Dennis M. Kamber
Class of 1964, BS
For the first 13 years of his life, Dennis Kamber grew up in a rental row house in an impoverished area of northwest Washington, D.C. Earlier, his mother, who was duty-bound to drop out of high school when her father died unexpectedly, was forced to work full time to support her mother and her younger brother. She attended classes in the evening to obtain her degree.
“Mom had a tough adolescence. She worked hard to put her younger brother through college and to support my grandmother who had no way to earn a living after my grandfather died. My mother was married for three years, pregnant with me, when my father, who I never met, left us,” Mr. Kamber recalls. “But she didn’t let these events dispirit her. She obtained a clerical position in the federal government, and using her intelligence, instinctive skills, and convivial personality, she steadily advanced. She became a respected management analyst and forms designer for the Department of the Navy. She wrote a widely used text book for the Navy and conducted training courses at naval installations.”
After Dennis turned 13, his mother had enough savings to buy a home in a better neighborhood in D.C., a true feat for a single woman in the 1950s. He helped with expenses, working as a stock boy after school and on Saturdays during his last two years of high school.
Mr. Kamber’s mother died three years ago, and his regret today is she could not be present for his induction into the Academy of Engineering Excellence. “She was a self-made woman, against the odds. When I was younger, I didn’t realize how strongly motivated she was. Mom was determined that I would attend college and she managed to budget her income in order to fund my college tuition. My accomplishments are pale in comparison with what my mother accomplished.”
Those are humble words from a man who founded and built his own company, Kamber Engineering, into a major local engineering firm practicing in the Maryland, Northern Virginia, and West Virginia regions. During his career, he has managed projects as large as $3.5 billion, and continues to work today as senior vice president of Global Water Management for ARCADIS, a top-five global company focusing on infrastructure, the environment, and buildings. Currently, he is playing a major role in managing the design of post-Katrina flood risk reduction measures around New Orleans.
The 1964 engineering graduate was once a physics major. But after assisting a research Ph.D. who, he laughingly says “did not know the operating end of a screwdriver,” he decided to switch disciplines to the less-abstract world of civil engineering.
As a member of the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets, he was on the Freshman Rifle Team and the ranking junior of “D” Squadron, then housed in Eggleston Hall. He jokingly described himself as a “mediocre athlete” on the track team. He was a contributing member of the Alpha Phi Omega service fraternity, and retains his membership in the American Society of Civil Engineers and the American Society of Military Engineers, after joining the student chapters at Virginia Tech.
Upon graduation, he spent one year at David Volkert and Associates until he was recruited to a start-up company, Bertram D. Tallamy and Associates. Mr. Kamber says, “Bert Tallamy was the sharpest, most visionary engineer I ever had the pleasure of meeting.” He had previously been the first federal highway administrator for the U.S. and conceived of and started the U.S. Interstate Highway system under President Eisenhower.
“One day Bert Tallamy, then in his 80s, called me into his office to inquire about a project, and I mistakenly thought I could bluff my way through the briefing. I was not properly prepared to answer his questions, and I left his office feeling like a whipped pup. I never made that mistake again and learned how to be organized for similar encounters,” he reveals.
His days with Tallamy served him well, as he and two of his colleagues eventually left to form their own company. They worked off a shoestring budget from Mr. Kamber’s apartment. One of the three partners soon left, and the young entrepreneur and his colleague, John Watkins, opened a small office. After three years, Watkins left, and Kamber Engineering Inc. was founded.
“I had a innovative firm and a talented creative staff. We did some unique work in wastewater treatment, and designed the first sequenced batched activated sludge plant which won a national engineering award in 1986,” he says. Kamber Engineering also held contracts with the National Park Service for work at Harper’s Ferry, and performed work on such Washington sites as the Kennedy Center and the Jefferson Memorial. Kamber held multiple contracts with the Naval Facilities Engineering Command and provided engineering support at the U.S. Naval Academy, Patuxent River Naval Air Station, and Camp David.
“We grew to about 165 employees. Owning a company had its good and bad points. Basically, every day I was betting the farm. My personal financial stability was on the line, and I would sometimes have to dip into my personal account to make a payroll. As the only owner, it was an exciting adventure interwoven with moments of sheer terror,” he says.
When Chester Engineers of Pittsburgh approached Mr. Kamber, wanting to buy his company, he accepted with the intent of expanding geography and services. He stayed on as a member of the senior management team until Chester’s parent company sold them to another entity. Mr. Kamber planned to take a year to engage in other activities. However, he soon accepted a position as a principal in Delon Hampton Associates, based on a long-term personal relationship with the owner.
After three years, he joined Earth Tech, and managed the Water/Wastewater Practice in North America. He ran the practice for five years, catapulting it from an unranked company to a top 10 ranking by Engineering News Record. In January 2003, he joined ARCADIS.
Mr. Kamber is a registered professional engineer and board certified environmental engineer. In 2007, he captured the Past Presidents’ Award from the American Council for Engineering Companies, a group of some 5,600 firms, and the ARCADIS International Innovation Award. He received the George Schroepfer Medal for excellence in wastewater facilities design, an award presented by the Water Environment Federation; and also the Leonard Glass Award, a regional award of the Chesapeake Water Environment Federation for innovative engineering of wastewater facilities. At Virginia Tech, he served on the CEE Advisory Board for eight years including two years as the chair, and four years on the College of Engineering’s Advisory Board.
When Mr. Kamber joked about “betting the farm” worrying about the day-to-day expenses incurred by Kamber Engineering, he was actually providing an insight into his love of horses. As a young boy, he would collect soda bottles and redeem them for the two-cents deposit until he obtained $2 so he could ride a horse for an hour at a local riding stable. Early on, he actually needed $4 because he was “too small” to ride alone, and had to pay for a stable guide to accompany him.
“I was always motivated by the vision of having a place in the country, with horses,” he says. So when he graduated from Virginia Tech, he acquired open acreage in 1968. He also bought his first horse, an unbroken three year old, and boarded her with friends. Eventually, he moved the filly to a location where his future wife, Sherry, and her father kept their horses.
Sherry was an avid show equestrian and an excellent trainer. Initially, Sherry was agitated with Dennis’ intrusion on her stable domain. However, they became friends, supporting one another alternatively at horse shows, polo matches, and together at fox hunts. Now married for 37 years, they have raised thoroughbreds since 1974 on their Roundabout Farm, located in Poolesville, Maryland. They have owned as many as 23 mares and foals at a time. “Sherry is my best friend, business partner, and the anchor in my life,” he says. “We have shared magnificent times together and always supported each other during the hardships.”
The Kambers’ are members of Virginia Tech’s Ut Prosim Society, the Committee of 100, and have endowed an engineering scholarship. They have a son, Adam, a graduate of Virginia Tech in 2000 with a degree in management science and information technology, who lives in McLean, Virginia.
Class of: 1964
Year Inducted into Academy: 2010