MEMS Alumni Focus: Ken Balkey
Ken Balkey’s history at the University of Pittsburgh began long before his current position as an adjunct lecturer in the MEMS department. In fact, the entire Balkey family has a history with Pitt and it begins with Ken’s father, Joe.
Joe Balkey worked at the Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company’s Nuttall Plant in Lawrenceville where he manufactured large gear motor parts starting in 1941. When the Westinghouse plant closed in 1960, he took his life savings and began a renewal parts business named Joseph C. Balkey Sales with the full devotion of his wife Marie. He became well-known for solving breakdown issues and some of his customers included the Duquesne Incline, Pittsburgh Asphalt Company and the U.S. Navy.
As a teenager attending North Catholic High School, Ken helped cut keyways in gears for his father’s customers, a technical endeavor that influenced his decision to become a mechanical engineer.
When it came time for college, Balkey’s parents encouraged him and his two brothers to pursue engineering, and all three siblings obtained advanced degrees from Pitt. Ken earned his bachelor’s in mechanical engineering in 1972 and his master’s in the same concentration in 1980. His elder brother, Joe, received degrees in chemical engineering and his younger brother, Dave, acquired his degrees in industrial engineering.
During his time at Pitt, Balkey noted how he greatly respected all of his engineering professors. He says, “They all had their own unique teaching styles that caused students to adjust their way to learn and understand the important information that was provided in each course, which reflects the real world.” One instructor that particularly stood out to Balkey was Professor Roy Marangoni. Professor Marangoni taught Balkey in both undergraduate and graduate courses on vibration, which he says had direct use and were greatly beneficial to him during the early days of his career.
More prominently, Professor Marangoni was Balkey’s faculty advisor for his team’s senior capstone project on determining the natural frequencies of a three-mass torsional system. Balkey was the group’s presenter and project report creator which he says prepared him well for the industry. He notes, “I could readily pull together efforts from addressing complex issues in a succinct and straightforward manner that everyone can understand. I have published many articles on a wide range of challenging topics during my career. I thought of Dr. Marangoni many times over the last 50 years when I found myself in similar situations as our senior capstone design project.”
Balkey served as secretary of the student chapter of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), which he describes as one of the best decisions he made as a student. He was encouraged to join as a sophomore by a senior student, Tim Andreychek. Post-graduation, the two men ended up working together at Westinghouse where they often reminisced about their time as ASME students.
During the summer after his freshman year, Balkey interned at Houser & Carafas Engineering Company where he assisted draftsman supporting the steel industry. That led to a position with Reliance Engineering Company, where he was able to do his own engineering drawing work. Balkey says all this experience was quite helpful to have on his resume as he applied for engineering jobs upon graduation.
Balkey had an impressive athletic tenure at Pitt which started with a recommendation from retired Pitt track and field coach, Carl Olson, to join the track and cross teams as a walk-on. Coach Olson made the recommendation upon learning Balkey completed the 1968 Boston Marathon as a high school senior. He joined the teams as a freshman and continued to win and improve throughout the year. By the end his freshman year, Balkey shaved over 30 seconds off of his mile time, eventually completing a 4 minute 17 second indoor mile. Since he was running better than many of the other top freshman in the eastern half of the country, he was offered an athletic scholarship for his remaining three years on the teams.
Balkey admits much of his success was likely due to trying to impress his future wife, Ruth Anne. He met Ruth Anne during his freshman year at Pitt while ice skating at a public session at the Civic Arena. Ruth Anne was a junior in high school at the time. He says it was love at first sight! But, he told her that he was not able to ask her on a date due to his engineering course load and commitments to the Pitt track team. Ruth Anne agreed to come watch him at a track meet at the Fitzgerald Field House instead. It was this meet that Balkey first shattered his record mile time.
Ruth Anne came to Pitt two years later to pursue a degree in education. Balkey saved a few of his electives so they could take classes together. He says, “Without a doubt, Ruth Anne has had the most significant impact on my life from helping me with my engineering studies, to supporting many leadership roles at Westinghouse, ASME and numerous other organizations.”
However, managing his workload and demanding sports schedule proved to be difficult and Balkey found his grades slipping. He recalls being approached by Coach Olson one day after practice freshman year. Coach asked him how his grades were, and when he replied that he was receiving B’s and C’s, coach scolded him. Balkey said he was stunned and that the interaction had a powerful impact on him. The next semester during his sophomore year, Balkey began the ME program. He met with three friends every day after class to strategize how to address their homework problems. They would then disburse to work on the problems on their own. Balkey said this approach made a huge difference to him, “It reduced the time it took me to do my homework while better understanding the material that was presented in class.” He began getting better grades and by his second semester junior year he was one of six out of over 400 Pitt student-athletes to earn a 4.0 that semester. He was also the only engineering student-athlete to do so. Balkey was so excited he went to find Coach Olson right away to share the news. He says, “I ended up graduating with honors with an overall GPA of 3.41 that got me in the door to be interviewed for my job at Westinghouse. Coach Olson’s push made an enormous difference for me in getting a great job and launching my 42-year career at the company for which I am eternally grateful.”
Balkey’s 42-year Westinghouse career began in 1972 in the Pressurized Water Reactor Systems Division. He notes, “[The] work included use of static and dynamic analysis methods that aligned with material learned in my Pitt M.E. undergraduate and graduate courses dealing with methods of analytical dynamics, advanced vibrations, and theory of elastic/plastic analysis.”
As the 70s became the 80s, Balkey continued to advance his career at Westinghouse. In 1983, he was recognized in the industry for leading team efforts in integrating probabilistic risk assessment pressurized thermal shock event frequencies with probabilistic fracture mechanics methods to address concerns with reactor pressure vessel integrity at nuclear power plants in the U.S. and many other countries. This state-of-the-art approach kept five U.S. reactors from facing immediate shutdown, and further work over the last decades in this area has assured safe continued operation of nuclear power plants around the world today in the generation of reliable, emission free electricity.
This work opened opportunities in management for Balkey, which he declined in order to pursue a technical leadership path. The inspiration to take this path came from a conversation he had with respected Westinghouse consulting engineer, Floyd Moschini. Moschini said his senior technical leadership position afforded him the opportunity to influence the nuclear industry in a unique, positive way and that he derived much personal satisfaction from his work. Balkey realized this was something he also wanted. In his last position before retiring from Westinghouse in 2014, Balkey was promoted to the same engineering consulting position Moschini held years earlier. He concluded his career at Westinghouse with over four decades of service in the global nuclear power industry.
As Balkey advanced his career at Westinghouse, he also advanced his roles and responsibilities within ASME which eventually led him to serve as vice president, ASME Nuclear Codes and Standards (2005-2008) and then the highly respected role of senior vice president, ASME Standards and Certification (2011-2014). The latter organization is comprised of more than 5,500 dedicated ASME staff and volunteers from around the world. As senior vice president, Balkey had oversight of the development of more than 500 standards used across many industries and in over 100 countries. He also chaired the ASME Council on Standards and Certification from 2011 to 2014. Balkey is the only in the Pittsburgh region ever to serve this role, which is chosen based on peer recommendation and appointment by a wide range of industries and government organizations. The role afforded him the opportunity travel and work with highly respected engineers and other leaders from around the globe.
Today, Balkey remains an active volunteer with ASME (over 50 years!) where he works to raise funds for ASME engineering scholarships and other philanthropic programs. He also strives to get engineering standards content infused into undergraduate mechanical engineering curricula in the U.S. and in other countries accredited by ASME.
Other notable accomplishments throughout Balkey’s career include receiving the IntraFirm Volunteer of the Year Award by the University of Pittsburgh School of Engineering for enhancing the relationship between Westinghouse Electric Company and the University of Pittsburgh. He arranged annual updates from SSOE’s Development office to employees at Westinghouse and encouraged them to participate in the nuclear engineering program at Pitt.
Additionally, he received an invitation from the Executive Office of the U.S. President to attend a strategic White House workshop on critical infrastructure priorities post 9/11. He also joined a group of recognized experts in publishing a special ASME report on nuclear safety construct following the Great East Japan earthquake in March 2011.
Balkey has authored over 150 publications and technical reports related to risk evaluations, and holds two patents on pressure vessel integrity and risk-informed inspection of heat exchangers. His honors include the ASME Melvin R. Green Codes and Standards Medal (2008), the ASME Bernard F. Langer Nuclear Codes and Standards Award (2002) and numerous other awards from ASME, Westinghouse, and more.
Throughout his impressive tenure with Westinghouse and ASME, Balkey interacted with numerous associates also involved with Pitt SSOE in some capacity. Westinghouse colleague and fellow Pitt grad, Dr. Gary Elder, has worked with Balkey since 2010 to co-teach to their Pitt graduate course in nuclear engineering dealing with real world applications of nuclear codes and standards. Balkey notes, “Any recognition that has come my way during my career, it has always come by working with so many other talented people. I am forever grateful for having the honor and privilege of working with so many talented people from around the globe during my career.”
Balkey credits the help and support of his parents, along with his athletic scholarship, as the reasons to why he was able to obtain his education from Pitt. He notes that his scholarship was invaluable and came at a time that he really needed the help.
Therefore, when their father passed in 2013, the Balkey brothers decided to establish the Joseph C. and Marie A. Balkey Family Engineering Legacy Fund to honor their parents for the significant sacrifices they made to support their children in engineering education and careers. The income from the fund is used for the purpose of supporting the Swanson School of Engineering at the discretion of the Dean.
In the spirit of giving, Ken and Ruth Anne have also recently pledged to fund two endowed scholarships, one for a MEMS student and the second for an ASME scholarship. Balkey notes the scholarships have been something he has wanted to do for a while as a way to pay it forward in the hopes that it will help others as he was helped 50 years ago. Balkey notes one of the key intentions of making his pledge to endow a Pitt engineering scholarship is to encourage others to follow in his example.
Ken and Ruth Anne have been together for 52 years and just celebrated their 47th year of marriage. They have two children, Karen and Keith, and three grandchildren, Lucas, Max and Nina. Keith also attended the University of Pittsburgh where he obtained his bachelor’s in business administration in 2004. Keith joined his father at Westinghouse for the last six years of his career at the company.
Balkey’s current involvement at Pitt does not stop with his generous donations and adjunct lectureship. He is also a member of the Pitt Panther Club and Varsity Letter Club. He regularly attends the Swanson School of Engineering golf outings and the Distinguished Alumni Banquet each spring. Additionally, he is a reviewer for the senior design projects. He says, “It is quite enjoyable to connect with current and past faculty, alums, students, and Development Office staff each year at these events.”
Balkey hopes to inspire others to pursue the field of engineering for the self-fulfillment derived from contributing to the improvement and advancement of everyday society and the excitement of participating in future global initiatives.
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Photo 1: Joseph C. Balkey (on left with extended right leg) at Westinghouse Gearing Division – Nuttall Plant, Lawrenceville, Pittsburgh, PA – Circa 1941
Photo 2: Ken Balkey running track for Pitt at the Fitzgerald Field House circa 1971
Photo 3: Joseph and Marie Balkey (seated in front) 40th Wedding Anniversary September 14, 1986. Back row: Joe and Ann Balkey, Kathleen and David Balkey, Ruth Anne and Ken Balkey; Grandchildren Keith and Karen Balkey standing next to their grandparents.
Contact: Meagan Lenze