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Geoffrey Kulak: An Inquiring Mind

In the aftermath of the tragic crash of the Mindbender roller coaster at West Edmonton Mall in June 1986, the Alberta minister of labor announced that a public inquiry would be held. Because much of the testimony would surely be highly technical (it was known almost from the day of the accident, which killed three persons and injured others, that a fastener failure was involved in some way), the minister wanted someone on the inquiry board who understood those sorts of things. He didn't have to look far for that someone—just across the river to the University of Alberta, where Geoffrey Kulak ('58 Civil), Canada's foremost expert on steel structural connections, has been a member of the department of civil engineering since 1970.

A former chairman of that department who has graduate degrees from the University of Illinois (MS) and Lehigh University (PhD), Kulak has been very active in establishing Canada's design standards for steel structures and is currently vice-chairman of the Canadian body that writes those standards. He is also a Canadian delegate to the comparable international body. (In fact, the international standards being put into place are largely modelled on the ones now existent in Canada.) Along with former U of A engineering dean Peter Adams and Hugh Krentz, director of engineering for the Canadian Institute of Steel Construction, Kulak is the author of the standard textbook on structural steel design used at all Canadian engineering schools. In 1985 he was awarded the prestigious Moisseiff Award by the American Society of Engineers for a paper he wrote with a former graduate student of his, John Dawe, who now teaches at the University of Hong Kong.

Kulak (along with lawyer Kenneth McKenzie, QC.) was duly appointed to the two-person Mindbender board of inquiry, and the expectation that a high degree of technical expertise would be called for was soon borne out. The immediate cause of the accident was found to be the loss of four cap screws holding a bogie wheel assembly in place on the last car of the accident train, and a great deal of evidence dealt with the factors which brought this about and caused fatigue cracks and other deficiencies in a large number of the remaining cap screws. (As a matter of interest, the board concluded emphatically that there were both design and manufacturing faults that led directly to the accident. The board was also critical of maintenance and inspection procedures, but did not link these directly to the accident.)

His involvement in the Mindbender inquiry is only part of Kulak's lengthy record of community service. He has also been very active in Edmonton arts organizations, is a former chairman of the board of the Edmonton Art Gallery, and currently chairs the board of the Edmonton Chamber Music Society—"not that I know anything about chamber music," he says. However, he finds that most arts groups can benefit from someone who takes a more structured approach to problems and management. Someone like an engineer.

Published Summer 1988.

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