Joseph A. Ahearn

The CII Executive Committee has selected Joseph A. Ahearn, Vice Chairman, CH2M HILL (retired) as the twenty-sixth recipient of the Carroll H. Dunn Award of Excellence.

Joseph A. “Bud” Ahearn was born on September 5, 1936, in Galesburg, Illinois, and spent his childhood in St. Louis, Missouri. His mother, Mary Ahearn was educated at St. Mary’s of Notre Dame and worked as a homemaker until later in her life, when she went into retailing. His father, Joseph Ahearn—a severely wounded World War I veteran and, later, a lawyer—worked for the U.S. Veterans Administration to protect the legal rights of veterans returning from service. His parents’ example of keeping their commitments to the family and to the larger community deeply influenced him as he grew up with his older sister Marcia and his twin sister Janice, and stayed with him throughout his life. He got his first exposure to the world of engineering at the age of 12, when a friend’s father, an engineer with Sverdrup Corporation, invited him to visit the jobsite of a bridge the company was building across the Mississippi River. As impressed by the beauty of the bridge as he was by the ingenuity of its builders, Bud saw the heroism and artistry of the effort and decided to become an engineer.

After graduating from high school in St. Louis, he attended Notre Dame, where he studied civil engineering, played varsity baseball, and was actively engaged in the Air Force R.O.T.C. Upon graduation, he received his commission and moved to Lompoc, California, to join the space program management team at Vandenberg Air Force Base. Tasked primarily with building missile assembly and launch complexes, the program was also responsible for building a military community consisting of housing and schools, offices, industrial facilities, shopping centers, and infrastructure systems for over 20,000 people. Bud worked at the base for five years. His next assignment included the duties of chief engineer and construction manager at a Strategic Air Command air refueling base for long-range nuclear bombers at Goose Bay in Labrador, Canada.

In Labrador, Bud became reacquainted with his future wife, Nona, whom he had met at Notre Dame, and who was teaching for the University of Maryland and the U.S. Department of Defense high school on Goose Bay Air Base. Already having earned a master’s degree in Spanish literature in Columbia, South America, she had gone to Goose Bay to earn money to continue her studies and earn her doctorate. Bud and Nona had to separate when she went on to resume her studies abroad, and he returned to space program management at the Headquarters of the Eighth Air Force at Westover Field in Massachusetts. Here he served as the construction program manager for Titan, Atlas, and Minuteman missile launch complexes. When Nona returned to the United States in 1963, she joined him at Westover Field, where the two were married and, two years later, had their first child Stacia.

After having served in space and nuclear missile program management for ten years, Bud enrolled in a master’s program in public policy and engineering management at Syracuse University. In addition to learning more about managing the kinds of large and complex projects he had built for the U.S. military, he also learned that, since such projects generated local economic development wherever they were built, they were key to building the political will both of American communities and American allies. This public policy element of his studies taught him that a community’s governmental, cultural, economic, technical, and military organizations constitute the wellsprings of its political will, and thus must all be aligned. Before he completed his studies in 1967, his second child, Gianna, was born.

After graduating from Syracuse, Bud put his new knowledge to work in special operations, cultivating alliances as he built the necessary physical support for U.S. intelligence gathering efforts in Europe’s NATO nations, Pakistan, and Iran. Near the end of this tour, his third child, Trienel, was born in Frankfurt, Germany. His course shifted in 1970, when he was sent to Vietnam to command a combat engineering squadron that built and repaired air bases.

Returning stateside in 1972, he was stationed in Alabama and Texas before going to the Pentagon in 1976. His fourth child, Fallon, was born in 1973, while he served in Selma, Alabama. He left the Pentagon in 1978 to attend the National Defense University to study military strategy and the wartime mobilization of the nation’s industrial might. In 1979, he returned to take over as the director of all financial programs for Air Force Civil Engineering, staying on until 1982. Bud next worked for NATO and the U.S.A.F. in Europe, again building missile facilities, modernizing air bases, and building political will among U.S. allies. After returning a third time to the Pentagon in 1986, he retired from active military service in 1992 as the The Air Force Civil Engineer, having attained the rank of major general.

Bud went into private industry immediately after retiring from the military, joining CH2M HILL as its Northeast Region Manager. Over the course of 18 years at the company, he had firmwide responsibilities for strategic planning, governmental affairs, strategic communications, and leadership development. He also served in several operational capacities, including Transportation Business Group President, Eastern Region Manager, Senior Vice President, Federal Programs Director, and Principal-in-Charge for two major transportation corridor projects in California. Ultimately, Bud became the company’s Vice Chairman of the Board.

In semi-retirement since 2011, he divides his time between consulting with the company and serving as an active member of the National Academy of Engineers, the National Academy of Construction, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), and the Society of American Military Engineers (SAME). While he has held leadership roles in these organizations—he is a former SAME president—he particularly enjoys his work for ASCE and the national academies, speaking at business and engineering schools around the country on leadership development.

In his talks, he stresses the essentials of authentic leadership: other-centeredness; the ability to embrace uncertainty; performance readiness; and openness and inclusiveness. Above all other leadership traits, Bud values strength of character—a characteristic that, to him, is shown in an individual’s whole-life commitment to a personally owned and personally designed inner compass. The vectors of this compass point to integrity in all actions, service to others before self, and excellence in all endeavors. To him, leaders with these attributes are crucial to addressing the enormous global backlog of urgently needed engineering programs—initiatives that must be designed to give communities advanced technical solutions, social benefits, economic development, and environmental stewardship. For Bud, meeting these needs will mean aligning the full spectrum of human intelligence and the ingenuity of leader-engineer-citizens.

To act on these concerns, to share the satisfaction he got from his global engineering and public policy experience, and to promote community development benefits and expand the engineering education of young engineers, Bud helped found Engineers Without Borders U.S.A. in 2002, a not-for-profit service organization that provides sustainable infrastructure systems and services in the developing world. Since its founding, the group has grown to become a powerful 13,000-member force for human development, with projects in 40 countries. He has served as a director of the group’s governing board since its founding.

With long and distinguished careers in both the military and industry, and with such a strong sense of community, Bud has set a remarkably high standard for excellence in engineering and national service. It is with great appreciation for his resolute leadership and lasting contributions both to the industry and to our country that we honor him with the Carroll H. Dunn Award of Excellence.