SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Lee Bass smiles about a 40-year career that included a number of noteworthy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers projects that helped make people safer – even though he passed up an offer to work alongside the founding father of Wal-Mart.
“I’m like the Forrest Gump of USACE – always in the right place at the right time,” joked Bass, the acting deputy program manager for the Corps’ Sacramento District, now preparing to retire from the Corps for a third time.
Raised on a farm in Gillett, Ark., Bass became an engineer during the 1970s and interviewed for several job openings after graduation. One job offer is particularly notable in hindsight.
“I interviewed with this elderly man in the back of a Ben Franklin dime store,” said Bass. “He took me in his old blue Ford pickup to an airfield to show me a used airplane he’d just purchased.
“Son, I can’t pay you a lot, but I’ve got this idea,” said the man whom locals called Mr. Sam. “If you’ll go around and build these box stores for me, I’ll give you part of the company.”
But the young engineer explained that the Army Corps of Engineers had offered him a job, so Bass turned down the offer from Arkansas’ Sam Walton, father of the Wal-Mart retail empire.
“But I’ve had a really good career with the Corps,” said Bass. “I’ve gotten to see a difference made in the world as a result of some of the things I’ve worked on.
“You know, I look back 20 years later and see the economic development that has occurred as a result of a bridge we built across the Arkansas River in Fort Smith,” said Bass. “A little project that I got to work on made that difference.
“Through the Clean Water Act of 1970 we installed sewers and helped clean up the waterways in almost every county in Arkansas,” said Bass. “Nobody thinks a thing about having a bathroom in their house nowadays, but some rural towns did not have that luxury at that time."
Bass, his wife and their 6-month-old baby went to Germany for the Corps in the early 1980s. He was one of 50 young engineers put in charge of projects there for three years.
“We were back home in 1989 when I saw the wall in Germany come down,” said Bass. “America had bankrupted the Eastern Bloc countries when their military machine couldn’t keep up with our military machine.
“I had tears in my eyes as I watched that wall broken through,” said Bass. “Maybe there are people who are free now who wouldn’t be if the Corps hadn’t gone in there.”
Bass first decided to retire in 2008. Three days later he was contacted and asked if he would help out with the design of a hurricane barrier below New Orleans.
“When I headed to New Orleans, they wanted a unique structure designed and constructed in three years – and we were able to get it done,” said Bass. “Now there are people in that part of the world who won’t have as much to worry about during hurricane season.”
Now, Bass is in Sacramento temporarily filling the post of deputy program manager for the Sacramento District, but hopes to head home soon and take another shot at retirement.
“As people look back on what the Corps has done around Sacramento … strengthened a levee here and there, built a new dam and made all these little projects … they have to be seen as components of a total system,” said Bass.
“When it’s all said and done, you’ll be able to look back and say ‘that storm that came through in 2015 or 2025, it would have wiped out Sacramento, but for me doing my part,’” said Bass. “That’s a big deal – but it’s hard for us to think about the total picture as we’re pushing hard to get a project to the civil works review board, get a report done or get a cost estimate right.
“We need to get that message out to young engineers – that the importance of what they’re doing is not just the day-to-day number crunching,” said Bass. “The daily routine might not feel significant, but the final product is.”
He likes to share his perspective with new engineers. “I pick up more family everywhere I go,” laughs Bass. For example, he and his wife mentor some young professionals they met during projects in New Orleans.
“A lot of them were fresh out of college – brand new engineers sent to New Orleans,” said Bass. “That was a danger, so ‘Mama Bass and Papa Bass’ tried to guide them to keep them out of trouble.
“When you’re in jobs where you are focused mainly on the project and you’re far from home, you develop a family attitude with the people you work with,” said Bass.
“We [Corps employees] have to know in our hearts that what we have done has made a difference in the world and we stay because we are committed to service,” said Bass. A successful career isn’t all about the money.