The End of an Era
James Milke (P.E., B.S. ‘76, M.S. ‘81, Ph.D. ’91), professor and chair of the University of Maryland (UMD) Department of Fire Protection Engineering (FPE), hales from a small family, in a small town and a small liberal arts school where he joined an even smaller physics program after high school. It’s almost as if he was destined to become chair of a small (yet influential) engineering department in the largest university in Maryland.
Growing up in (south) New Jersey, Milke knew nothing of engineering and had very little exposure to science instruction outside of the classroom. Indeed, 'STEM' was nowhere close to being a household acronym at the time. The only child of an oil company clerk and a homemaker who later taught music, Jim was the eldest of his cousins and the first of the family to even consider a college education. He always enjoyed math and the 'hard' sciences and had a strong interest in space travel. So, as he neared the end of his high school years, and having no guidance counselor to provide alternatives, choosing a major boiled down to a process of elimination. He elected to attend Ursinus College, a liberal-arts school just outside of Philadelphia, because, of the few schools he visited, Ursinus was the smallest and most welcoming.
"It must have been difficult for them, but I had wonderful support from my parents to go to school," said Milke. "I wanted to make them proud. This was also during the time of the Vietnam war – I kept seeing friends of mine pulled into the draft, which was lottery-based, and I was fortunate to have drawn a high number, which basically meant I was exempt. Still, I felt some guilt about staying behind and couldn’t help but think, what can I do to serve my country?"
Jim enrolled as a physics major at Ursinus – one of only four freshmen students in the program – with the intent of one-day working for NASA. During his initial fall semester while living in the dorms, Jim recalls the fire alarms being triggered frequently, typically false alarms, or because someone’s hot plate caught fire.
"I’d watch the firefighters coming in and out of the building with all of their gear and I found that intriguing," he said. Jim joined the local fire department, thoroughly enjoying the community service. "I started to learn the science and technology behind it – it’s not just throwing a bucket of water on a fire – and I engaged quickly, learning all that I could," he said.
During his sophomore year of college, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) held its fall meeting in Philadelphia. Milke’s fire chief agreed to send him to the conference and paid the registration fee. That week, Jim networked and attended as many presentations as possible, learning all about sprinkler systems and smoke detection. While exiting a workshop one day, he walked past rows and rows of empty tables. At one point, he glanced down and saw a single brochure for the fire protection engineering program at UMD and picked it up.
"I wasn’t sure what, exactly, to do with a physics degree, but at 19 years old, I wasn’t keen about further school, or teaching high school," said Jim. "I felt excitement looking over that brochure and thought, here’s my option! Lots of jobs in the field and no grad school?? Sign me up now!" Oddly enough, Jim never did discover how that brochure came to be on that table, though he asked everyone in the department who’d attended the NFPA conference later – no one could claim it.
After the conference, Milke connected with FPE Professor and Founding Chair, John L. Bryan, and arranged a meeting to discuss transferring to UMD. Together, with input from several mentors, Jim decided finishing his physics degree at Ursinus would be beneficial. The move to Maryland, after all, would be on his own dime.
On a partial scholarship, Jim started a second bachelor’s degree in FPE while simultaneously working for the Deer Park Fire Department in Cherry Hill, N.J. In 1976, after conducting internships for the hometown fire marshal’s office and NASA Goddard, he received his bachelor’s degree in FPE and went to work directly for the Fairfax County, Va., Fire Marshal’s Office. It was during his time in Fairfax that Jim met Judy, the woman who later became his wife. After 18 months in Fairfax, a research position in FPE at Maryland opened up and the department offered Jim the job. In November of 1977, he accepted an offer to conduct research with UMD Professor, Jack Watts, who was one of three FPE faculty members at the time.
"It was only a year-long contract, but it was a full-time research position involving some international travel – I was young, so I figured, why not?" Milke said. "In discussing the benefits package, Jack Watts encouraged me to take some additional classes. More school, yes, but it was free and I could take a single course at a time, so again, I figured, why not?" Jim parlayed that course of study into the mechanical engineering master’s degree program, while continuing to conduct research on topics beyond that first project for FPE.
"I often wondered what would have happened if those other research projects hadn’t come along, what would I have done?" Jim said. "I always seemed to have luck on my side, or maybe I was just in the right place at the right time and kept an open-minded approach to pursuing opportunities. I took lots of chances and am amazed that it all worked out as it did." The best part of the experience, he said, was having the opportunity to work on several research projects with all three FPE faculty at the time: Profs. Bryan, Watts and Harry Hickey.
Then in 1981, as Jim was about to complete his master’s degree, Watts decided to leave the University, which provided an opening for a new faculty position. Prof. Bryan offered that position to Jim, contingent on him 1) teaching, which he enjoyed, and 2) pursuing a Ph.D. He elected to pursue aerospace engineering, focusing on the effect of fire exposure on structures, and completed the degree in 1991.
While simultaneously teaching full-time and engaging in graduate studies, Jim had the strong support of his wife, Judy, who took on extra duties in raising their two children, Jason and Lauren, both of whom later also became UMD alums and currently enjoy successful careers in public education.
"I’ve always been thankful that Judy allowed me to pursue graduate study, travel to committee meetings and teach seminars – some trips caused me to be away for a week at a time, but she was always fully supportive," he said.
After completing his Ph.D., Jim transitioned from lecturer to an assistant professor position, and continued moving up the ladder from there. In 2001, he became FPE’s Associate Chair, which included recruiting responsibilities, advising students, deciding which students should receive scholarship support, and encouraging prospective donors to provide financial support. In 2011, Jim became chair of the department, which led to even more engagement with potential sponsors. He began attending events where sponsors and scholarship recipients had the chance to meet – the importance of such events, to both parties, became readily apparent. And he never stopped teaching. Jim says his favorite courses to teach are Smoke Control and Human Response to Fire, the latter being a topic that dates back to his research with Prof. Bryan.
Over the years, Milke, humble though he may be, has been repeatedly recognized for his efforts. The awards he’s received include seven best paper awards, the Robert Kent Outstanding Teaching Award (1994), the John J. Ahern President’s Award bestowed by the Society of Fire Protection Engineers (SFPE, 1995), the Automatic Fire Alarm Association Person of the Year (2011), the SFPE Arthur B. Guise Medal (2016), and most recently, the NFPA Distinguished Service Award (2023). One award Jim received from SFPE that he especially cherishes was based on the student mentoring he’d done, the John L. Bryan Mentoring Award, fitting given that Prof. Bryan was Jim’s mentor for so many years. Moreover, Jim organized and hosted the inaugural 2022 Fire and Life Safety Ecosystem Symposium, in collaboration with the NFPA. He pushed hard over the last few years, as well, to reach the $3M fundraising goal for the Professor of Practice Endowment in FPE, which was achieved in fall 2022; this endowment, subsequently, was renamed the James A. Milke, Ph.D., Fire Protection Engineering Professorship of Practice, in recognition of Jim’s tireless efforts.
Perhaps Jim’s biggest impact was the advising and mentoring of countless students over the years, including Christine Pongratz (B.S. ’13, M.S. ’14), currently a Senior Technical Sales Executive at Siemens in Los Angeles.
"Dr. Milke’s passion for fire safety, and his dedication to his students and alumni over the past four decades, have left an indelible mark on the department," said Pongratz. "Jim has had a profound impact on my life and career, as my professor, M.S. thesis advisor, colleague, mentor and friend over the last 14 years. His unwavering support and guidance have been instrumental in shaping who I am today. Thanks to his strong leadership and mentorship, students are inspired to pursue careers in FPE and subsequently give back to the department, fostering a strong sense of community, collaboration and excellence in our industry. Dr. Milke’s legacy will undoubtedly shape the department and our industry for years to come."
Pongratz is one of many people who echo a similar sentiment, including Jensen Hughes CEO, Raj Arora.
"Dr. Milke has always treated me the same way, both as an undergraduate student at Maryland and now as the CEO of Jensen Hughes – he’s authentic, communicative and inclusive," said Arora. "I highly respect his authenticity and it is a huge reason why I contribute my time and donate to the program."
Undeniably, Milke, like Prof. Bryan before him, has fostered an inclusive culture of public service. He’s always enjoyed participating in NFPA and SFPE activities and serving on their committees, but the most memorable off-campus experience was his involvement in the 9/11 aftermath study, which began a month after the attacks.
"It was October 7, I’ll never forget, and I was on a train up to lower Manhattan," said Jim. "I was part of the team called to conduct an initial analysis of what happened… to see the devastation and all the people who were impacted, really took me back. It was incredibly difficult, but meaningful work, and I appreciated being called to such a duty. This is why engineering is so important. We, all of us, matter."
In honor of this mantra and the ideals the couple holds dear, Jim and Judy have created the James A. Milke Scholarship in Fire Protection Engineering.
"We hope that this support enables future fire protection engineering students to complete their degrees, and become successful fire protection engineers," Jim said. "Hopefully some will also consider pursuing graduate study and become members of the fire protection engineering faculty here at Maryland."
Milke, who will officially step down as chair on July 30 and retire from UMD on September 1, 2023, was honored – alongside Judy, Jason, Lauren and six grandchildren – by the A. James Clark School of Engineering on May 1 and will be honored again at an alumni dinner the evening of October 7 at the Bethesda North Marriott (registration details will be distributed shortly).
"I have known Jim Milke for nearly 40 years through our interaction first at NIST and then as a colleague in the department," said FPE Professor Emeritus, Jim Quintiere. "His dedication to the students and alumni has enabled him to lead the department in the spirit of its founder, John Bryan. Jim, too, leaves behind a legacy that is hard to follow."
Published May 5, 2023