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Holly A. Cornell

Holly A. Cornell
Memories by James W. Poirot (May 2003)

Holy Cornell and I worked together in CH2M for over 20 years from 1958 to 1978 and then consulted with one another for another 10 years. Actually, I was pleasantly introduced to him in the summer of 1953 when I first worked for Cornell, Howland, Hayes and Merryfield. I was a member of a survey crew at a new water reservoir in Pasco, Washington when he came walking through the sage brush with his suit and hat on to say hello and asked if we needed anything. It was a brief visit, but impressed me and was the beginning of a growing admiration that resulted in my great satisfaction when told I would be assisting him on his projects in 1958.

Holly asked me to move from Corvallis to Seattle with him in 1960 to open a new office. The office was started in downtown Seattle because Holly said we needed to be where the financial decisions were made and major business opportunities were initiated. He joined the Rainier Club to be able to have proper business luncheons and asked me to join the Washington Athletic Club. We often had meals together at each club and always met city attorneys, bond counsels, city councilmen, municipal bond advisors and good friends at these clubs. He was a "classy" guy and wanted his firm to be a "classy" company.

Holly was a fan of his professor at Yale University, Hardy Cross. He explained to all of us many times the repeated charge by Professor Hardy Cross to ask Why, Why, Why and dig until the problem was clearly defined. He would solve problems "on the fly." In about 1960, we were traveling through eastern Oregon and Washington and spent the night in the same motel room (as we often did to economize) in Milton Freewater, Oregon. We had visited the water superintendent earlier in the day when a new water reservoir was mentioned. That evening in our motel room Holly thought out where a good site would be and divided up the tasks. I calculated the flow and pipe sizes to and from the site and Holly estimated the reservoir size and costs. The next day Holly met again with the superintendent and suggested a possible solution and approximate costs.

I was a flying enthusiast and used my personal airplane for many business trips. Where some senior partners were not as interested, Holly often went with me. On one early trip in about 1959, I rented a Piper Tripacer in Corvallis and the two of us flew to Pendleton, Walla Walla and Pasco on a two-day trip that convinced Holly of the value. We encountered considerable clouds flying back down the Columbia River Gorge when he noted that this was his first such experience. After flying above the clouds then working our way under them at Portland and on to Corvallis, he said "Wow, what a neat trip." He enjoyed having me pick him up at a small grass airstrip on Vashon Island where he lived during the 1970s, then heading to Corvallis or eastern Washington. This saved him the ferry ride and worked out quite well.

Holly was a strong promoter of professionalism. He had been active in Oregon serving in professional associations, but soon became President of the Seattle Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers. Then he was Chairman of the ASCE Pacific NW Council. About then, he became President of the Consulting Engineers Council of Washington and initiated new programs such as the Journalism Award for reporters who best explained the key roles of engineers in municipal and other projects. Helping him on various committees motivated me to follow in his footsteps.

Holly was noted for being a good listener. Whether at a CH2M HILL board meeting, a city council meeting or a brainstorming session, he would listen carefully to all the views, ask a few key questions without dominating the conversation, then state the issue and solution more concisely and accurately than most others. This was often the final word to proceed ahead, but he was always ready to accept other good ideas.

He had a way about him to cause others at public meetings to have confidence in him and his proposals. At one public meeting to discuss a new city sewer system, the city manager and other councilmen had the audience confused and antagonistic. They then called on Holly to explain the program. After he finished members of the audience commented that the program was solid and they then supported the new project. This was common and most city managers would rely on Holly to explain the tough issues including the non-engineering topics.

My career had many mentors, but I spent more years learning from and admiring Holly Cornell than any other mentors. I always knew more after a visit with him and was proud to have had him helping me through most of my business and professional career. Holly's foresight to move to the big cities and pursue the more difficult projects was the prime ingredient to the development of a broad-based company needed to support long-range growth. Along the way, he would never accept a poor quality result and would loose considerable money on a project to rectify any mistake or misjudgment. He was known nation-wide for his commitments to quality and satisfied clients.