A Life Well Lived

Alan was born in Shropshire, and grew up in Newcastle, England. He completed his undergraduate degree at Portsmouth Polytechnic in Engineering Geology in 1972 and later went on to complete his Masters in Rock Mechanics and Excavation Engineering at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1973.

His first job out of university was as a geologist for the National Coal Board Opencast Executive. It wasn’t long, however, before he moved into rock mechanics and was appointed Regional Head of Geotechnics with the responsibility of reviewing the design and operational aspects of all opencast mines in Northumberland, Durham and Cumberland.

The time came to move onto bigger things, and Alan found the answer in Africa. In 1977 Alan was appointed the position of Rock Mechanics Engineer for Chibuluma Mine in Zambia with Roan Consolidated Mines. Just days before he was due to fly out, however, Alan received a telegram saying that he had been promoted and transferred to Mufulira - an underground operation! The mine had suffered a large scale collapse, and Alan had the task of organising the rehabilitation of critical ramps and haulages. Alan also gained experience in production at Mufulira, obtained his blasting ticket and worked as a shift boss. Alan and his team managed to hold the record for the largest underground blast of close to 150 000 tonnes for some time in the late 1970’s. The highlight of Alan’s time in Zambia was the birth of his first daughter, Sam.

During some R&R in South Africa in 1979, whilst the bush war of Rhodesia was at its height, Alan applied to Rand Mines who employed him to work at Van Dyk’s Drift Colliery in Witbank. Alan obtained his Coal Blasting Certificate and well as his CoM ticket which was the first coal ticket issued. It was during Alan’s stay in Witbank that his second daughter Lisa was born. Alan completed his MBA on a part time basis with Witwatersrand Business School in 1984, and later took a position at Freysinnet as General Manager in 1988. After three years, in which turnover of the Mining Division tripled, Alan “retired” to the University of the Witwatersrand Mining Department. There he lectured in applied rock mechanics, massive mining and financial valuation.

In 1998, Alan took up the coveted position of Group Rock Mechanics Engineer for Anglo American. This was also a time of change when AngloGold was formed. The greatest challenge to the mining team was to reduce the accident rate on the gold mines, half of which were rock related. The “zero tolerance” approach adopted resulted in a halving of fatal incidents in the first year of implementation and continued improvement thereafter. The “Rock Mass Management” systems introduced during that time became a blueprint for industry practice. Shaun Murphy recalls that Alan was the only person who read his reports and gave constructive feedback, in the form of immaculate handwriting and well posed questions that often caused the recompilation of portions, if not the entire report!

In 2003 Zambia called again, and Alan moved back to the position of Group Geotechnical Engineer with Konkola Copper Mines in Chingola. This two-year contract saw the introduction of a radar monitoring system as part of the management of a major slope failure at Nchanga Open Pit and the introduction of an effective backfill system to control progressive pillar failure in the wide, shallow dipping ore body at Konkola No. 3 shaft. During the Nchanga adventure, Alan met up again with Peter Terbrugge who lured him back to South Africa in 2005 to join SRK when the KCM contract was completed. Alan headed up the SRK mining geotechnical department from 2009 until 2012. In 2014 Alan went from full time work to full time retirement. This was a time packed with exciting birding and hiking excursions, participating as an Honorary Park Ranger, geological trails and international trips with Jenny, his better half. Alan was passionate about his hobbies, of which there were many, and saw them as critical to a sound life and work balance.

Alan spent countless hours coaching, guiding and influencing the thought processes of many rock engineers, young and old, and encouraged us to contemplate the subject matter deeply and with attention to detail. Alan took great pride in astute technical writing, his reports were unparalleled in content, along with his uncanny ability to turn a phrase and his mastery of both grammar and the English language. Alan’s somewhat relaxed approach to the boring tasks of keeping the invoices and filing under control were easily forgiven, and were managed a little more effectively by the ladies he mentored and supported.

The years working with Alan have been inspirational, from hearing him come whistling into the office in the mornings to having to sit through yet another Alan and Peter rendition of the Nchanga failure. It is not just the rock engineering that makes Alan memorable, it was his empathy for people and his willingness to listen, no matter how mundane the topic.

Alan was a recipient of the prestigious SANIRE Lifetime Achievement Award, presented to him in 2013 which saw him join the elite group of 18 other rock engineering practitioners. This award is a true reflection of the what Alan accomplished in his career which spanned over 4 decades and the depth and breadth of the world.

Alan taught us to be brave, to believe in ourselves and to take pride in our work. He taught us to question everything, and to continue to pursue any form of knowledge as it will eventually contribute to the bigger picture. Alan loved his girls and his darling Jenny and spoke of them at any opportunity. The time gifted to us was not enough with this wonderful man, but we remain grateful for every minute we had with him. Alan’s legacy lives on with every person who was a part of his life, a life well lived.

Compiled by Sharla Coetsee with extracts from the immortal genius himself, William Joughin and Debbie Olivier of SRK Consulting (Pty) Ltd, Johannesburg.