Jack Lemley of Boise, Idaho dies after long career as an engineer

Jack Lemley, an Idaho native and engineering pioneer, has passed away. He was 86 years old and died of natural causes.

Lemley was born in Coeur d’Alene, rose to a senior position at Morrison-Knudsen and went on to lead American Ecology. His death was published in the Idaho Press this week. He died on November 29 in Boise.

Lemley had a long career after graduating from the University of Idaho in 1960. For more than fifty years he worked for large companies in the engineering and construction industry. His greatest success came when he took over the project to build the Channel Tunnel that connected the UK to France. The idea for the 31-mile rail tunnel began to percolate around Napoleon’s time in the 1800s, but many attempts were unsuccessful. After Lemley left Boise-based MK, he went to Transmanch-Link, a group of five companies that ultimately completed the project.

“I was really a king in charge of this whole project,” he told Sven Berg of the Idaho Statesman 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 on a citizen.

From Coeur d’Alene to great things

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

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After working on Interstate 5 in Seattle and tunnels in New York, he landed at Morrison-Knudsen, Boise’s global construction company, in 1978. He rose through the ranks and, by the late 1980s, was one of the best employees to solidify it. When the board decided to replace Bill Deasy for the top job, the group considered Lemley before choosing William Agee – a choice that ultimately ended in unusual tabloid drama for Boise.

The eM-Kayan. Courtesy of Boise State University Digital Collections

Lemley left the company and landed on the Channel Tunnel project that defined his career. But he hasn’t always been silent, even commenting on the Associated Press on the company’s lingering problems in the 1990s.

After MK and the Tunnel, Lemley began working as a consultant, bringing his expertise to projects as diverse as the Holland Tunnel and the renovation of the Idaho Statehouse. He held the most senior position of American Ecology as CEO from 1995 to 2002. Lemley moved the corporate headquarters from Houston to Boise, where it is still located – today known as US Ecology.

At 70, he agreed to oversee the Olympic Delivery Authority for the London 2012 Olympics in 2005, but a year later he resigned. His penchant for speaking his mind in the media continued. He said he didn’t like politics and didn’t think the infrastructure would be built on time.

“I went there to build things, not to sit down and talk about it,” Lemley told the Idaho Statesman, according to the Associated Press. “So I thought it was better to leave the post and go home. “

Return to the state of gems

Home, again, was Idaho, working several more years before officially retiring in 2012 at the age of 77. He served on the Idaho Power board of directors as a trust for the College of Idaho and supported the UI and the State of Idaho.

Throughout his life he has toured the world on a yacht, boarded a fighter jet from Mountain Home, cycled all over Southwest Idaho, and spent time with his 35-year-old wife, Pamela.

In 2011, Sandra Forester of the Idaho Statesman asked Jack Lemley how he would like to be remembered.

“I’m a builder who has always worked with the end of the stick,” he said. “I don’t want to be known as a fantastic engineer. I’m not. But I’m a builder who learned his lessons in the mud, and I was able to take those lessons and translate them into very successful projects like the Channel Tunnel.

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