Architect, war hero William Peña named distinguished alumnus

See list of 2015 Distinguished Alumnus Award honorees.

William Peña ’42, whose legendary architectural career followed a harrowing tour of duty in World War II, is the recipient of a 2015 Distinguished Alumnus Award, the highest honor bestowed upon a former student of Texas A&M University.

The surprise award announcement was made by Marty Holmes ’87, vice president of The Association of Former Students, on March 5, 2015 at the Texas A&M Hispanic Network Annual Summit, where Peña was being honored for his military service.

Presented by Texas A&M and The Association, the award recognizes Aggies who have achieved professional excellence and made meaningful contributions to their communities and the university. Peña was honored as an Outstanding Alumnus of the Texas A&M College of Architecture in 1998, the first year that award was presented.

The 2015 Distinguished Alumni honorees will be feted Friday, Oct. 2 at a black-tie gala in Reed Arena. Fewer than six percent of Texas A&M’s 425,000 former students have earned the honor.

Peña’s architectural career began in 1948 when he joined the design firm Caudill, Rowlett and Scott, and was promoted to firm partner in 1949.

He soon became a national pioneer in programming, a process that provides the general direction a building’s design should take after the client’s goals and needs are determined.

Peña and two colleagues, William Caudill and John Focke, detailed the programming process in the 1969 book “Problem Seeking.” Now in its fifth edition, “Problem Seeking” is a standard textbook in architectural education.

Peña’s architectural career began after serving in the European theater in World War II. Commissioned as an army second lieutenant May 17, 1942 — the day after he graduated from Texas A&M — Peña began officer training, then was deployed to Europe in September 1944. Peña was part of Allied forces who engaged the German army during the Battle of the Bulge, which began in December 1944.

 In March 1945, Peña was with fellow soldiers near Schlieden, Germany when he stepped on a land mine while repairing a unit communications line.

“… I must have stepped off the hard-top (road) onto the muddy shoulder,” said Peña in his World War II memoir, “As Far As Schlieden” (59MB PDF).

“An ear-splitting explosion below numbed me as I felt myself rising, head bowed, in the air,” he said.

He eventually lost a leg in the explosion and was sent to the United States to recover.

Peña is one of five Texas A&M former students whose wartime exploits are honored in “From Texas to Bastogne: Texas Aggies Go to War,” a multimedia exhibit in Bastogne, Belgium that opened Dec. 12, 2014.

After a two-year display in Bastogne, the exhibit is scheduled to be moved to the Brazos Valley for permanent display; a task force is raising funds and identifying a location for the exhibit. 

A large-scale, outdoor dramatization of the exhibit was staged on May 16, 2014 at Bastogne’s Mardasson Memorial, which honors the memory of American soldiers wounded or killed in the battle, as a backdrop.

Peña is the only living member of the group of Aggies honored in the exhibit and the dramatization.

In 2013, Peña received France’s highest honor, the medal of Chevalier of the National Order of the Legion of Honour, during a 2013 Veterans Day ceremony at Minute Maid Park in Houston.

Peña was part of a group of World War II veterans who received the medal from Surijo Seam, consulate general of France.

He landed in Normandy, France on Sept. 6, 1944 with the U.S. Army’s 109th Infantry and was among the first to enter liberated Colmar. His other World War II honors include the Bronze Star, Purple Heart, and the French Certificate Croix de Guerre.

posted March 13, 2015