2012 Horatio Alger Norman Vincent Peale Recipient
Dennis R. Washington ‘95
Founder, The Washington Companies
Dennis R. Washington was born in Spokane, Washington in 1934. When he was very young, he moved with his family back to his parents’ hometown of Missoula, Montana, where he lived until World War II broke out. His parents migrated to Bremerton, Washington, seeking and finding work at a defense shipyard. Living in a government housing project, Washington contracted polio when he was eight years old. He was able to recover after eight months in the hospital and moved back to Montana to be with his grandmother.
Following the war, Washington's parents divorced. He bounced around California, Washington, and Montana, living with relatives and going from one school to another. By the age of 14, he was self-sufficient, earning money by boxing groceries, delivering newspapers, shining shoes at a railroad depot, and working as a mechanic in a service station. During his final two years in high school he again lived with his grandmother in Missoula. "She gave me love and stability at a time in my life when I really needed it," he says.
At age 17, after graduating high school, Washington went to Alaska to pursue a job in heavy construction. After two years, he returned to Montana and worked for his uncle who owned a construction company. By age 26 he was vice president of the largest construction company in Montana. Three years later, with a $30,000 loan from a Caterpillar dealer, Washington went into business for himself. His first contract was a challenging one carving a parking lot at the rocky summit of Glacier National Park. This led to building logging roads for the U.S. Forest Service, which prepared him for interstate highway construction jobs. By 1969 he was the largest contractor in Montana; within ten years Washington Construction would be listed among the largest in the nation.
In the early 1970’s Washington branched into contract mining. In 1985 he purchased the dormant copper mine in Butte, Montana, provided the necessary resources, and brought it back into profitable production in 1986. He diversified repeatedly, entering into dam building, railroads, and marine transportation services. "It's all possible because of teamwork," he says, "and people with a passion for their work".
In 1996 Washington Construction merged with Morrison Knudsen, a publicly traded construction and engineering giant. After the merger, Washington directed the formation of Washington Group International, acquiring components of Westinghouse and Raytheon, to mold one of the largest design/build construction companies in the U.S. The company ran into trouble with the Raytheon acquisition and was forced into Chapter 11 bankruptcy. After settling with Raytheon, the company sold six years later at one of the highest multiples ever in the construction industry.
Today, the Washington Companies comprise more than a dozen affiliated companies that are leaders in rail and marine transportation, ship building and repair, mining, environmental remediation, heavy equipment distribution, and aviation.
An ardent philanthropist, Washington established the Dennis & Phyllis Washington Foundation in 1988. Focused on education, health and human services, community service, and arts and culture, Washington and the Foundation have contributed well over $130 million to organizations throughout the nation.
One of the primary donations is the Washington Family Ranch. The ranch, located in Antelope, Oregon, was a 64,000 acre gift accompanied with ongoing commitment to the Young Life organization. With the recent completion of a second camp there for middle school kids, the Washington Family Ranch’s capacity increased from 680 to 1,050 campers per week. A third camp is in the planning stages.
The Family and Foundation’s principal interest is education. In addition to the commitment to the Horatio Alger scholarship program, the Phyllis J. Washington School of Education and Human Sciences at the University of Montana has provided resources for the education of thousands of fortunate students.
Mrs. Phyllis Washington, a former elementary teacher, is very active in philanthropy with particular interest in the support and development of the field of education. Mr. and Mrs. Washington were married in 1964, just two years after Phyllis was honored as Homecoming Queen at the University of Montana. They have two sons, Kyle and Kevin, and three grandchildren.