AGC’s new book, “Connecting Texas,” captures some of the highlights in our 96-year-long history of building roads and bridges.
The book shines a spotlight on some of the major players in AGC of Texas history and preserves stories about their origins, struggles and successes for employees, family, friends and industry colleagues. Equally important, “Connecting Texas” will help the public and state leaders gain a better understanding and appreciation for what we do that positively affects their lives on a daily basis. After all, some 540 million miles are logged each day on Texas roads.
Inspiration for the book came from Tom Johnson as he approached his retirement years after a half century with AGC of Texas. Tom wanted a book to tell our history. All we had were six pages of mostly names, dates and places written in the 1960s to commemorate our first 40 years.
We also had archives and a few old-timers who could share stories about Texas road and bridge building. Too many gems in our industry had already passed by the time this book was conceptualized in 2014.
AGC of Texas leadership gave the project a green light. Tom knew he needed to bring someone on board with writing experience. He called Gary Scharrer, who had spent three decades in the Texas Capitol as a reporter covering state politics and public policy for the San Antonio Express-News, El Paso Times and Houston Chronicle. Their paths crossed a couple of times later while Scharrer was communications director for then-Senate Finance Chairman Tommy Williams. Both Tom and Gary had strong El Paso connections.
The initial plan focused on self-publishing a book about our history to share with contractors and industry insiders. As interesting stories piled up during early book research and interviews, Scharrer scheduled a meeting with the top editor at Texas A&M University Press to get some guidance. The book editor quickly expressed interest in our story, which we continued to develop while interviewing nearly 90 people. Johnson and Scharrer later visited with an Austin-based book publishing company, which resulted in a contract to write and market “Connecting Texas: True Tales of the People Who Built Our Highways and Bridges.” The publishing team noted that “Texans love to read about anything related to Texas.”
The book had expanded from one aimed at industry insiders to one attempting to reach anyone who uses roads and bridges to move from Point A to Point B. We had to cover some of the highlights of our history and key players; we also had to keep it interesting for the general public. In short, we had separate audiences.
The opening chapter would be key. We had to establish a tone and theme to carry readers into the book. We attempted to help people understand why the highway system is so integral to their lives. Experts such as David Ellis at Texas A&M’s Transportation Institute helped convey that message, as did Drayton McLane Jr. McLane saw the future when he returned with a master’s degree to his family’s modest food wholesale business in 1959. He convinced his father to relocate the 50-year-old business from a tiny Texas town to Temple to be on the new I-35. McLane knew the new interstate highway system could dramatically expand their 40-mile market area. His experience and perspective help readers see the impact of good roads. McLane’s business grew to a multi-billion dollar empire spread across more than 40 states. Drayton ended up owning the Houston Astros.
Thomas Moore, longtime leader of a family run highway construction company based in Lufkin.
“We have a marvelous interstate highway system—so businesses can have just-in-time inventory. You can tell suppliers, ‘I want it here at eight o’clock in the morning.’ I’ve had businesses around the world, and just-in-time inventory works in America. It doesn’t work anywhere else like this,” McLane says in the book. “It works here because of our great highway system.”
William Solomon compares our highway system to the human body: “Imagine a human being without the benefit of arteries? That’s the role of our roads and highways. They’re the pathway through which the lifeblood of a community passes every day,” says Solomon, retired chairman and CEO of Austin Industries and grandson of Austin Bridge & Road founder Charles R. Moore.
It would be difficult for people to get jobs without highways.
“How are you going to get to work? How are you going to get products out that are manufactured in this economy? How are you going to get products manufactured elsewhere here?” TTI’s David Ellis says. “The bottom line is this: Without a transportation system, you simply do not have an economy.”
The book profiles many of the state’s highway construction leaders, who also helped make AGC of Texas an industry leader.
Naturally, James “Doug” Pitcock tops the list. Pitcock’s story takes off when he and two heirs of the S.H. Kress & Co. “5-and-dime store” company formed Williams Brothers Construction Co. in 1955. Pitcock’s young company struggled for years, nearly going bankrupt a couple of times before he turned it into one of the state’s largest highway construction firms.
Pitcock and other highway contractors help readers understand the huge risks and pressures they face. For Pitcock, it was pure adrenaline – and addictive, which helps explain why he remains as chairman and CEO at age 91.
Contractors and their crews take great pride in their work and in the accomplishments that the world can see when a project is completed. It’s one of the book’s multiple themes:
“Anytime I drive around Houston, I get to look at everything we built—many of the freeways and overpasses—and I get a high. Why was I put on earth? The only thing I can figure out is that we should make the world a little bit better place to live because we were here,” Pitcock says in the book. “People in construction are blessed with that reward. It’s visible proof that we made the world a little bit better place to live. That’s an indescribable feeling. There’s a difference because you were here. Your own hands and your own effort built something that will be here forever.”
“We built something, and just knowing that we built it, you just carry so much pride. I drove the road before we built it, and I drove it after. It’s a good feeling to see the cars are not waiting in line like they were,” says veteran highway construction crew leaders Elton Ward.
A lengthy book chapter tells the story of road building through the eyes and voices of the road-hands, who speak for all Texas highway construction workers. They describe their experiences in the field and express joy about their jobs. They also describe the inherent dangers working in the intersection of highway projects and the traveling public. The book allows each of the crew members to offer advice for motorists.
The highway construction industry has been primarily dominated by men. “Connecting Texas” includes a chapter on the first and only woman president of AGC of Texas. Tracy Schieffer knows little fear and rarely retreats. She grew up in the construction industry with an entrepreneurial father: A. L. Helmcamp. “They don’t treat me any differently. I’ve always lived in a maledominated world. When you run a construction company, you’re in a male world,” she says with laughter, one of her characteristic traits. Pitcock believes Texas infrastructure will benefit greatly from adding women to executive ranks, and he points to Tracy Schieffer as an ideal role model for those who will follow. “Tracy is not only a pioneer; she’s an industry activist, and she’s tremendously effective and energetic. She provides leadership that I have never seen equaled by anybody in this industry. She’s a superstar.”
President Lyndon Johnson had close friends in the Texas highway construction business. He affectionately called them “roughnecks.” A young motor grader operator (Ray Faris) shares his story of helping build a runway on Johnson’s ranch. They didn’t use surveys; it was simply line of sight and feel from inside the motor grader. The book reflects on some of the achievements of the early pioneers and those who followed in the heyday years when the state began building its massive farm-to-market system and new interstate highways. Those leaders include H.B. “Pat” Zachry, Jimmy Dellinger, Ross Watkins, Pete Gilvin, and F.M. Young. The AGC of Texas archives bring some of their voices into today’s world. Zachry, for example, complains of “gas tax diversions” from the state highway fund in a 1936 memo to one of Tom Johnson’s predecessors.
The book explores the early history of road building and a need for the pioneer contractors to form an association to speak for their collective interests. AGC became that place for contractors to discuss mutual concerns and to act on them.
“It was the unifying place that became the place that all the good contractors went to,” David Zachry explains in the book. “Those were your friends; those were your colleagues. They were respected. Contractors who didn’t want to abide by the skills, honesty, integrity, and responsibility were not made to feel welcome. They didn’t get to play. There was a fundamental adherence to what each contractor did, and they found friendship and support among like-minded people. AGC was a part of assembling the good contractors, and other people who wanted to be with them came along.”
A book about Texas highway contractors, crews and the AGC would be incomplete without a chapter on Tom Johnson. Many of his colleagues share their respect and affection for one of the industry’s legendary leaders. (He only reluctantly agreed to be part of the story).
President Reagan signed a federal gas tax increase on Jan. 6, 1983 in the White House State Dining Room. Several Texas highway contractors had a front row seat. (left to right) Hubert “Bert” Beatty, vice president and executive director for AGC of America, Zack Burkett (Graham, Texas), Doug Pitcock (Houston, Texas) and H.C. “Tony” Heldenfels (Corpus Christi, Texas).
Leonardo Rodriguez, concrete finisher for Jordan Foster Construction, on the job in El Paso
Johnson witnessed the transformation of an industry during his time at AGC of Texas—which spanned more than 50 years. “I went to work for the contractors at a time when they were changing. We were moving from pure road hand builders who had very little formal education into really smart people who had vision. If you would say, ‘Name me two people from the department who had the greatest vision,’ you would say Dewitt Greer and Raymond Stotzer. They had vision beyond what you can really imagine. “Among contractors, we had multiple people, but obviously the guy with greatest vision was Pitcock. He saw what was there, what needed to be done, and how to do it. He simply had great vision. The Pete Gilvins, the Jimmy Dellingers—all those old, rugged, rough owners of the early companies recognized Pitcock and the young guys coming up, and they moved them into the forefront, because they knew they had engineering degrees. They knew how to run companies. They knew what to do. They were honest. They knew that if you grow the industry, your companies will grow too. And forget about trying to do something just for your company,” Johnson says in the book.
“Connecting Texas” will help laypeople gain a better understanding of the bidding process and the importance of road materials. It also addresses the importance of highway funding and the cost of doing nothing in addition to exploring the unique relationship between the Texas Department of Transportation and the Associated General Contractors of Texas.
President Johnson and two of his AGC of Texas friends – H.B. “Pat” Zachry (top left) and Jimmy Dellinger with his wife, Violet Dellinger. Zachry served as president of AGC of Texas in 1933-1935; Dellinger was president in 1954-1956.
The stable relationship between the state highway agency and AGC creates “equal time” in the minds of some contractors: “We see that in the boxing ring when two guys go back to their corners all pumped up to go out and rough up the other guy once the bell rings. If we’re going to sit in the corner and talk about how we are going to win this battle, and TxDOT is over there doing the same thing, then what we have is a battle—and that’s not what we want,” South Texas highway contractor Joe Forshage explains in the book. “Life is too short to have a battle every day.”
The book also considers the future of highways and transportation.
“Connecting Texas” ends with Pitcock reflecting on the Roman Empire to underscore the historic importance of roads.
“Back in those days, when they conquered a country, the first thing the Romans did was to build a road. It hasn’t changed. You build a road and everything starts happening. You don’t build a road, it all dies. “Highways are easy to attack. But you show me a country that doesn’t have highway construction, I’ll show you a dead country—and that includes this one. The day they stop building highways, it will die quicker than hell.”