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Stephen Bechtel, Head of Global Construction Firm, Dies at 88

March 15, 1989|JACK JONES | Times Staff Writer

Stephen Davison Bechtel, builder of dams, bridges, pipelines, refineries, factories, ships, nuclear reactors and other industrial hardware throughout the world, died Tuesday in Oakland. He was 88.

A spokesman for the Bechtel Group Inc. said in San Francisco that Bechtel died at Merritt Peralta Medical Center of an undisclosed illness.

As head of one of the world's largest construction and engineering firms, which helped build Hoover Dam, Bechtel's philosophy was, "We'll build anything for anybody, no matter what the location, type or size."

Even though he headed a large organization with an impressive array of supervisors, engineers and workers, Bechtel was described by Fortune magazine in the early 1950s as "a practical contractor who knows the work in the field as well as any man in the crew."

One of his customers was quoted by the magazine as saying, "For a run-of-the-mill job, I'll . . . give (it) to the lowest bidder. But for something that requires dreaming and imagination, Bechtel's my man."

Born Sept. 24, 1900, in Aurora, Ind., he was the son of builder Warren A. Bechtel. The family moved to Oakland, but Stephen Bechtel spent much of his youth in construction camps, living with his parents in a railroad car at railroad job sites.

Stephen Bechtel was a motorcycle dispatch rider with the 20th Army Engineers in France during World War I, then attended UC Berkeley. He quit school at 19 and joined the family business with his brothers, Warren Jr. and Kenneth.

"Dad needed us in the business," he explained later.

In 1925, his father formed the W. A. Bechtel Co., one of the largest construction firms in the West. Stephen became a vice president, supervising railroad, building and pipeline construction.

His father died in 1933, leaving Stephen Bechtel to take over a major role in the building of Hoover Dam, for which the Bechtel firm had allied itself with five other companies. In 1935, he took over presidency of the $20-million construction business, building it into one worth $250 million.

During 1934 and 1935, Bechtel was vice president of Bridge Builders Inc., set up to build part of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.

Following that, he and school friend John A. McCone--who was to become a Los Angeles industrialist and head of the CIA--formed the Bechtel-McCone Corp. to design and build chemical plants and petroleum refineries.

World War II swept Bechtel into the shipbuilding business. He helped form the California Shipbuilding Corp. and the Marineship Corp., which built more than 460 freighters and about 90 tankers.

After the war, Bechtel built pipelines in Canada and Saudi Arabia. His company built one of the largest refineries in the world in Aden for the Anglo-Iranian Oil Co. Ltd. Then there was a large electric power plant at Joppa, Ill., a mining project in the jungles of Venezuela and other jobs.

His company was one of the developers of the boiling water nuclear reactor and did much of the early engineering work for the Atomic Energy Commission, building the AEC's Experimental Breeder Reactor No. 1 at Arco, Ida., in the late 1940s.

In the 1950s, Bechtel built the Dresden Power Station in Illinois, the first large-scale nuclear power station to go into operation.

In 1960, Bechtel yielded the company presidency to his son, Stephen Jr. He retired as chairman in 1965 and became a senior director. He stayed active, however, and when he was 84 he helped set up a joint engineering venture in China.

Bechtel also leaves his wife, Laura, whom he married in 1923, and a daughter, Barbara Davies. He leaves seven grandchildren and 19 great grandchildren.

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