Leading by example

A review of An Interview with George Rowe

Augie Chang, Senior Project Manager, Psomas, San Diego, California, and Chair, APWA Diversity Committee; Gary S. Downing, P.E., Manager, Road Program Construction, Sarasota County Public Works, Sarasota, Florida, and member, APWA Diversity Committee

Our review of this interview with one of APWA's National Past Presidents provided a biographical overview of George Rowe's life, growing up in the racially divided south, through his professional career, and culminating as APWA President in 1993-94. We did not have the honor of personally knowing George, who passed away last year. But following our reading of this interview we knew we had missed an opportunity to meet this dedicated APWA member, leader, and fellow public works professional. We learned more about George talking to those who knew him as a man of high integrity, determination, persistence, patience and conviction, who also made great contributions to the organization.

Born in 1925 in the Deep South, in Montgomery, Alabama, he was no stranger to racism and lived with it his entire life. Maybe it was this unfortunate exposure that ultimately prepared him for his challenges ahead. He was a man of great patience who dealt with injustices not with just words, but with actions and results to better himself professionally. George was destined to become an engineer, realizing his calling at an early age. Uncommon for the era for a black man to seek higher education, he was determined to complete his education with constant support and encouragement from his mother. He endured hardship just to obtain a basic education—that so many of our younger generations take for granted today—by working summer jobs to earn enough money to begin his collegiate career.

  George Rowe

He obtained his engineering degree in civil engineering from Hampton Institute in Virginia, and moved to Cincinnati shortly thereafter. His first job was a draftsman for the City of Cincinnati, even though he possessed an engineering degree. With constant challenges from the beginning, he had to prove that he was a capable engineer. He then studied for and passed the P.E. exam on his first attempt in 1957. Even after obtaining his engineering license, his experiences in establishing his professional career were not without turmoil. Discrimination, disdain, doubt over his abilities, and envy were constant obstacles. George's strength of patience allowed him to accept these challenges by starting at the bottom, and he worked his way to the top as Public Works Director in 1980. He faced immediate challenges as Public Works Director, having to deal with the City's deteriorating infrastructure. He helped organize the process for reaching out to the communities to help pass a tax initiative to fund infrastructure repairs and upgrades. His leadership style was to encourage his staff to coordinate and communicate directly with each other, to do whatever was necessary to get the job done. He wanted them to look to each other and to themselves to solve problems, not to wait for the Director.

George was an active member of APWA since he first joined. After serving for many years and having gone through the leadership roles, George became APWA National President in 1993-94. This proved to be an especially formidable period with financial crisis looming over the very survival of the organization. George had recently retired from the City of Cincinnati and devoted his efforts to getting APWA back to financial stability. His strategy was simple: Get the chapters involved, explain the issues, tell the truth and answer all the questions. As a result of his efforts many consider George Rowe as the person who saved APWA from closure. His plaque presented at the end of his efforts stated, "The right leader at the right time."

Through all of the obstacles he faced as a black man in the professional engineering community, he ultimately persevered by his actions, his leadership by example, and his will to succeed against all odds and racism in the workplace. When asked what advice he would give to young people entering the field, he replied, "I would tell them there isn't a better profession so far as giving you satisfaction...If you want fulfillment, you need to do something that will help people make their lives better. Public works is that kind of field."

George Rowe was a proud and self-made man, dedicated to his family, to his profession, and to APWA. APWA is a better place today because of George Rowe.

Following in his footsteps, as members of the APWA Diversity Committee we are honored and grateful to George who served as the first chair of this committee.

Augie Chang can be reached at (858) 576-9200 or achang@psomas.com; Gary S. Downing can be reached at (941) 861-0878 or gdowning@scgov.net. For information on purchasing An Interview with George Rowe, please call the APWA Bookstore at (800) 848-APWA, ext. 5254, or visit the bookstore online at www.apwa.net/bookstore.