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My Top 20 Good Times With Jim Howland

My Top 20 Good Times With Jim Howland
By Jim Poirot - 2007

Jim Howland was my best mentor and supervisor and his teachings were not just about business, but kindness, being concerned for others and the great value of spouses throughout the firm.

This is my list of Top 20 Good Times with Jim.

(Editor's note: Jim Poirot's career with CH2M HILL spanned more than years. See his bio for details.)

1. After Professor Fred Merryfield "instructed" me to make an appointment in May 1953 with Jim Howland at Cornell, Howland, Hayes and Merryfield, I complied and made the appointment. Since I had never interviewed for a job before, I was apprehensive and nervous about what I should say or inquire about. My concerns were immediately neutralized when Jim asked me to sit with him in his office where he made me feel at home as though I was one of his family. I'm not sure what I said, but I left thinking that working with Jim Howland and people like him would be a career more enjoyable than I had ever visualized. I had six weeks of ROTC "boot camp" at Camp Carson, Colorado after I graduated and Jim asked me to contact him when I returned, which I did.

I left thinking that working with Jim Howland and people like him would be a career more enjoyable than I had ever visualized.

2. In August 1953, Jim called and asked me to come in for a visit. While in his office, visiting as though we were long-time friends talking about activities of interest, he described a surveying opportunity for me that required working in Pasco, Washington for a week or two with Bob Adams, Ken Stuart and maybe others. I felt needed even though I knew I would be the least experienced person on the crew. This gave me confidence and I began my first job with CH2M.

3. In November 1953, I was called to active duty where, with consultation by Fred Merryfield and Jim, I was introduced to Col. Jackson Graham, Chief of Personnel, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Washington, DC. Col. Graham, his wife Mabel Lee, Raeda and I had numerous fun times together during the three months at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. Jack often explained what a tough time he had trying to decide whether to continue in the military or to work with his best friend, Jim Howland. I was fortunate to have often benefited from Jack asking Jim, Meisy, Raeda and me to join them for events.

4. When close to finishing my active duty assignment in Alaska, thanks to Col. Graham, not Korea or Germany, Jim wrote me a kind letter updating me on the firm's activities and offering me a permanent position when completing my active duty. I knew when I read the letter that I would soon accept even though I had been approached to stay in the Army for a career and by a contractor to continue work in Alaska. Soon, Jim sent me another letter explaining that salaries had increased and again offered me a position. I felt guilty for not responding sooner because regardless of the salary, I knew I wanted to work for Jim Howland.

5. I reported to work December 1, 1955 and traveled that day with Jim to Reedsport, Oregon to learn about the water supply needs at Reedsport. The weather was rain with strong winds, but Jim drove us around a nearby lake which was the primary water supply and then we visited with the city staff. I could tell that it was "old home week" with the staff and they respected Jim as a member of their city's team. It was quickly determined that a profile of the pipeline to the lake was needed and a city employee and I ran a level line to the tunnel entrance into the lake. We finished in the rain as darkness came and then had a good meal before driving back to Corvallis. It was a perfect first day and a fun time getting reacquainted with Jim.

6. The last week of May 1956 was a time when most of the secretarial staff had the flu. Knowing that Raeda had been employed over a 4-year period as a secretary, I asked Jim if it would help if she came in to help until the secretaries were well. Raeda was pregnant with our first child and due any day. Jim thought Raeda could be helpful and she worked the following week. Our son, Steve, was born on Saturday even though Raeda worked the full day on Friday. She said most of her work was for Jim and she was having a great time and Jim was a gem to work with.

7. Jim had been asked by Bob Flowree of C.D. Johnson Lumber Co. to help find a possible water supply for a proposed pulp and paper mill at Toledo, Oregon. Georgia Pacific was about to purchase the lumber company and the new mill was part of the purchase plan. I was again fortunate to have Jim ask me to join him and Bob Flowree to drive the Siletz River basin to look for possible dam and reservoir sites and locations for pumping water over to the Yaquina River. Bob and Jim set up a casual atmosphere with a serious objective that made the day a memorable one for me. Jim let me help him throughout the Georgia Pacific project over the next 2 years.

8. I was asked to study topographic maps for dam and reservoir sites on the Siletz River. In the process, I observed a possible site on Olally Creek in the Yaquina River watershed. After laying out a preliminary dam and reservoir, I calculated the possible storage volume and gave my calculations to Jim for review. Soon, Jim came bouncing up the steps to my desk and I could tell he had a serious subject on his mind. With a smile and in an almost joking discussion, he pointed out that I had calculated the volume to be ten times the actual because of a mistake in a decimal point. I thought, Wow! What a gentle way to impress upon me that such a mistake could be disastrous and that double checking everything was vital. A couple of construction companies I had previously worked for during college would have used tough language and maybe fired me for such a mistake and Jim made the point with a smile.

9. During the design of the GP waste outfall into the Pacific Ocean at Newport, Oregon, we needed to survey the rock profile through the breakers on the beach. I arranged with a Corvallis helicopter service to fly above the breakers while I dropped a lead weight to the bottom. Surveyors on shore triangulated our location and elevation. This resulted in Jim urging me to write a story about the helicopter survey and said he would help me. And help me he did. He edited my first ever article multiple times, made suggestions about pictures, and then wrote the letter to ASCE Civil Engineering magazine. Thanks to Jim's help the article was accepted and printed in the January 1959 issue and Jim would not allow his name to be with mine as co-author.

10. Georgia Pacific asked Jim to look briefly for a water supply at Eureka, California, where GP was considering another pulp and paper mill. Jim asked me to go along to assist. We were met at the Newport, Oregon airport by a GP Twin Beechcraft airplane and then taken to Eureka. There we drove a route along the river to determine if a pipeline was practical and had lunch at a prestigious men's club in an old historic home. We then returned to Corvallis and studied the topographic maps and estimated the cost of a pipeline and other costs. This was a long weekend activity and resulted in the water supply not being economical, but was another fun time with Jim and an unusual opportunity to visit with other GP officials at a young age.

11. Howard Hinsdale of Umpqua River Navigation Company was considering a pulp and paper mill site near Reedsport. Again water supply was crucial and the Umpqua River was the logical source. Since the tide affected the water quality, Jim was asked by Howard Hinsdale to help determine the feasibility of using the river as a water source. Jim stated that the upstream extent of the salt water wedge during high tide would be a vital indicator of the cost to develop a river supply. This led to Howard inviting Jim to determine the location while he contributed his yacht for exploring the salt water upriver extreme. Jim asked me to help him take river samples as Howard piloted his yacht up the river on a beautiful sunny weekend day. I don't think I was much help because there were others on board who could have helped drop sample bottles and log locations and depths, but again, being with Jim and his client friends on a large yacht was an unusually enjoyable day.

12. Mr. Owen Cheatham, GP Chairman of the Board, lived on the hills west of Portland and had low water pressure on the grounds of his estate. Bob Flowree asked Jim to look at the situation and Jim asked me to make a trip to the home. Jim first spent time with me going over the location, the water district maps and described to me the steps to take at the home. This was a learning session from Jim on how to address a small but important hydraulic problem. The solution was somewhat obvious without the trip and resulted in recommending a second supply line from the other side of the property. Thanks to Jim, I learned more hydraulics, met some nice clients and visited an impressive home near Portland.

13. Jim asked me to visit with him in his office in 1959 about management training needs for engineers. This session was the basis for my life-long commitment to always find time to take weekend or other courses on management throughout my engineering career. At that time there was a weekly series of management sessions by industrial officers in Portland. Jim asked me to drive to Portland each Thursday for a few weeks to attend, which I did. Each time I would have a session with him about the information learned and, again, was impressed by the encouragement, kindness and friendliness of Jim Howland.

14. In 1956, the Skylark Flying Club was formed. I had learned to fly in Alaska and was overly enthused about using airplanes in the business. I believe Jim gave in to my justification for CH2M to own two shares. The first airplane was a small two-place Cessna 140, which was then owned by a number of employees and the firm. The airplane was primarily used for training and personal trips, but occasionally for business.

In about August of 1956, Jim and family rented cabins at Crescent Lake for a summer vacation. He invited Raeda, our new baby and me to fly to the Crescent Lake airstrip where he would meet us to spend a day with them. While there, Jim gave me a lesson in sailing his 14-foot pram and suggested I take it out a ways but not go beyond the still water. As I approached the rough water, I turned around the wrong way and capsized the boat. Jim had said to be sure to hang on to the center board and rudder because they would fall out and sink. I was a good swimmer and was able to grab both and then make my way to the capsized boat that floated on its side very well. Jim observed the problem from a distance and could not tell whether I was in difficulty or not. He swam as hard as he could to the boat and provided considerable help at great exertion on his part. We often laughed at my inability to listen to his instructions to always turn into the wind when reversing course and I was always feeling bad that I had created a serious problem on the lake. We flew back to Corvallis that evening and again with Raeda became impressed even more with the Howland family generosity and kindness.

15. In the spring of 1960, Jim was to attend a key meeting of the Port of Umatilla Commission. He was to explain and defend our recommendations of alternatives for the development of port facilities and tell them why the primary site was recommended. There was known opposition to the primary site and since Holly Cornell had been working on Corps of Engineers projects for the City of Umatilla and I had been helping both of them, Jim asked Holly and me to also attend. I suggested we fly the Skylark Flying Club Mooney airplane over and back the same day rather than drive for 2 or 3 days. Jim was receptive and Holly agreed. The weather was clear and the entire trip was successful. This was an unusual trip for both partners to fly together and it may have been the first time either had been in a light airplane. Jim sat up front with me and pointed out the towns and geographical sites along the way and both seemed to have a good time. I was ecstatic because of my interest in flying and I had made the trip many times in accomplishing my business trips to the area. I knew I was working for the right company where the owners would be cooperative about a new experience. Soon after we returned, Burke Hayes received a call from his father who had attended or heard about the meeting since he was a county commissioner. He was startled that two partners were flying in such a small airplane and urged them to not fly again. Both Holly and Jim rode with me at other times in the future and often later in the company airplanes.

16. Jim often impressed upon us that the wives were a vital supporting ingredient in our careers. He attended a summer Seattle office picnic in the mid 1960s and remarked again before the entire group that he was pleased to see all the spouses and stated that they too were a vital part of the CH2M family and that Meisy continuously provided him with numerous helpful and supporting efforts throughout their married lives. This was remembered by me and many others and was often used by me and others in complementing the spouses and their supporting efforts.

17. In about 1964, Jim visited the Seattle office and during his visit with me said the partners were discussing the formation of a professional corporation and then issuing stock to employees. He asked what I thought about it and would I be interested in buying stock if it were available. My instant reaction was, "Wow, I would sell my wife and kids to be able to buy CH2M stock." Jim was quite bothered by my statement and said, "Well, I don't think we would want to make stock available if that is what it would take to buy it and I hope you were only joking." I had not thought of what I was saying and was only remembering comments from college friends when they were excited. As can be observed even now, Jim taught me a good lesson about the value of family and to this day, I have never made such a statement again.

18. In about 1968 a regional managers' meeting was held in Boise. I had flown my airplane to Portland and picked up Lloyd Anderson and went on to Boise. I had committed to attend a Port of Wenatchee meeting the next day and had planned to fly on to Wenatchee after the meeting. Jim was concerned about me making the long Boise to Wenatchee trip in the dark and said he would drive me to the airport after the dinner meeting. I assured him that I had made night trips before and that I was instrument rated and the weather was good for such a trip. I thought at the time, what a caring and concerned "boss" to take the time to be comfortable with the flight. His kindness here was another example of his concern for the CH2M family.

19. In about 1973 there was a need to make a change in the Anchorage management to move Alan Hill to Anchorage. The existing manager was from the Clair Hill firm and Alan was also from there. Being responsible for Alaskan operations, it was my job to make the change, but I was nervous about my relative young age and meeting with the existing manager. Jim met with me to give me total support and good advice about the discussion I was to have. He also said if it seemed too difficult, he would make the changes or follow up from my pending meetings. This kind session gave me the confidence to make the changes knowing that Jim would back me up and help where needed.

20. While Alan was Anchorage Regional Manager in about 1973, he met Tom Drake from the Bering Straits Native Corporation. Tom was an officer of the newly established native corporation which was one of 13 recently provided by U.S. law. Tom talked about their needs and Alan asked me to meet with the two of them. We could see that CH2M HILL could provide surveying and a variety of engineering services at their Nome headquarters and on their lands. It was soon agreed to establish a joint venture corporation for the work, with Tom and me being the representatives of the two entities. We needed to learn more about each other and we felt Jim would be very helpful in explaining the CH2M HILL culture. A joint agreement signing and gift exchange dinner was scheduled in Seattle with Jim and their native chief attending. Gifts were exchanged and then Jim casually described the firm and its history. Tom later asked if he could work for us because Jim Howland would be the perfect person to work for. Tom never worked for us because he was not an engineer and he was excited about the new opportunities in the native corporation, but his admiration for Jim was often stated in other meetings.

There are literally hundreds of CH2M HILL employees who could make similar lists with even better examples of the people-serving person of Jim Howland.

Thank you, Jim, for being my mentor, counselor and continuing friend.