Emeritus Professor Mike de Kock: 1933–2020

24 June 2020 | Written by Nic Marais. Photo Supplied.
Professor Mike de Kock
Professor Mike de Kock

Emeritus Professor Mike (MO) de Kock passed away peacefully at his home in Rondebosch on Wednesday, 24 June 2020. Over a period spanning five decades, Mike played a key role in the education and development of many students in the Department of Civil Engineering at the University of Cape Town (UCT). He is fondly remembered by former students, colleagues and the wider civil engineering community.

Mike was born in Montagu on 10 September 1933. This is where he started his schooling before going on to study civil engineering at UCT in 1951. He took a keen interest in all the subjects and excelled in his studies, graduating with distinctions and receiving the class medal in 1954.

Mike stayed on at UCT after his studies, starting as a junior lecturer in the Department of Civil Engineering in 1955. He spent the rest of his career at UCT – dedicated to the teaching and learning of many generations of civil engineering students. He only took occasional breaks from academia to gain practical experience and sharpen his engineering skills: he worked briefly as a researcher for the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research’s Road Research Laboratory (1960) and as a bridge engineer for Ninham Shand (1969 and 1976).

Mike’s research interests started with transport (research in road traffic and safety) and included hydraulics (silt in dams) before focusing on structures (bridge deck analysis, low-cost housing and serviceability of slabs). This led to his interest in structural materials, focusing on concrete and, in particular, the use of fly ash in concrete. He made immense contributions to the study and use of concrete in structures. In 2005 he was awarded honorary membership by the Concrete Society of Southern Africa for his outstanding contributions to the society and to the industry in general.

Mike became a lecturer, then a senior lecturer and finally an associate professor in civil engineering before retiring in 1998. Mike was persuaded to become head of the Department of Civil Engineering at UCT from 1992 to 1998, a position he reluctantly accepted but undertook with characteristic vigour, passion and energy.

As head, he was instrumental in the rejuvenation and rebuilding of the department into a strong, modern civil engineering school, and he updated the undergraduate curriculum to prepare students for the next century. His enthusiastic and selfless approach made the department more inclusive and unified. He also championed the re-engineering of the curriculum to fit the challenges facing universities and students at the time. This resulted in UCT being home to the first undergraduate civil engineering programme to achieve a fully outcomes-based accreditation by the Engineering Council of South Africa in 2001. As a colleague, and later as HOD, Mike also took a keen interest in the development of new staff and colleagues, always giving feedback, praise and encouragement to develop their careers and interests.

Mike was an extremely versatile and multi-skilled academic and engineer. He was fascinated by all aspects of civil engineering and was comfortable teaching almost any subject with passion and enthusiasm, which spilled over to his students – and he directed their interests and later specialisation in various disciplines within civil engineering. He made sure that subjects were taught and learned as hands-on engineering practice with a sound theoretical background, rather than being theory driven. This was demonstrated by his keenness and ability to make models and devise practicals to ensure students interacted with course content and learned to love their subjects.

Mike’s use of a Weetbix biscuit and straightened paperclips to introduce students to the study of reinforced concrete is legendary – just one example of many innovations and improvisations to enhance student learning.

Ever humble and never satisfied with “just good enough”, Mike would make copious notes of what to do and how to improve lectures, tutorials and practicals. He would share this with colleagues and implement them the next time. Many students tell stories of their fondness for, and appreciation of, his teaching and the impact he made on their choices of specialisation after completing their studies.

His total commitment to the education of his students was rewarded with UCT’s Distinguished Teacher Award in 1989.

Retirement did not slow him down, and he remained active in teaching and academic contributions to the department for many years as emeritus associate professor until 2013 at the age of 80.

Many former students also paid tribute to Mike for being “an outstanding teacher”, “a thorough professional” and for the lasting positive impact he made on their careers.

Among many at UCT, Mike is remembered for his fleet of Ford Cortinas and later Toyota Corollas that he kept maintained and running for himself and his family well beyond their normal “expiry” dates. He simply could not resist tinkering and fidgeting with anything that was not working properly until it was as good as new. Mike’s hobbies (other than always inventing teaching aids and demonstration models) included reading and walking with his dogs in and around Cape Town.

Mike is survived by his wife, Shirley (married in 1958), and two sons, Andre (born in 1967) and Marius (born in 1969).

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