Sometimes you meet someone who is just special by any measure. My friend Ralph Sanders is one of those special people who has wisdom and experience gained over many years of hard work, meeting life’s challenges, working with many people and working in many places.
Last week marks 70 years of continuous employment for Sanders. After starting his career at the age of 8 picking cotton in the fields of Arkansas and Texas, Sanders worked on the farm and at the family sawmill until his sophomore year of high school when he found employment at a local auto repair garage. He worked 10 hours a day, six days a week for $24. He worked night shift at a trucking company during his senior year for $1 per hour.
On Jan. 28, 1961, Sanders married his high school sweetheart, June Crawford, and they moved to Greenville, California where he worked in mining exploration out of Taylorsville. He then worked for a logging company in Greenville driving a water truck; then operating a road grader on the log road maintenance crew, working on a truck maintenance crew and finally hauling logs.
There are not many people in the world still around who worked directly for some of the giants of the pre-war and post-war construction era. Sanders worked with Armand Hammer who founded and ran Occidental Petroleum for many years and helped found Allied Chemical. Armand Hammer was also known as the “go-between for seven U.S. Presidents and five Soviet General Secretaries.”
Sanders also worked on many construction projects for the famed Industrialist Henry Kaiser. Again, there are not very many people alive today who worked directly with Mr. Kaiser, who mass produced ships and built many large industrial plants. He innovated by developing welding techniques for strength and speed of construction for the war effort after the bombing of Pearl Harbor (Kaiser Shipbuilding, Kaiser Steel, Kaiser Aluminum, Kaiser Paving, and later Kaiser Permanente Health Care and Kaiser Motors). Kaiser, with the help and expertise of people like Sanders, was one of the prime contractors in building the Hoover Dam, Bonneville Dam, and the Grand Coulee Dam.
In 1965 Sanders had the opportunity to go to work for Kaiser Engineers, Inc. on a cement manufacturing plant in his hometown. This opportunity led to working for Kaiser for about 14 out of the next 18 years in the construction of cement plants, lead smelter, aluminum smelter, power plants, iron ore processing, MHD test facility in Butte, Montana, and coal gasification plant at the Chevron Facility in Richmond, California. He met Kaiser first on the lead smelter project in Missouri in 1967. Kaiser visited all his projects and spent time meeting and talking to all the staff and labor force on the project.
He was a great industrialist and a man that cared deeply for all his employees. Sanders said he was blessed to have the opportunity to work with and learn from the greatest group of managers ever with Kaiser and Bechtel.
Sanders also worked for Bechtel Corporation during the 1970s and 1980s and met Steve Bechtel, Sr. and Steve Bechtel, Jr. During Sanders’ assignment on the Arkansas Nuclear I and II power plant projects in Russellville, Arkansa, during 1974, Gary Bechtel (the younger son of Steve Jr.) showed up to the project site and got a job operating a large earth mover. One day the brakes failed on the equipment, and Gary and the earth mover ended up in a large pond of water on the site. When the report hit San Francisco, Steve Jr. called the plant and instructed the plant manager to terminate Gary immediately and ensured that Gary was not allowed to work on any project. Gary was somewhat rebellious at the family business, had hitchhiked across the country with his guitar and got the job on this project to make some money to continue his travels.
In 1975, in between jobs with Kaiser and Bechtel, Sanders worked as a purchasing agent for Adtek Engineering, a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum in Kansas City Missouri, where he met the owner of the companies, Armand Hammer. Hammer had a contract in Russia to build two 500-mile long ammonia transport pipelines. The engineering for the project and procurement of materials for the construction of the pipelines was performed in Kansas City. This was the first project in the world to transport ammonia that distance by pipeline.
In 1983 Sanders again worked with Gary Bechtel, but this time he had accepted his responsibility in the family business and moved up to project manager for the Houston Power & Light coal fired power plant in Jewitt City, Texas. Sanders worked side by side with Gary in the rain and mud six to eight inches deep installing all the underground piping and utilities for the large project. Gary Bechtel had just received a gift of $65 million from his grandfather, and Sanders asked him why he was out there in the mud working. He replied, “It’s my job.” When Sanders resigned from Bechtel while on a Shell Oil Company CO2 recovery plant in Denver City, Texas, Bechtel, now a vice president, flew from Houston to Denver City to see Sanders before he left for Idaho. He told Sanders he did not come to try talking him into staying, but just to express his appreciation for all his hard work and contributions to the success of the company. He gave Sanders a quarter and told him to keep the quarter in his shoe, and if he ever needed a job to call him.
After Bechtel left, the construction manager came to Sanders and said he had been around for a long time and had never seen a vice president fly to a jobsite just to say goodbye to an employee. The manager said he and Bechtel did not discuss the project schedule, budget or anything. Bechtel had come for one reason — to see Sanders off.
In 1986, after completing the Pocatello, Idaho portion of work on the large Exxon LaBarge gas processing plant in western Wyoming, Sanders and 25 other managers and superintendents moved to Anderson, California and went to work for Zurn Industries to construct the Zurn Energy designed, Wheelabrator Shasta Energy 49.9 megawatt, biomass fired power plant consisting of three Zurn Energy combustion boilers and three turbine/generator units. Work began on this plant construction project Nov. 16, 1986. Sanders and his highly qualified team delivered the first megawatt of power to PG&E on Oct. 30, 1987, 50 weeks from ground breaking.
In January 1988, Sanders and seven of his superintendents moved to Susanville to construct the Honey Lake Power Company 35.5 megawatt, biomass fired power plant at Wendel. The final permit for construction was obtained from Lassen County on April 11, 1988, and work on the project began April 12. Sanders and his super team again completed the project in record time, delivering the first megawatt of energy to PG&E on July 26, 1989.
The plant completed all the PG&E required performance testing on the plant and began the 30-year contract at midnight September 16, 1989.
After the plant was completed, Sanders was reassigned to the corporate office and promoted to Regional Construction for Zurn/Nepco with projects in California, Florida, North Carolina, Connecticut and Michigan.
Due to major problems with one of the California plant startups, Sanders spent countless hours on site for nine months before the project failed. Sanders was then recruited by the owners of HL Power Company to come back to Susanville for a couple of years as plant manager. Sanders managed the plant for 21 years, retiring in February 2012.
Sanders immediately started his consulting business, and over the past eight years has assisted many plants and companies across the country by managing completion of maintenance projects and improving plant operations.
Sanders maintains his residence in Lassen County, and he and his wife June are still active in our community organizations and he is a founding member of the Susanville Sunrise Rotary Club. If you asked Sanders for the shirt off his back, he would gladly give it to you. He is an amazing American success story and touchstone to history.