community with the lake, downtown, mountains and forest nearby.

It truly was a unique time socially and politically on campus — it was the end of the Vietnam War, Kent State happened. There were protests and unrest going on at campuses throughout the country. Just an amazing time to be a college student.

DH: Do you have any words of wisdom to prospective engineers?
BW: I do. Get a great educational foundation that's diverse and broad-based. Work hard, apply yourself, and open yourself to the relevancy of all types of experiences. Then follow your heart, but you have to use your head as well as your heart. It's important to have passion about what you're doing if you want to have meaning in your work. The harder you work, the luckier you'll get.

To find out more about Pizzagalli Construction Co., visit them online at www.pizzagalli.com.