Lyman Wilbur: A Constructive Leader
Of the 20th Century
Spend a couple of hours with
Lyman Wilbur and you come
away with some interesting
anecdotes about his 39 years with MK
and a strong conviction that this gentleman,
who was born in 1900, could still
put on a hard hat, and go out and solve
somebody's engineering problem.
What you won't get is much about
the individual accomplishments of his
career; about the long list of honors
that - if you knew nothing else about
him - would tell you that Wilbur was
one of the most distinguished engineers
of this century.
Is this a fair assessment of his
"I'll answer that this way,'' he says.
''I have received a lot of honors, many
of which I feel others were much more
entitled to than I. That's why people
talk about me the way they do.''
Despite his self-depreciating ways,
Wilbur is considered one of the leading
engineers of his time. MK thought so
much of him that the rules were
changed to allow him to work past the
then mandatory retirement age of 65.
He was nearing 71 when he finally did
retire at the end of 1970.
Others thought so much of his engineering
expertise that he worked as a
consultant well into his 80s.
Wilbur joined MK in 1932. He was in
the office of a San Francisco construction
company looking for a job when he
happened to meet Harry Morrison who
was there visiting the company.
Morrison hired Wilbur and sent him to
MK's office in Los Angeles.
He was going back to the town where
he was born and raised. His father, Curtis
Dwight Wilbur, was a long-time
judge who served as chief justice of the
California Supreme Court and later was
a member of President Coolidge's cabinet
as Secretary of the Navy.
Wilbur entered Stanford University
in 1917. His uncle, Ray Lyman Wilbur,
was president of Stanford at the time
and later served as Secretary of Interior
in the Hoover administration.
Lyman Wilbur entered Stanford with
the idea of becoming a lawyer. "I didn' t
even know what an engineer was," he
says. However, he liked mathematics
so he took one math class, a class, it
happened, that was designed for
" I changed after the first quarter,"
he says. "I fell asleep studying that
legal stuff. I could stay up all night
working math problems."
After graduation, he worked at several
jobs, including two years in Russian
Turkestan working, as he puts it,
''for the Bolsheviks.''
He joined MK shortly after his return
from Russia and rose steadily up the
ranks, eventually holding the dual role
of vice-president of engineering for MK
and president of the company's International
Engineering Company subsidiary,
while also serving as a director.
He had a direct role in some of the
company's most challenging projects.
One such job was the Tagus River
Bridge project in Lisbon, Portugal,
where MK had to seat on bedrock the
deepest bridge pier ever - 270 feet
below water at high tide. He spent two and-
one-half years in Morocco as resident
partner in charge of Atlas
Constructors, an MK-led joint venture
that constructed five huge U.S. air
Wilbur was involved with the team of
MK engineers that solved the founda-
tion problems that led to construction
of the railroad causeway the company
built across The Great Salt Lake.
Attempts by others to build the causeway
had failed. He also served as resident
partner during the early days of
MK's massive construction effort in
Which leads back to his many
For his work in Vietnam he was
named Engineering News Record's
first "Construction Man of the Year'' in
1966. The article noted that, "Mr.
Wilbur doesn't fit the stereotype picture
of a construction stiff. A tall,
courtly man who wears rimless
glasses, he likes classical music and
gardening, neither smokes nor swears,
and rarely takes a drink. And to find a
man of his age - nearly 66 - holding
down one of the key jobs in a combat
zone comes as a surprise.''
He also received the top awards
given by The Beavers, The Moles, the
American Society of Civil Engineers
and the National Society of Professional
Engineers. In 1972, he was presented
with what is generally considered engineering's
highest honor, The John Fritz
Medal. He was named "One of the Top
Ten Construction Men'' by the American
Society of Civil Engineers in 1976.
There were other honors along the
way and you can be sure that Lyman
Wilbur will name someone more qualified
or co-workers whose contributions
were more worthy than his. But, in the
end, he had a great deal to do with a lot
of constructive progress in this century.
The truth is, a lot of people
Wilbur and his first wife, Henrietta,
raised one daughter. About a year after
her death, in 1984, he married Pauline
Jordan, the widow of Cecil Jordan, a
founder of Jordan-Wilcomb Construction
Company. Today, they still live in
Boise and Wilbur, almost 92, works
with an organization that helps needy
senior citizens, and serves on the board
of Albertson's College of Idaho.
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