Velma Morrison and the MK legacy

Morrison Knudsen Co. may be gone, but it's still shaping life in the Treasure Valley.

dstaats@idahostatesman.comJune 25, 2013 

Velma Morrison, who died June 20, was the second wife of Harry Morrison, co-founder 101 years ago of Morrison Knudsen Co., which grew into one of the world's largest construction companies.

MK is no longer in business. But the Morrison legacy lives. Its successor companies employ Treasure Valley residents in construction and manufacturing. Morrison corporate and family donations have built or saved efforts to support the arts, architecture and wildlife education.

The story of MK is the stuff of local folklore. Morrison and Morris H. Knudsen pooled $600 in cash, some horses and a dozen wheelbarrows to form their company in 1912. Twenty-four years later, they helped build the 726-foot-high Hoover Dam, earning an international reputation for themselves.

MK grew in large part on government projects such as the Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River, the San Francisco Bay Bridge, roads and an embassy in Vietnam before and during the Vietnam War, and a building at the Kennedy Space Center in the 1960s that the company said was the world's biggest at the time. MK also helped build the Trans-Alaska Pipeline in the 1970s.

Time Magazine recognized Morrison in 1954 as "the man who has done more than anyone else to change the face of the earth."

MK entered a troubled era in the late 1980s, when losses mounted. Executives in 1991 secretly ordered the tapping of employee telephones, prompting a revolt a year later when workers found out. Chairman William Agee's lavish lifestyle and risky ventures drew criticism. The MK board forced Agee out in 1995 as losses persisted. MK filed for bankruptcy a year later.

Montana billionaire Dennis Washington bought the company, assumed its chairmanship and in 2000 renamed it Washington Group International. URS Corp. of San Francisco bought Washington Group in 2007.

Boise cannot claim URS as one of its own as it could MK. But URS still employs several hundred people in its Energy and Construction unit at Washington Group Plaza, the former MK corporate headquarters complex at 720 Park Blvd. whose sale to a Canadian real estate investment company was announced June 20.

Another local MK legacy is rail-car manufacturing, a sector MK entered in 1989. The business survives as MotivePower, now a unit of Wabtec, a Pennsylvania company. At its plant off Federal Way in Southeast Boise, MotivePower makes commuter locomotives for sale domestically and abroad. It, too, employs several hundred people.

Boise stands to benefit for years to come from Morrison philanthropy.

The city has the Velma Morrison Performing Arts Center at Boise State. It has the 54-year-old Ann Morrison Park, named for Morrison's first wife. It has the MK Nature Center next to the Boise River Greenbelt. It has the Boise Depot, which MK refurbished in the 1990s.

And at least two local foundations bear the Morrison name: the Harry W. Morrison Foundation and the Morrison Center Endowment Foundation, which subsidizes performing-arts groups.

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David Staats: 377-6417

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