Boise’s Jack Lemley, who rescued the Chunnel, looks back on a just-finished career

Jack Lemley talks to Sven Berg about building things.

sberg@idahostatesman.comSeptember 17, 2013 

Jack Lemley didn’t just build the Channel Tunnel.

He rescued the entire undertaking, the largest-ever privately financed project.

That shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, since Lemley spent his career rescuing projects that were behind schedule and over budget. The Channel Tunnel was simply the biggest, most famous example.

“I was really a king in charge of that whole project,” he says.

Lemley’s experience with infrastructure began at an early age. Born and raised in Coeur d’Alene, he took his first job with the Idaho Transportation Department at age 15. He worked for the agency through college. Lemley, now 78, traces the roots of his success to those teenage years doing manual labor on big public works projects.

After graduating from the University of Idaho with a degree in architecture, he took a job as an engineer for the Guy F. Atkinson Co., based in San Francisco. In 1977, he came to Boise as Morrison Knudsen’s executive vice president in charge of heavy construction.

During a career that spanned a half-century and 65 countries, Lemley endured disappointments. A water tunnel job in New York City got snarled in bickering. He went through a brief, unsatisfying stint in the insurance business. He left Morrison Knudsen on less-than-friendly terms after the board of directors picked Bill Agee over him for CEO in 1988.

The Olympic Delivery Authority in London hired him to build venues and infrastructure for the 2012 Olympics. He resigned from that job in 2006, saying the project seemed destined to come in late and over budget.

But he saw spectacular successes, too. He brought in a slew of highway projects on time and under budget after they were on the wrong side of both ledgers. He rescued a pump storage project, completing a 300-foot-high, seven-mile-long dam and reservoir on Lake Michigan. Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney tapped Lemley in 2005 to help the state investigate the safety of Boston’s Big Dig tunnels.

He managed work in 65 countries around the world, including Papua New Guinea, Istanbul, England, Nepal, Zimbabwe and Colombia. He says he flew more than seven million miles in his career.

He held other posts, too. He was chairman and CEO of Boise’s American Ecology Corp., now U.S. Ecology Inc., from 1995 to 2002. The company manages hazardous- and radioactive-waste disposal.

Queen Elizabeth II made him an honorary Commander of the British Empire in recognition of his work on the Channel Tunnel.

His pride sometimes got him in trouble, such as when he bought a 65-foot sloop — the Coeur de Lion, or “heart of a lion” — in the 1990s and began a trip around the world. He found out he didn’t know much about sailing and that the ocean was stronger than he was. Things broke. People on board got sick. He had to fire the captain.

“I bit off more than I could chew, but I had too much ego into it to give it up,” he says.

Lemley is a legend in the construction business. Torry McAlvain, owner of McAlvain Construction, worked with him on a few projects when Lemley was a consultant. McAlvain says Lemley’s mere presence in meetings gave them more weight and helped them go smoothly. He says Lemley has a unique ability to distill a project down to fundamental numbers that reflect what a builder can do and how much it will cost.

“He’s very sharp,” McAlvain says. “He’s always been very kind and open to me, and for whatever reason, I think he just likes people that have engineering minds and are in that industry and he really just reaches out to them.”

Lemley retired a year ago and closed his office at 604 N. 16th St. in Boise. He still works out and rides his bike, sometimes more than 20 miles in a day. He goes to his condominium in Ketchum.

In 2011, the Idaho Technology Council named him to its Hall of Fame.

Says McAlvain: “To me, he’s just a magnificent individual.”

Sven Berg: 377-6275

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