Volume 7, Number 4, 1998

Engineer's expertise becomes his legacy to
East Africa and District of Columbia

Carl Mayfield, EG '86, survived childhood in a tough Philadelphia neighborhood to become a man of influence in several countries.

A civil engineer, he's helped design power systems and improved town water supplies in Zimbabwe, Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. In the District of Columbia, he developed elder-care facilities and was responsible for the retail development of the $200 million MCI Center, home of the Washington Wizards basketball team and the Capitals hockey team.

Mayfield's career can be traced back to a bargain with his mother for the right to play sports in high school, after the family had relocated to New Castle, Del.

"We had a real basic deal," recalls Mayfield. "If I kept my grades to a B or higher, I could play any sport I wanted."

This understanding ensured his daily rides from the gym to his house in time for dinner and helped him letter in basketball and track and field at St. Mark's High School near Newark, Del. And, it also allowed his mother to pass on her understanding of the world-the give-and-take conditions that determine success and failure.

Mayfield's father was a truck driver, and his mother worked for the post office. A concerted effort on their part kept Mayfield and his sister on the path to success, providing a constant reminder of the world outside the troubled inner city.

"A lot of the friends I grew up with in Philly didn't make it," Mayfield says, "whether it was drugs, gangs or murder. I never had idle time. That's what kept me out of trouble, out of harm's way."

Advisers at St. Mark's recommended Mayfield to the Forum to Advance Minorities in Engineering (FAME) program at the University of Delaware. The program, which provides minority high school students early exposure to college courses, allowed him to spend a summer on the University's Newark campus and helped him earn an academic scholarship.

It also turned his attention away from sports.

"As an athlete, I knew my limitations," he says, laughing.

By his sophomore year at Delaware, Mobil Oil recognized Mayfield as one of the top 25 minority students in the country and awarded him a summer internship. He received a job offer from the Maryland engineering firm of Greenhorne & O'Mara during his junior year, which he accepted after graduation.

For his first project, Mayfield helped develop a suburban development in Bowie, Md., that included 832 houses spread over 500 acres. His responsibilities were large, with planners, draft persons, lawyers, surveyors and computer technicians all part of his team. Fortunately, he had help in the person of fellow Delaware alumnus Steve Whayland, EG '86. "We were the cog, the hub and the wheel," he says. The pair of fledgling engineers also learned about sleepless nights and the relationship between coffee and the workday. "Typically, we finished up and grabbed a shower, a quick shave and a change of clothes before heading back to the office."

Mayfield next decided to apply his vocation to another social setting. He found a project-comprehensive site engineering for a Maternal-Child Health Care Hospital-in a small East African village, Shinyanga, Tanzania, a tiny dot on the map where rain falls only one month each year. Even his family worried about the undertaking, but, with his firm's blessing, he borrowed $50,000 worth of equipment to embark on a project that compensated him with only room and board.

He spent the next eight months living in a 150-square-foot room. There were no windows, and the cement floor was bare. He shared a bathroom with 25 other people. In addition to his work on the new facility, he installed a backup power system for the hospital and assisted with the installation of underground wells that improved the village's water supply.

"The biggest lesson I learned was that the things you think are critically important to your survival are not important at all," he says. "You're judged by what you leave behind."

This led to the formation of Build Tech, Mayfield's one-person show that dealt with similar infrastructure projects in Zimbabwe, Uganda and Kenya as well as domestic housing projects for the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Mayfield says his most memorable project was a six-story, elder-care facility with a day-care program. However, a schedule of 14-hour workdays took its toll, and Mayfield shut down his construction management firm.

"Self-employment is not for the faint of heart," Mayfield says. "Immersing yourself in a goal seven days a week, missing birthdays and critical family events, will lead to burnout."

Mayfield decided to apply his engineering background to the larger business world. But, a surprise invitation to participate in a meeting of the District of Columbia's real estate executive task force took his life in yet another direction. The committee conducted an evaluation of every publicly owned piece of real estate in the nation's capital. The ensuing four-month report made recommendations that could save the district nearly $44 million.

"I was the only guy there not from one of the large real estate investment trust companies," he says. His contributions received mayoral recognition and attracted the attention of Washington Wizards' owner Abe Pollin, who was busy building the MCI Center.

Acting as owner representative, Mayfield managed contractors and vendors and handled a $44 million budget. He was responsible for the retail component within the area, including the National Sports Gallery, the Discovery Flagship Store, the Velocity Grill Restaurant and Modell's Team Store.

Highlights of his two-year experience with the center included a private lunch with Muhammad Ali and watching Polin "chew out his business partners for their poor performance," he says.

Mayfield, who now plans to enroll in a real estate development program at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, also serves as a volunteer coach. During the past year, he has worked with 10-year-olds in Fort Washington, Md., where he makes his home.

"I feel like I've been given many opportunities, and I want to make the most of it," he says. Serving as a role model is an obligation, his way of expressing gratitude to those who helped him.

"I've been very fortunate to have some really great people take an interest in me," he says.

-Eric Fine