Alumni Spotlight: Charles “Steve” Dwyer ‘76

School News

Alumni Spotlight: Charles “Steve” Dwyer ‘76

February 26, 2018

Charles Dwyer, known familiarly as “Steve” by many, is a dedicated member of USC and USC Architecture. He first attended the School more than 50 years ago, receiving a Bachelor of Architecture, Master of Urban Design, and Master of Science in Computer Science before graduating from USC in 1976. In the half-century since beginning his undergraduate education here, Dwyer has continuously worked at the US Army Corps of Engineers, where he has also been active for 50 years, and where he is currently the Navigation Branch Chief. Dwyer continues to return to USC to teach, recruit, and help with classes and reviews.


Can you share about your time at USC Architecture?

I started here in September of 1966, and in the first or second month of school here, there was a notice that Alpha Rho Chi was hosting tours of the recently acquired Gamble House. When the docent said the plan was to have two Architecture students stay at the House for security, I thought to myself, ‘cool maybe I’ll get to do that,’ and two or three years later, I moved into the Gamble House. I lived there for three years, which is longer than anybody whose last name isn’t Gamble has lived there. The docents called me the “longest living resident.” And in fact, when the current scholars go away, like for spring break, I stay there.


I got a Bachelor's degree in Architecture in May of 1971. I studied with a number of the giants on the faculty, specifically Ralph Knowles, Pierre Koenig, and Emmet Wemple. Ralph was known by the students as the “sun god” because of his work in architectural responses to the sun.


I graduated in 1971, but I stayed to get a Master of Urban Design degree in 1972. Then I shifted over to the Engineering School and got a Master of Science in Computer Science. In September of 1976, the school here offered me a part-time teaching position, and I taught computer applications. Computer applications being in its infancy at that time, there were no smartphones, no AutoCAD, no personal computers, so we programmed on the university mainframe. I taught four classes here, four programming classes, and a directed research class for 13 years.


[10 years later], the then-Dean Bob Harris asked if I would help out with an architectural studio that he was running that contained one of the facilities that the Corps of Engineers built, Ballona Creek. I was like a visiting critic for that semester, took the students on field trips and came here and talked to them about Ballona Creek, how it works and what it does, why it looks the way it does.


A few years later, Alex Robinson asked me to help him with a landscape studio centered on the LA River. So I’ve been doing the visiting critic role with him for about five years, and then two years ago I started doing the visiting critic role with Building Science. I was at the midterm and final reviews last semester for Building Science, and I’ll be here for the final review at the end of March.


Working with Alex, we put together a partnership agreement between my organization and the School of Architecture that provides guest lectures, visiting critics, provides access to our projects for field trips, and to our projects for studio projects as well as data that goes with them. One studio used our Ballona wetlands project as a studio project. The agreement allows the school’s students, any of them, building science, landscape, or architecture, to tap into the enormous engineering resources that we have available. Alex is the POC for the school, and I am the POC for the Corps.


What are your favorite memories here?

Working with Ralph Knowles in third year. He was a great man, quite the visionary. I later became his teaching assistant and then his research assistant. I also had a great mentor by the name of John Gilchrist, and an even greater mentor by the name of Mark Turnbull who actually put my feet on the path of teaching here. And I loved teaching here.


Tell us about your time with the Army Corps of Engineers.

I started with the Corps in 1968. I had two summer jobs out of high school with the Veterans Administration, and the clinic where I worked was closing after the end of the second summer. They said they would try to place me in a federal agency that was closer to architecture, and that federal agency was the Corps of Engineers. I worked there the summer between second year and third year. At the end of that summer, I asked if I could stay on part-time because being an architecture student, you obviously have to buy pens and paper and supplies, that kind of thing. I worked full-time during the summer, part-time during the school year until I graduated, and then I was going to grad school, so I continued working part-time until the third time I graduated. That was more than 50 years ago.


So I started a summer job, and it turned into a career. And I feel like the students here that I’ve worked with have benefitted from my expertise as well as the expertise of a number of people in our organization. I’ve done probably a dozen LA River-related studios. I even have kayaked the river three times with students, twice with Harvard landscape students and once with USC landscape students.


I could have retired 10 years ago, but I love what I do. What I do for the Corps right now is I am the Navigation Branch Chief, so my office takes care of 14 harbors on the California coast. I also run our engineering interning program, so I do recruiting at USC, UCLA, Cal Poly, Pomona, and other places. I bring the recent graduates on board, mentor them, and watch over them. The interns call me “Godfather.” And I’ve long since maxed out the maximum retirement, so basically I’m working for free because I like what I do.


How did USC Architecture help you prepare for that experience?

I don’t do any design work, but the techniques and principles I learned here, how to break a big problem down into small pieces, how to organize things, how to persuade people, are all skills that I got here that serve me very well in my present role.


What does it mean to be a USC Architecture alum?

Well, I have strong ties with this school. My ties go back 50 years. I know a lot of the faculty, I know a lot of the students, and I just have a great deal of affection for this place and what it does. I feel like the school gave me the tools that I need to succeed in my present job.