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Leaders and Legacies: Bob Thompson

October 16, 2019
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By Ron Lemons, Vice President (former Chief Operating Officer and Senior Vice President)

As part of our 125 Anniversary celebration, we’re recognizing past leaders whose vision continues to drive us forward.

I’ve never worked with anybody who was better than Bob Thompson at letting you do your own work but knowing exactly when to step in to help you resolve something before you made a mistake.

I watched him do this for a long time as head of what was the Water Resources and Construction Services Division, and I tried to determine how he did it as well as he did. When I asked him about how he did it, he said he really didn’t know. But what he did was what I’d call management by walking around. He would come by and visit with us and talk in a very nonjudgmental way.

He helped a number of us better understand how to coach staff. His greatest legacy was showing future leaders how to lead.

Bob was a leader with both his technical skills and his management style. He was an internationally recognized dam engineer, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, who were both civil engineers and University of Texas graduates like Bob.

He joined Freese and Nichols in 1958 and eventually led the Water Resources and Construction Services Division until he retired in 1991 to sail the world. He and his wife, Jill, traveled and lived on their boat for about 10 years. After that, Bob spent years doing artistic wood carving. (He died in 2017.) His son David is Freese and Nichols’ CAD manager and has been here for almost 29 years.

Bob managed major dam projects across Texas for our clients. But he might be considered most famous for discovering that Morris Sheppard Dam, which impounds Possum Kingdom Lake on the Brazos River, was slowly slipping downstream and needed emergency repairs to prevent a disaster. He noticed cracks during a routine inspection of the dam in 1986. Measurements showed that the dam had moved about 4.5 inches over 46 years. Bob was the project manager for our work that pinpointed the cause of the problem, and he led the team that developed a solution.

The repairs were recognized with awards from the National Society of Professional Engineers and the Consulting Engineers Council of Texas. Bob wrote about that project and gave presentations on it in the U.S. and internationally. He also was a resource for engineers throughout the water resources field, and he testified before Congress about federal legislation on dam safety.

I met Bob my first day at Freese and Nichols in 1973, and he was my supervisor for 18 years. Then I followed him as the head of the Water Resources and Construction Services Division. Even though he was busy being a leader in the company and in the profession, he had time to be a mentor.

We would travel to project sites, and we’d take turns driving. Once, when I was driving his car, he was in the passenger’s seat, and I kept watching the gas gauge get closer to empty. I asked if he had a particular station where he wanted to stop, but he said keep going. When the gauge said we only had about 5 miles of gas left, he finally said we could stop. I said we cut it close. And he said we actually only had about 1 mile before empty, but he wasn’t worried because the driver always has to walk to get the gas. Bob knew how to be in control of the situation.

He also got me started in professional organizations and taught me that the key to learning at conferences isn’t sitting in the sessions but in talking to people on the sidelines. That’s how you get the straight story.

There was a period where we as a company were Texas-focused, but Bob knew that professionally and technically we needed to know what was happening in the rest of the world. So we would go to national and international conferences and get to know the movers and shakers, then bring back information and ideas and adapt them. That’s how we could be innovative for what we needed in Texas — knowing whom to talk to and learning from them.

Bob knew the importance of personal relationships, with our staff, with our clients and with people in our profession. He’s a great example of someone who reinforced one of our key company values.