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Mike Winney 1943-2007

Obituary

Mike Winney, a former New Civil Engineer editor died suddenly last Sunday during a visit to France with his wife Jane.

Throughout his life, Mike was a passionate and extremely knowledgeable advocate for engineers and engineering, being equally comfortable talking about bridges, buildings, engines, aircraft or cars - of which he kept numerous classics.

Yet civil engineering was his main focus. He started his career on the John Laing graduate training scheme in the 1960s before moving to London Transport after five years. There he satisfied his passion for railways by working on the design of the cut and cover section of the Piccadilly Line Extension to Heathrow. He became a member of the ICE in 1973.

But it was as a journalist that he will be best remembered professionally and personally. He switched careers in 1975 to become a reporter for Construction News.

While there his nose for a story was developed and, in particular, his unique talent for reporting disasters. It was his reporting of the Teton Dam collapse, plus numerous bridge falsework failures and the subsequent campaign to improve safety that made his name as a reporter and saw him quickly promoted to technical editor.

His clear journalistic talent was quickly noticed by CN's rivals and in 1980 he was poached by NCE, which was then just a few years old and desperate to challenge its older competitor.

At NCE he continued to produce outstanding news and features and again led the way with reports of the Abbeystead gas explosion, earthquakes in Mexico and San Francisco, and construction of the Thames Barrier and the M25 (he was one of the first to drive all the way round).

He briefly left NCE in 1991 to edit sister title Ground Engineering but returned as editor in 1993. Under his leadership, NCE continued to drive the news agenda, leading with stories on the Channel Tunnel, the Jubilee Line Extension and the collapse of the Heathrow Express tunnel in 1994.

He led the magazine through its sale by the ICE to Emap in 1996 and continued until 1998 when he stepped down to become Editor Emeritus.

This new role kept him very involved with the magazine up to his death, primarily through his judging of the British Construction Industry Awards but also through regular advice, mentoring and contributions.

Mike and his wife Jane were regulars at NCE's events not least the annual Christmas reception. Since 1998 Mike was the force behind the technical seminar programme at the magazine's Civils show.

Mike will be very much missed by all at the magazine.

Three former NCE editors write.

Sydney Lenssen, NCE editor, 1974-1976

Mike Winney's death in France over the weekend is a shock, especially sad because he had much more to give to communications in civil engineering.

Engineering was ingrained in him, all facets, all ages of achievement held wonder for him and he was always ready and able to pass on his excitement. His passing is far too early.

Mike was the fourth NCE editor and his tenure was the most difficult. He was at the helm when ownership passed from the ICE to Emap. If that change surprised the readership world-wide, it was traumatic for the magazine's dedicated staff.

He rallied all in the turmoil of conflicting loyalties, he gave the lead in embracing the new challenge.

My heart attack was 12 years ago and left me working parttime at Pell Frischmann. Mike agreed that I could try writing a column for the magazine after a break of 17 years. It was a big risk for him but it allowed me access to people in the industry for five years, easing a slide into retirement. I shall always be grateful.

Two years ago, Mike was president of the British section of Conseil National des Ingenieurs et des Scientiques de France (CNISF), and with Jane - partner and then wife during that year - he laid on a stimulating year of lectures, visits and celebrations.

With CNISF and with his village Comberton's twinning links, he was no stranger to the delights of France and its engineering genius, past and present. Our thoughts are with Jane.

Hugh Ferguson, deputy director general, ICE, NCE editor 1976-1989

Mike was first rate journalist - hard working, conscientious, enthusiastic and tenacious in pursuit of a good story.

He had that rare knack of being able to take an immensely complex technical subject and present the important issues in a straightforward and comprehensible form.

He was consistently fair and objective in his dealings with people and stories, very supportive of his staff and respected by almost everyone he dealt with.

He was editor at the time of the sale of NCE to Emap, and his handling of this important event was exemplary.

For 15 years until his death, he was a judge of the British Construction Industry Awards, a role which gave him great pride and enjoyment, and again his hard work and conscientiousness shone through.

Mike was a Fellow of the ICE and in 1999 was elected to Council. During his three year term he served on the Environment and Sustainability Board and the Member Services Committee.

At the time of his death he was also a member of the Editorial Advisory panel of the Institution's journal Civil Engineering and was on the judging panel of the Civil Engineering Manager of the Year Award having been involved with the award since its inception.

As president of CNISF, the 'French Civils' his enthusiasm was to the fore. People may remember the Meccano model of the Eiffel Tower - lovingly constructed by Mike himself - in reception at One Great George Street at the time of his CNISF Presidential Address in January 2005.

In all he did, Mike was always a great champion of engineering.

Ty Byrd, NCE editor, 1989- 1993

Mike and I worked together on the technical desk of Construction News between 1973 and 1976 when I left to become New Civil Engineer's features editor. I later poached Mike from CN.

I had the highest regard for his thoroughness and his reluctance to accept information at face value. Mike was dogged and clever, not least after a disaster had taken place - finding out what had gone wrong and reporting his conclusions to prevent a recurrence.

A case in point is the 1984 explosion at the Abbeystead water treatment plant. Methane gas ignited in a water transfer outfall just as some locals were being shown around the new building. People were killed and maimed.

In the days that followed, it was Mike, tramping around the stricken site time and again with a set of 'borrowed' drawings, who worked out the fatally flawed design of the plant's gas vent pipe work.

NCE came out with the full story, complete with a highly detailed orthographic projection of the facility showing what had probably happened.

A very, very similar drawing appeared weeks later in the HSE's offi al report, which came much to the same conclusions. Mike and NCE took tremendous flack, in the interim, for 'presumptuous reporting'.

But he knew that we were right.

Even more revealing of Mike's strength of character during this time was his dedication to his young sons, Robin and Anton, who due to difficult personal circumstances, he brought up very much on his own.

My memory of him will be his careful wrapping up of his sons in old sheepskins, to ward off the cold, as they set off one brisk Sunday evening from my home in Kent to theirs near Hemel Hempstead, in Mike's 1926 Austin Chummy.

(See Comment page 19)

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