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‘Worked at the sharp end of the stick’: Boise’s Jack Lemley dies after long career at M-K, the Chunnel, Olympics and more

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Idaho native and engineering pioneer Jack Lemley died. He was 86 and died of natural causes.

Lemley was born in Coeur d’Alene, rose to a top job at Morrison-Knudsen, and later led American Ecology. His death was published in the Idaho Press this week. He died on November 29th in Boise.

Lemley led a long career after his graduation from the University of Idaho in 1960. For more than fifty years, he worked for major companies in the engineering and construction space. His highest acclaim came when he took over the project to build the so-called Channel Tunnel that linked the United Kingdom to France. The 31-mile train tunnel idea first started percolating in the time of Napoleon in the 1800s, but many attempts failed. After Lemley left Boise-based M-K, he went to Transmanch-Link, a group of five companies that finally got the project completed.

“I was really a king in charge of that whole project,” he told the Idaho Statesman’s Sven Berg in 2013.

For his work as ‘king,’ he was recognized by the Queen. Queen Elizabeth II awarded him the Order of the British Empire, one of the highest honors the crown can bestow upon a citizen.

From Coeur d’Alene to big things

Jack Lemley started life on the shores of Lake Coeur d’Alene. But by the age of 15, he’d already landed his first job in the construction industry – with what is now known as the Idaho Transportation Department. He used the funds from the job to complete a degree in architecture from the University of Idaho in Moscow.

[“A damned accident:” Echoes of Boise’s history inform its future]

After working on Interstate 5 in Seattle and tunnels in New York City, he landed at Boise’s storied global construction firm Morrison-Knudsen in 1978. He moved his way up the ladder, and by the late 1980s, was one of the top employees for the firm. When the board of directors decided to replace Bill Deasy in the top post, the group considered Lemley before settling on William Agee – a choice that ultimately ended in unusual-for-Boise tabloid drama.

The eM-Kayan. Courtesy Boise State University Digital Collections

Lemley left the firm and landed on the career-defining Channel Tunnel project. But he didn’t always keep quiet, even commenting to the Associated Press on MK’s continued troubles in the 1990s.

After MK and the chunnel, Lemley began consulting work, bringing his expertise to projects as varied as the Holland Tunnel and the Idaho Statehouse revamp. He took the top job at American Ecology as CEO from 1995 to 2002. Lemley moved the corporate headquarters from Houston to Boise, where it remains – today known as US Ecology.

At age 70, he agreed to oversee the Olympic Delivery Authority for the 2012 London Olympics in 2005 – but a year later, he resigned. His penchant for saying what he thought in the media continued. He said he didn’t like the politics and didn’t think the infrastructure would all get built on time.

“I went there to build things, not to sit and talk about it,” Lemley told the Idaho Statesman, according to the Associated Press. “So I felt it best to leave the post and come home.”

Back to the Gem State

Home, again — was Idaho, working for several more years before formal retirement in 2012 at age 77. He served on the board of Idaho Power, as a trustee for the College of Idaho, and supported UI and Idaho State.

Throughout his life, he circumnavigated the globe on a yacht, rode in a fighter jet out of Mountain Home, rode his bike all over SW Idaho, and spent time with his wife of 35 years, Pamela.

In 2011, the Idaho Statesman’s Sandra Forester asked Jack Lemley how he’d like to be remembered.

“I’m a builder who has always worked at the sharp end of the stick,” he said. “I don’t want to be known as some fantastic engineer. I’m not. But I am a builder who learned his lessons right in the mud, and I’ve been able to take those lessons and translate them into very successful projects like the channel tunnel.”

Don Day - BoiseDev Editor & Founder
Don is the founder and publisher of BoiseDev. He is a National Edward R. Murrow Award winner and a Stanford University John S. Knight Fellow. Contact him at don@boisedev.com.

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