When he first came to this country in 1947, Benjamin Chih-Fang Wei intended to study at the University of Illinois, then return to China to work as a civil engineer in his native country. He hadn't planned to stay.
But while he was in graduate school, the communist revolution swept across China, and educated people -- particularly those who had studied abroad -- were considered enemies of the new proletarian regime. Unable to go home, Ben Wei, who died of stomach cancer June 12 at age 78, had to make a life for himself in a new country and a new culture.
Instead of building bridges across the Yangtze or Yalu, he used his master's degree in bridge engineering and his doctorate in aerospace structural engineering to design bridges, engines and parts for Titan rockets, nuclear submarines and nuclear reactors.
Even as he found professional success, working 22 years for the Department of Energy, Wei remained separated from his past. He saw neither his parents nor his seven brothers and sisters for 32 years.
He was born in the Chinese port city of Ningbo and as a child moved with his family to China's most cosmopolitan city, Shanghai, where his father managed a movie theater that showed U.S. and Chinese films.
As a result, young Ben became a devoted fan of Hollywood movies, watching "Gone With the Wind" and other classic films over and over in an effort to improve his English. He enrolled at Shanghai's St. John's University, then the most prestigious college in the country, where most of the courses were taught in English. After riding his bicycle 15 miles each way to class, he graduated when he was 19.
In New York in 1951, he married and found a job with one of the country's leading bridge engineering firms, D.B. Steinman. Wei became the construction manager of the Delaware Memorial Bridge, which connects Delaware and New Jersey and is familiar to anyone who has driven from Washington to New York on Interstate 95.
From 1953 to 1957, he had a key role in building the majestic Mackinac Bridge, linking the upper and lower peninsulas of Michigan. With a length of five miles, and with concrete towers soaring 552 feet above the water, the Mackinac is one of the longest and tallest suspension bridges in the world. For years after it was built, Wei continued to make trips to Michigan just to look at the engineering wonder he helped create.
"Every time we went over a bridge," recalled one of his three daughters, Deborah Dayton, "he would tell us the history of the bridge and about the structural design."
In 1959, Wei turned from bridge-building -- "He thought all the big bridges had been built," wife Margot Chou Wei said -- to working for a New Jersey company on the Wankel rotary engine. Later used in the Mazda RX-7 automobile, the motor was considered an engineering breakthrough. After helping build rockets and nuclear submarines for General Electric, Wei moved to Silver Spring in 1970 and joined what would become the Department of Energy to help design nuclear reactors.
Throughout his life, he pursued many interests besides his work. In his early years as an engineer, he ran a television-repair business on the side, with his basement filled with the tubes and wires of dismantled sets. Later, he became an excellent photographer, winning awards at art shows for his landscapes and scenic shots. He would stay up half the night developing photographs in his darkroom at home.
Three decades after the communist revolution, Wei finally got his chance to return to China in 1979 to see the family he had left behind. He went back to China once or twice a year for the rest of his life. More recently, as Dayton established a refrigeration company near Shanghai, he helped find a location and worked with Chinese officials and suppliers.
"He said that was one of the best things he'd ever done with me," his daughter said.
For more than 30 years, Wei and his wife participated in round dancing, an elaborate blend of ballroom and square dancing performed by couples moving in a circle. They belonged to five clubs and went out several times a week to dance the choreographed steps of waltzes, tangos and cha-chas.
In modern China, it is not unusual for someone to set up a portable stereo on a street corner and, for a donation of a few cents, invite people to dance to his music. On their visits, Ben and Margot Wei often would give some coins to the music man and dance together on the streets of Shanghai, just like Fred and Ginger in those dreamy, indelible movies of so long, long ago.