CA Huskies

Building a Life of Adventure and Generosity

Marilyn and Tom, ’68, Draeger know how to build things that last. As the president of Bechtel Construction Operations at Bechtel Corporation, Tom oversaw major civil, airport, rail and transportation projects in places like Saudi Arabia, Ireland and Bahrain. From the frigid north to burning deserts, they worked together as partners to hold their family and major construction projects together. As long-time supporters of the UW’s civil and environmental engineering department, they’ve also built a philanthropic legacy that includes support for students, labs, a lecturer and an endowed professorship in collaboration with the heavy engineering construction association, the Beavers.

We recently spoke to the Draegers to find out more about their adventures, philanthropy and advice for students who want to follow in their footsteps.

Tom, you were the civil engineer but you’ve said that your career was a partnership with Marilyn, can you tell us more about that?

Tom Draeger: In this business, you don’t do it without a spouse that contributes more than their half. You’ve got to realize that you’re a team when you go to these places. Your spouse has to buy-in completely or it ain’t gonna work!

Marilyn, can you tell us about what it was like traveling to Fort McMurray in Canada for your first assignment with Tom? What were some of the challenges?

Marilyn Draeger: I think the most interesting part of that was the fact we were coming from Washington D.C. and landing in this field. As we’re approaching, all of a sudden there are sirens below us. They do that to chase the bears off the runway.

It was quite the start to married life. The first weekend we spent up there they had a shoot-up in the bar. The next weekend they moved us into an apartment building and three bears came in on the ground floor while people were moving in.

Where harsh conditions a standard part of your work?

TD: When we moved to Fort McMurray it was a town of 5,000 people with a dirt road getting in and power supplied by five diesel train locomotives. After that we moved to Jubail, Saudi Arabia and you went from 40 and 45 below zero outdoors to 115 with big time humidity in the Persian Gulf.

It’s all hard work, 14 and 16 hour days are the norm under some pretty rough conditions. We were constantly in war zones, we were in the Bahrain during the Gulf War, and we were in Ireland during the Troubles. You’ve got to be dedicated to live with that.

Other than the obvious motivation of staying employed, what kept you interested in this work when you faced hardships?

TD: It’s what I’ve always wanted to do. I love it. I love doing it. There’s no better feeling of accomplishment than walking off one of these projects when it’s done. My kids asked me, when did I decide what I wanted to be in construction? I told them I was nine or ten years old but Marilyn corrected me.

MD: His mother said that it was when he was three years old and she saw him looking under the toilet trying to figure out where it all went! He loves it and we have a lifestyle that is enviable, I mean we’ve paid for it through some of the places we’ve lived but it gave us this opportunity to give back.

Tell me more about giving back, why did you become donors to the UW?

TD: We both agree education is about the most important thing there is. Marilyn and I both believed in education.

MD : You know, Tom loves the UW and he has always credited it with giving him the background that he needed to do well in his career and that was enough for me to follow through and say okay we’re going to get involved. We’re going to support the educational system to bring other people up through the ranks to have this opportunity we have.

You don’t just give to the UW, you’ve expanded the impact of your philanthropy in partnership with your professional organization. Tell us more about that.

TD: The Beavers is an organization of contractors that was founded by 16 contractors about 60 to 65 years ago. I was on the board of directors and they called me and said, okay, the way it works is there’s a president and he’s the president for one year. You’re on the board for three years and you go through the positions and then you end up being the president. As the president you’re given the complete authority to award a $100,000 to a University. That’s how it started.

Why is important for the Beavers to support education?

TD: We’re all about people and, as the guys say, making little beavers. That’s the whole purpose. Get people interested in our business. A lot of people aren’t aware of the business. They aren’t aware of the opportunities, they aren’t aware that most of the leaders in the industry today are civil engineers. There’s a lot of big companies in this industry but they’re all private so you don’t hear about most of them. It’s the idea of just getting people exposed to our industry.

What advice would you pass along to people interested in going into this industry?

TD: When I wanted to go into construction and civil engineering there was a very prescribed four years. You took certain courses. But my father said you’ve got to learn public speaking, accounting, and take a course in industrial safety. Those weren’t the technical electives we were supposed to have in our senior year, they were upper campus courses, in the business school basically. Another big course I took was in the history of labor. To young people that wanted to go into construction, I would say you need to do some of the not quite so technical things, because you’re going to learn them the hard way or the easy way.

The other thing I would say to civil engineers is get your professional registration. It’s amazing in construction especially that people are not registered.

It’s also extremely important to be a mentor. As you get towards the latter part of your career the most important thing you should do is bring up young people and make sure they know how to do the business and how to do it with the right ethics, which are extremely important.

MD: Before you ever go on a job, study. Study well, the culture, the ethics, the colloquialisms. It’s just small things that you don’t think of but Tom, when he ran a job, always made sure that our company people went out into the community and became involved.

TD: The culture and history and know what to expect is important because ultimately, when you go to these places, your job is to motivate men and women to do the work. That’s what you’re there for and that is a lesson that goes back to my dad. The most important thing is learning how to motivate. The most important thing is leadership and learning how to lead.