Dean's Circle Spotlight: Sparking Opportunity and Success
As a third-generation volunteer firefighter, Randall “Randy” J. Shearman ’85, M.S. ’92 had a head start on his education in fire protection engineering. Fifty-one years—and two UMD degrees—since he first suited up, the proud Terp continues his service today with West Hills Regional Fire Department in his hometown of Johnstown, Pennsylvania.
After graduating from high school, Shearman followed his father James, an electrician, to Bethlehem Steel, where he would work as a laborer until a flood decimated the area’s mills in 1977. Later, the future Terp would visit the University of Maryland and meet Professor Jim Milke ’76, M.S. ’81, Ph.D. ’91 (who retired in September after more than 40 years of UMD service, including as longtime chair of the Department of Fire Protection Engineering, or FPE, from 2011 to 2023). As he was for so many Maryland engineers, Milke would become an influential figure throughout Shearman’s career.
The first in his family to attend college, Shearman began working toward his first UMD degree at 21, after earning an associate’s in fire science. He was in the first year of graduates from FPE’s master’s program (his fellow grads were Daniel O’Connor M.S. ’92, Debra Bernstein M.S. ’92, and Rick Parker ’90, M.S. ’92). Crediting his father for understanding the power of a college degree, Shearman recalls a story he’d heard about working in the steel mill: “My dad told me, ‘I worked down in a pit today with acid running down the back of my raincoat. The foreman was dry, standing on the operating floor. I’ve got 36 years’ experience, but the foreman has a college education.’”
Degrees in hand, Shearman never quit the fire service; firefighting, he says, enhances his work as an engineer. As the “eyes and ears of the chief,” his role of safety officer requires a macroscopic view.
Seeing the whole picture has served Shearman well as an engineering consultant, mainly for the nuclear power industry; he describes his role as fitting together the pieces of a large puzzle. In this role, he’s had the opportunity to see some fascinating places, including the inside of a nuclear reactor. “I’m not a special guy,” Shearman says with humility, “but I have special knowledge, and that’s because of my Maryland education.”
THE DEAN’S CIRCLE
Shearman’s student-teacher connection with Milke evolved into a collegial one. He describes Milke as having a knack for pranks but always a professional in the classroom—and the best instructor he’s ever had. Milke, Shearman says, helped him get “set up” in the graduate program and land his first contracting job; later, the two worked together on some of the same jobs. When it came time to pay his opportunities forward to the next generation of engineering Terps, Shearman called on his mentor and colleague for advice: “Jim Milke’s been a presence throughout my career; I trust his judgment and value his guidance.”
The alum established the needbased James P. Shearman TerpStart Endowed Scholarship in Fire Protection Engineering in 2015 and the Shearman Endowed Fellowship in Fire Protection Engineering in 2019, both funds dedicated to his father.
The endowed fellowship is one of the department’s largest and structured as a blended gift, with part of the commitment coming from a bequest and the rest from yearly contributions. It’s an arrangement that allows the smart money manager “to keep some powder dry for the future,” Shearman says. As an added benefit, he can witness his impact on students—which he did at the Clark School’s annual scholarship luncheon in April, where he chatted with scholarship recipients and caught up with FPE faculty, Milke among them.
Shearman calls education a “force multiplier,” changing many lives, one student at a time. Ever humble, he says of his giving to support engineering Terps, “I’m taking one little weight out of their backpack, but it’s one thing I can do.
“It’s the most solid investment I’ve ever made.”
Published October 13, 2023