To many metro Atlanta residents, the I-285/Ga. 400 interchange reconstruction project is considered a nuisance. But to Wendell Lawing, a 99-year-old former state bridge engineer for the Georgia Department of Transportation and a World War II veteran, it is a sight to see.
“I have been around a century and I have seen a lot of changes,” Lawing said during a Nov. 7 tour of the “Transform 285/400” project guided by project manager Marlo Clowers.
Less than two weeks after the tour, Lawing died on Nov. 20 at Briarwood Rehab in Tucker, Ga.
“One of his recent favorite experiences was to visit with the DOT design team, working on the I-285/GA400 project,” Lawing’s obituary reads. “He was right at home with the experience and DOT professionals at that meeting-project tour.”
“Our GDOT family was honored to have hosted him at the construction site in what turned out to be his final days,” Scott Higley, director of strategic communications, said in a written statement.
Lawing is considered a legend by the state transportation department, paving the way for the designs of the I-285/I-85 interchange known today as Spaghetti Junction, among other accomplishments during his career.
But before he began his more than 30-year tenure with GDOT, Lawing was an aircraft radio operator and, after being gunned down, a prisoner of war in Germany during World War II.
In 1943, before Lawing’s crew’s departure overseas, his girlfriend Mary caught a train from Chattanooga, Tenn., to where he was stationed in Sioux Falls, S.D., to ask to marry him.
“She got in touch with Dad and said, ‘I am here and think we should get married before you get shipped overseas,’” said Mike Lawing, Wendell Lawing’s son.
Lawing could not get a pass to leave his base, so he took what he called an “opportune point” and hopped the fence to get married, all without getting caught.
“That was quite a feat,” Lawing said.
The couple was married for 75 years, up until Mary’s death in October 2018.
“Can anybody believe it,” Lawing said. “We had been together in high school.”
In 1945, the plane carrying Lawing and his crewmates, a B-17 “Flying Fortress,” was shot down in Berlin and he was captured by the Germans.
“The awful thing about it was we had two crew members killed in that engagement,” Lawing said.
He was a prisoner of war for a little over a year. After being freed, Lawing returned to Atlanta and enrolled at Georgia Tech, graduated with a civil engineering degree, and began working for GDOT. Lawing was a career GDOT employee, meaning he stayed with the department up until retirement, working his way up from being a bridge designer to become the state bridge engineer.
“I can say he truly enjoyed his tenure with the DOT,” Mike Lawing said of his father’s career. “He was always very pleasant and upbeat about what he was doing.”
During their tour together, Clowers and Lawing realized many commonalities, including that both graduated from Georgia Tech with civil engineering degrees.
Clowers said although there have been changes over the years, Lawing’s ideas are still being used today, including his design of Georgia’s first curved steel girder, a structure used for building bridges.
“We are still using…the curved steel,” Clowers said.
“I had something to do with that,” Lawing said with a grin.
Now, Lawing resides at Dunwoody Place, a senior living community in Brookhaven, and remains passionate about engineering.
“It is all just wonderful,” Lawing said. “I learned so much today.”
Update: Wendell Lawling died shortly before the original publication of this article, which has been updated with further information about him.