John T. DeBell, Sr.
Class of 1968, BS
John DeBell believes in the value of volunteering. And his efforts on behalf of his profession have had positive ramifications throughout his professional career as well as with his alma mater, Virginia Tech. Various groups have bestowed awards and honors upon the civil engineer, one of the most recent being the Virginia Tech College of Engineering Distinguished Service Award for 2006.
More than 25 years ago, Paul Torgersen, Virginia Techʼs dean of engineering from 1970 until 1990, met DeBell through his leadership role with the Virginia Society of Professional Engineers (VSPE). At that time, DeBell was soliciting support from all of the Commonwealthʼs engineering deans to encourage their undergraduates to obtain their professional licenses.
Torgersen seized the meeting as an opportunity to request DeBellʼs advice on a more regular basis and asked him to join the collegeʼs advisory board. DeBell became one of the earlier members of this group, and was also made one of the first members of the collegeʼs prestigious Committee of 100, a group of engineering alumni who have achieved outstanding professional success.
“Early on, I recognized in John his capacity for leadership, and his devotion to his alma mater,” Torgersen says. “Now, for almost three decades, I have witnessed his continual support of Virginia Tech and the College of Engineering. He and his wife Connie truly reflect the spirit of Ut Prosim.”
Since the 1980s, DeBell has rotated on and off the collegeʼs board, including a stint as its chair in 2001. He has also served on the Via Department of Civil and Environmental Engineeringʼs Advisory Board, including its chairmanship. “John DeBell has been a wonderful friend and dedicated supporter of the Via Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering for many years. In my role as department head, I have called upon John for help in many situations, and he has always been quick to respond and help in whatever way that he could. We are truly fortunate to have such a dedicated alum as John,” says William Knocke.
DeBell has worked towards improving space needs for the college and computing facilities for the department, and he has often found himself as a lobbyist on behalf of higher education. Simultaneously, he co-founded his own company, enjoyed its success, and eventually sold the operation to Burgess and Niple, Inc., remaining today as the Regional Manager of its Mid-Atlantic operations.
DeBellʼs story starts as a hometown boy who returned to his roots after his graduation from Virginia Tech in 1968 as a civil engineer and a 16-month stint in Vietnam. During the war, he was a flight operations specialist, and will only modestly say that he won a few medals. When his service ended in 1970, he returned to Centreville, Virginia, to his parentsʼ home. He soon landed a position with Dewberry and Davis, a well-respected consulting firm.
After four years, DeBell and his boss at Dewberry, Paul Bengtson, decided to branch out on their own. “I was a small player in a big machine,” DeBell reflects. “Paul, on the other hand, was an associate with the firm and very secure. But we both had a burning desire to make it on our own.”
At the time, DeBell was a newlywed, so his wife Connie managed the books “when we had books to do,” he smiles. They lived with Johnʼs parents for the first few years of their marriage. And his parents also helped them with the business location; they rented two rooms in a house his parents owned in a commercial area. Whenever Bengtson and DeBell landed a job during the early months of their new enterprise, they would also have to find the resources to get it done.
They focused on water and sewer projects and one almost got DeBell mauled. “When we tested sewer systems, we placed meters inside the manhole covers to measure the flow. Readings were taken every four hours,” DeBell recalls. Well, in Shenandoah National Park, DeBell was not the only one who was interested in the manhole covers. “Bears eat out of the sewers, and while I was checking on one, I happened to disturb him.” As the bear came lumbering after him, DeBell jumped back into his vehicle. However, like the mailman who works through rain and sleet and snow, DeBell still got the job done.
And his reputation gained prominence. For the first five or six years after they started Bengtson and DeBell, the business doubled every year. After two years, they added another partner, John Elkin, who had technical expertise in surveying. In 1978, Terry Titus joined as a fourth partner. When the business was five years old in 1979, they had grown to 50 people. By 1987, they had some 300 employees. In the late-1990s, Burgess and Niple, Inc. assumed 100 percent of the companyʼs stock. DeBell stayed on as an owner, and remained as the Director of the Mid-Atlantic region. He also serves on its Board of Directors.
Last year, Burgess and Niple ranked 77th among the top 500 architectural and engineering firms in the country as compiled annually by the Engineering News Record magazine. DeBell believes that with internal growth and some additional acquisitions, Burgess and Niple will succeed with its strategic growth goals.
During his career, DeBell has worked on a variety of projects, including ones for VDOT, Dominion Power, the National Park Service, Fairfax County agencies, federal agencies, and a host of others. He has also been involved in a number of developments as an owner.
Along the way, he also made time to serve on a number of professional committees. Among his positions with the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE), he was a national director (1988–92) and a member of the Professional Engineers in Private Practice Board of Governors (1986–88). With the VSPE, DeBell served as state president in 1983. He earned VSPEʼs Young Engineer of the Year Award in 1975, its Outstanding Service Award in 1978 and again in 1982, its Distinguished Service Award in 1983, and its Engineer of the Year Award in 1988.
DeBell was a founder of the Engineers & Surveyors Institute (ESI), a public-private partnership that offers practical curriculum to students, most of whom are employed by engineering firms. He served as its president in 1992.
And not forgetting his roots, he served as the President of the Historic Centreville Society and on its Board of Directors.
At Virginia Tech, DeBell is a member of the Academy of Distinguished Alumni for the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and the Presidentʼs Circle of the Ut Prosim Society. He currently serves as Chair of the Board of Directors of the Virginia Tech Foundation, Inc. In 2002, he received an honorary membership in the Virginia Tech Civil Engineering Chi Epsilon Honorary Society.
DeBell and his wife Connie have two sons, John Jr., a graduate of Virginia Techʼs tourism and hospitality management program and a degree in interior design from Marymount, and Richard, a geography graduate of Radford University with his masters in geography and cardiographic sciences from George Mason University.
Class of: 1968
Year Inducted into Academy: 2007