Look at the photographs, and two versions of Gene LeBoeuf emerge.
There’s the camo-wearing, two-star Army general leading jungle warfare training in Ghana, talking counter-terrorism in Nigeria and gathering senior leadership on the base in Vicenza, Italy. And then there’s the beloved and respected Vanderbilt University engineering professor pacing in loafers in front of a Featheringill Hall whiteboard, explaining to rapt students the importance of understanding ISO fire ratings in design.
Somehow, LeBoeuf manages to meld his two personas to the benefit of both soldiers and students, moving back and forth between lives with the support of the university and his family. The ability to innovate and adapt is key, he says, and was perhaps no more vital than when he was called up from the Army Reserve, arriving from Vanderbilt at U.S. Army Africa Command in August 2017 for a two-year tour as deputy commanding general. Three weeks later, he became acting commander.
LeBoeuf’s path to that lofty position began as a Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology engineering major. Maybe it started even before that, growing up in Noblesville, Indiana, and hearing stories from his grandfather, a World War II Army officer with a background in both finance and engineering, who stayed in Germany after the war’s end to help rebuild its economy.
But it took Rose-Hulman to commit LeBoeuf to both the military and civil engineering, the former because of a requirement for all freshmen to take ROTC classes, the latter because he excelled at math and loved being outdoors.
“Civil engineering has always been exciting to me in terms of going out there and solving society’s toughest problems, whether they involve water resources or transportation or even large structures,” LeBoeuf said. “If you talk to most civil engineers, they would say that that’s part of what they really enjoy doing: getting out there working with people to understand problems and come up with solutions. I’ve also always wanted to work outside, and that’s part of the attraction to the Army, too. We call it an outdoor sport.”
Wedding, then off to war
He was commissioned as a second lieutenant upon graduation, and his first Army assignment was to earn a master’s in industrial engineering and management science from Northwestern University. After that, assignments with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers sent him around the world and back to America’s heartland, where he was assigned a major river flood mitigation program in Pineville, Kentucky. There he met his wife, Teresa, who was a geological engineer on the project.
They married Aug. 4, 1990, just after Iraq invaded Kuwait. Four months into the marriage, LeBoeuf was deployed for combat in Operation Desert Storm, beginning the balancing act that became his life.
“As I tell my soldiers, we have to be purposeful every day,” LeBoeuf said. “I’ve got to make sure that I prioritize where I’m spending my time. I think some people are better at it than I am, but I remind myself every day to keep my ties to what’s important. I love my family, and I love both jobs I have. I’m very blessed.”
LeBoeuf transitioned from the regular Army to the Army Reserve, serving as instructor in the Department of Systems Engineering at West Point, earning a master’s in civil engineering at Stanford University, his Ph.D. in environmental engineering from the University of Michigan and raising two children. He rose in rank and launched his career in academia, recognizing his passion for teaching and research while serving as an instructor at the U.S. Army Engineer School at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, and started working at Vanderbilt in 1997.
“Vanderbilt was absolutely the best choice, as it demonstrates tremendous balance in research, teaching and service and expects excellence in all three areas,” LeBoeuf said. “Vanderbilt is simply outstanding in its approach to valuing all three areas of activity in an extremely collegial setting, and so it was a great fit and terrific opportunity for me.”
In January 2015, the Army promoted him from the rank of colonel to brigadier general, and to his new position of deputy commanding general of the 416th Theater Engineer Command. A year later, he was recalled to active duty to serve as executive vice provost of academic affairs for Army University in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and deputy commanding general for reserve affairs for the U.S. Army Combined Arms Center.
Vanderbilt’s School of Engineering helped LeBoeuf celebrate his promotion and then found other professors to cover his classes. It only makes sense to accommodate the military career of an esteemed educator such as LeBoeuf, said Philippe Fauchet, Bruce and Bridgitt Evans Dean of Engineering.
“We want our students to be leaders in their fields as well as outstanding scholars, and one of the best ways to do that is to have faculty who are proven leaders,” Fauchet said. “Gene teaches more than engineering to his students. He is a model example of a principle-driven, engineering leader who is an expert in solving problems in a large organization. He is an ideal person to be an influence on our students.”
Prepared to adapt
After his year at Army University, LeBoeuf learned about his next assignment: U.S. Army Africa deputy commanding general. He was moved to his superior’s post in a personnel change soon after arriving on base. He felt prepared, he said, because the Army ingrains in its personnel the importance of readiness to serve at the next level up and the ability to handle change.
Still, he said, his success would have been much more difficult without the support of his family and Vanderbilt colleagues.
“It’s mostly the family that must be a supporter of you pursuing a dual career,” he said. “Second is your civilian employer, who must understand that you’ll be called away from time to time, but that what you learn in the military is of value to their organization. I’ve been very, very blessed with Vanderbilt University as an employer and with the chairs and faculty in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, who have been tremendous supporters. I can’t thank my Vanderbilt colleagues enough for the sacrifice that they make for me to serve.”
LeBoeuf returned to the classroom for the fall 2018 semester and will remain there for the indefinite future. In spring 2019, he taught an upper-level course in water resources engineering and in the fall will be teaching hydrology and surface water quality modeling.
But when the Army calls again, and it will, he feels confident he can respond — thanks to all his support in Nashville.