In retirement, still trucking

Posted: Friday, June 18, 2010

Bruce Campbell, now nearing 80 years of age, is ever the workhorse. Even though he no longer serves as the commissioner of the state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, he's kept busy: he restores old cars as a hobby, and has several Ford Model-Ts sitting in his garage today.

He prides himself on being a self-made man. His house, which sports an indoor swimming pool and a balcony deck, was built by him. He also built many of his neighbors' houses.

Though he didn't build it himself, the 414-mile Dalton Highway - commonly referred to as the Haul Road - which runs from Livengood to Prudhoe Bay and largely sustains operation of the critical Trans-Alaska pipeline, owes a lot to Campbell.

He oversaw the project as commissioner of the state's Highways Department from 1971 to 1974. Though he wasn't on the ground laying pavement and living in camps along the road, he reviewed plans, approving them when they passed muster.

Now retired and living well in an affluent south Anchorage neighborhood, Campbell attributes his success to his bareknuckled worth ethic, which he said allowed him to climb the ranks quickly where others would have settled for something less than excellence.

He gained this work ethic, he said, from his upbringing in upstate New York in the 1930s and 40s. He was born in a small farming community called Kirkwood, and spent much of his childhood working on his family's farm. Shoveling cow manure, picking chickens and milking cows by hand occupied him most days.

"I did everything by hand," he said.

His family was largely self-sufficient, he said. While other families were displaced due to a crushing economic depression and often found themselves without a solid bite to eat, Campbell's family had their own garden, beef and poultry. They canned pees and tomatoes themselves, and made maple syrup.

And while he was working diligently most of the time, like all other teenagers, he knew how to get into trouble.

"I wasn't exactly a priest or anything. There were girls in the neighborhood. It wasn't all cows and chickens," he said.

Though the legal drinking age in New York as the time was 18, Campbell was drinking at 16, and the local dance halls were a frequent haunt.

His interest in electrical engineering, which would eventually segue into a specialization in civil engineering, started at an early age. He loved building radios as a child.

When he arrived at Union College in Schenectady, New York, Campbell was intent on becoming an electrical engineer.

A perceived oversaturation of entrants into the field changed his mind. As World War II had ended just a few years prior, a lot of GIs were coming home and enrolling in the college, and the field they were already familiar with due to their duties in the military, electrical engineering, appealed to them.

Realizing he didn't want to be competing neck-and-neck with this sudden flood of GIs, Campbell switched to civil engineering, and has never looked back.

He headed up to Albany and, $168 in hand, went to the airport and asked the clerk where he could go on such a budget. The clerk's first suggestion was Anchorage, and away he went.

He approached the Alaska Road Commission with a job solicitation, and they hired him on the spot. He slept in a tiny bunk house out back of the commission's Anchorage office and depot on Fourth Avenue, and on the next day, he hopped a flight out to Kenai, where he worked surveying roads in an environment he describes as "rough and ready."

Farmers were still settling what was largely a wild and unbroken place, where roadways were scarce and communities were often isolated from one another. Campbell and his colleagues designed many of the culverts, roadways and bridges that would connect these communities to the rest of civilization.

In 1956, the Interstate Act was passed, he said, which meant the Road Commission blended into the state's Bureau of Public Roads.

Campbell met his future wife, Marl, in Juneau in 1957, and the two went out, dancing all night. The two are still happily married, though they kid each other constantly. Campbell maintains that this is the secret to their marriage's longevity.

Campbell made the transition to the bureau, as did most of his colleagues. By the time Alaska gained its statehood in 1959, Campbell had climbed up to the position of chief of highway design with the state's Department of Highways.

In this time he helped design a road leading to Nenana, and he was also involved in designing improvements to the Sterling Highway.

By the time the department's commissioner, Don McKinnon, fell ill in 1964, the year of the Great Alaskan Earthquake, Campbell "essentially ran the department."

"I've never been bothered by responsibilities or tough situations," he said.

In 1967, Walter Hickel succeeded William Egan as the state's governor, and he cleared house at the Department of Highways to put his own team on board, Campbell said.

In 1969, after having worked for a time in his own consulting business, Campbell got a job with the Burgess Construction Company in Fairbanks.

In 1970, Egan reclaimed the Governorship, and he wanted Campbell to be the commissioner of the Department of Highways.

Campbell was adamantly opposed to taking the job, but Egan was able to convince him otherwise. Campbell liked Egan's honesty, and Campbell said Egan was very good at convincing people to do what he wanted.

"He could talk you into going home and shooting your wife if he wanted to," Campbell said.

When the Haul Road project was okayed by Congress to proceed in 1974, Campbell was fully engaged in it. He worked around the clock approving plans for various sections of it. He also coordinated with officials from the oil companies involved in the pipeline.

He also oversaw the construction of the Yukon River bridge, whose design, Campbell said, is still referenced today worldwide.

When the Haul Road was finished in September of 1974, Marl Campbell was there to cut the ribbon. Both he and Egan left office that year.

Later that year, Campbell went back to his consulting company, Campbell & Associates, which did work on troubled construction projects throughout the state. If a contractor was losing money, Campbell would get a call, and he and his team would save it, he said.

He often served as an expert witness in claims cases in disputes between owners and contractors.

Campbell was semi-retired through some of the early 1990s, though he did do work on some construction projects, sometimes for free.

In 1993 and 1994, Campbell was again called, this time by a re-elected Hickel, to become commissioner, this time of the state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.

Nothing Earth-shattering occurred in that time, and since stepping down in 1994, he has again been retired.

He has four children, though he's hesitant to speak about them to the press. His son Robert now works for the state DOT, and another son has a consulting business in Seattle.

His hobby of restoring cars started in the 1980s, and he continues doing that to this day. He's got six cars parked in two garages now.

"I just work on (them) when the spirit moves me," he said.

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