He was, in his own words, “digging ditches.” In reality, he was shaping the earth to lay the groundwork for engineering projects that would change communities.
The time was the mid-1930s, and young electrical engineering graduate Willard Richardson found himself in a familiar predicament: looking for work in the Dust Bowl Days. Bread lines lengthened; public works labor groups were formed. But Willard chose a different path, and his perseverance and diligence would come to help define HDR’s history.
After spending his youth in Iowa as the son of a railroad company depot agent, Willard attended Iowa State University, graduating in 1934 in electrical engineering. Determined to put his skills to use, he campaigned for a position with the Natural Gas Pipeline Company of America, traveling to Chicago to apply in person. He followed up weekly by writing letters expressing his interest.
After several months, he received the news he had been seeking: the company hired him to backfill trenches at a compressor station in Oklahoma. His crew moved to various stations until reaching Beatrice, Nebraska, where the crew was laid off. But it was here where he would make lifelong connections.
Willard accepted a non-paying job with the Rural Electrification Association (REA) in Beatrice, hoping it could turn into a full-time paid position later. He also took a temporary paid position with the Gage-Hunt Electric Company. It was in this southeastern Nebraska community where he met Leitha Knigge, who would become his wife, along with H.H. Henningson. H.H. had led creation of most REA associations in Nebraska, helping bring electrical power to many communities in the Midwest.
The connection was electric: H.H. in 1937 offered Willard a job. He accepted and joined the company that would become HDR – with the “R” standing for Richardson – at a starting salary of $125 a month.
Willard would come to have a key voice in the firm’s work, both inside and outside of the office. Licensed as a professional engineer in more than 21 states, Willard helped lead the electrification work in the late 1930s and ’40s at a time when work with public power districts was vital not only for the rural communities served, but Henningson Engineering as well.
With Willard as a key contributor, Henningson Engineering flourished in the 1940s, building on its civil engineering and transmission line work by winning significant military and infrastructure projects as well, including the U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps winter training camp in West Yellowstone, Montana.
PARTNERSHIPS AND PENCILS
Willard exemplified the firm’s early motto of “Work Well Done.” He was named chief electrical engineer in 1946, and soon after, a partner in the firm. In 1952, he became Executive Vice President, Secretary and Treasurer of the newly formed Henningson, Durham and Richardson, Inc.
While Willard kept a keen eye on company business, he continued the firm’s commitment to community and his profession through civic and professional involvement. He was a member of 10 professional organizations, serving as president of five, including national director of the Society of American Military Engineers. He also was president of the Nebraska Chapter of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, Omaha Executives Association and Omaha Engineers Club.
He served as director on a number of public service boards, including the Eastern Nebraska Office on Aging, the Nebraska State Board of Health and the Douglas County Mental Health Advisory Committee. He was also a member of the Omaha Chamber of Commerce Presidents Club and an active leader in the United Way of the Midlands. Concordia Teachers College awarded him with an honorary Doctor of Law degree. He and Leitha funded a professorship in electrical and computer engineering at ISU’s College of Engineering, and he was a long-time member of the Board of Trustees of the Nebraska Independent College Foundation.
Business interests extended beyond the firm as well: Willard was co-founder of Great Plains Natural Gas Company and Continental Care Centers, Inc. He was also a director of two Illinois banks.
Like other executives in the firm, Willard became trained as a pilot so he could fly the firm’s fleet of aircraft when needed to serve clients and lead the business.
His attention to detail was legendary, symbolized by a simple but symbolic tool: a pencil extender. He famously purchased extenders for all employees so pencils could be used all the way down to the nub before being thrown away.
While he helped create an atmosphere of cost consciousness for a growing company, Willard considered others every step of the way. He was an active volunteer with his local church, serving as congregation president. He was also chairman and director of Lutheran Family Services, and he donated land in Omaha that would become a park.
He even thought of others when he sold his stock back to the company: his stipulation was that it was to be made available to other employees who wanted to be stockholders.
After starting with a civil engineering firm of a few dozen employees, Willard in 1977 retired from an international architecture-engineering company with 1,000 employees and worldwide reach.
He remained active an interested in his community and profession, and was known to cheer on ISU engineering students who built and raced solar-powered cars.
Willard died at the age of 95 near Omaha, but left a lasting legacy. He’s listed in the Nebraska State Historical Society’s “Place Makers of Nebraska: The Architects.” A letter to Willard from the chairman of the local United Way charitable giving campaign may say it best:
“With your help, your division reached its goal in full and on time, achieving an all-time high in employee giving. The time and effort which you put into this campaign is appreciated by everyone. Your work … will pay dividends far into the future. It was a pleasure to be involved with you in this community-wide effort.”
True to his professional training and diligent spirit, Willard found his way to make connections that would impact those around him.