Rod Pieretti: A lifetime of building bridges

Rod Pieretti
Rod Pieretti

By Michael Bradley
Special to Delaware Business Times

The wind was screaming at nearly 75 mph, but the two spans of the Commodore Barry Bridge had to be linked together. That dangerous night, a group of contractors and ironworkers looked at Rod Pieretti to see how badly he wanted to make it happen.

“The workers won’t do anything dangerous unless the engineer goes first,” Pieretti said.

So, he went up onto the bridge, even though the two sections were swaying nearly six feet in either direction. The rest of the crew followed, and everybody set about completing what would become the nation’s longest cantilever bridge. It was harrowing, to be sure, but it had to be done.

“It was a horrendous evening, and it lasted forever,” Pieretti said. “But we were able to get it together and patch up any splits.”

In late October, Pieretti was given the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Delaware Contractors Association (DCA) for a career that has included highlights like the Commodore Barry, but mostly because of his tremendous commitment to the engineering field and his service to those who build throughout the state. The 80-year-old Pieretti, who says construction is “in my blood,” continues to work for Chilton Engineering’s Newark office, and displays a daily passion for the profession.

“Rod is such a gentleman, and his desire to give back has been great,” said Bill Freeborn, executive vice president of the DCA. “He has been involved with the DCA for years and has demonstrated a great interest in young people coming into the industry. The engineering projects he has been involved with have been unbelievable.”

It’s possible to consider civil engineering something of the family business for Pieretti, who grew up in West Philadelphia and whose family was involved in construction, bricklaying, cement finishing and carpentry. His oldest brother, Oliver, convinced him to go to college, so Pieretti enrolled at Drexel, because it was close to home and since the school’s co-op program allowed him to earn some money to defray tuition costs. After graduating, he went to work on a variety of projects but never considered himself too far from his family’s roots. “I’m a glorified bricklayer,” he says. “I turned it into a career.”

One of the undeniable highlights of Pieretti’s career came in January 2012, when he joined the University of Delaware’s Engineers Without Borders chapter in Guatemala, where they spent 18 days in January 2012 building a bridge for local farmers. The 60-foot structure spanned river and connected the village of San Jose Petacalapa with bordering farmland. The only equipment Pieretti, his son, Gary, the six students and 83 villagers had was a cement mixer. But they completed the project, and Pieretti had an experience he will never forget.

“We just had our hands, brute strength and engineering capabilities,” Pieretti said. “We worked sunup to sundown, and all the people did was smile. They worked for no pay.

“They carried five-gallon buckets of cement on their shoulders up ramps. When you see that, you see how much it meant to them.”

Freeborn marvels at Pieretti’s speech at the DCA dinner. He says the 426 people in attendance weren’t easy to control throughout much of the event, but once Pieretti started speaking, the room was silent. “Rod is the type of guy people want to listen to,” Freeborn said. After Pieretti spoke, former MLB star Darryl Strawberry addressed the crowd. Following the event, Strawberry told Freeborn how moved he was by Pieretti’s remarks.

Pieretti’s example of achievement and his willingness to share his talents earned him the Lifetime Achievement Award. For him, it’s about gratitude.

“Every day, I put my feet on the floor when I wake up, and I am thankful to God that I am able to do this,” he said. “I never didn’t want to go to work.”

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