By Sandra Arnold
GALVESTON, Texas-- If 80 is the new 65 when it comes to current retirement plans, then most U.S Army Corps of Engineers employees would still have a decade to go before catching up with Civil Engineer Jack Otis, whose departure in September will officially make him the oldest employee to retire from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
While achieving this title was never his goal when he accepted a Corps position 41 years ago, becoming an engineer was a career choice he made as a teen.
"My father was a practical engineer and although he never went to college he was very smart and encouraged my interest in engineering and urged me to attend college," said Otis.
Following his father's advice, Otis enrolled in the chemical engineering program at Syracuse University in 1940. Just as he was settling into his new role as engineering student, the nation entered World War II and he was faced with a troubling dilemma -- to serve his nation in the military or continue to fulfill his childhood aspiration of becoming an engineer.
After careful consideration, Otis met with the dean of engineering and requested to put his studies on hold to enlist in the armed forces. Concerned that one of his top students may not finish his studies upon his return from the war, the dean convinced Otis to remain in school on a student deferment until he completed his program.
Staying true to his word, Otis remained in university to finish his course of studies but his desire to join in the war efforts never waned so upon graduation he headed to the recruiting office and enlisted in the U.S. Navy.
"Both my father and uncle served in the Navy during World War I, I couldn't think about enlisting in any other branch of the armed forces," said Otis.
Otis became an electronics technician's mate and deployed to the Pacific Theater where he was assigned to USS LST 620. During his enlistment he participated in the assault on Ie Shima, a small island off the coast of Okinawa, Japan, then geared up for the next big assault.
"We began training for the invasion of Japan," said Otis. "Then in August the United States dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Japanese surrendered. I know there was a great loss of life in those bombings, but they probably saved my life."
Otis was honorably discharged from active duty in 1946 following the end of the war and remained in the Navy Reserve until 1950 while dually pursuing a Master of Business Administration from Syracuse University.
With his academic goals achieved and service to the nation fulfilled, Otis transitioned into the next chapter of his life, accepting a position as an engineer with General Motors where he remained until the downsizing of the auto industry in the 1960's.
Over the next decade Otis worked for several companies in Alabama and Philadelphia. One of his more interesting jobs was with the Boeing Company where he was part of the team that designed and tested booster rockets for the Apollo moon missions.
"Companies hired me for specific tasks and once a contract was over I either had to transfer to a different office within the company or find a new employer," said Otis. "My wife and I were getting tired of running around chasing jobs and that's when I decided to apply for civil service. In July 1971, I obtained a position with USACE Mobile District."
Seeking upward mobility within the Corps, Otis accepted a position with the USACE Galveston District's Regulatory Branch in May 1974 and began issuing permits.
"Back then there weren't many environmentalists in the country, it was a newer job field," said Otis. "As a result, the Regulatory Branch used engineers for permitting."
Over the next four decades he accepted various assignments in the district to include working in the Planning Section, becoming the assistant chief in mobilization master planning and military design projects, the lead engineer for the Defense Restoration Environmental Program (a program that focuses on cleaning and managing contaminated lands on current and former military installations) and a program manager for the district's Programs and Project Management Division.
His most notable district projects include the oversight of the Channel to Victoria on the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, work on the Greens Bayou and Cedar Bayou and the Fort Sam Houston projects, which modernized the base and included the building of the Brooke Army Medical Center, as well as the Matagorda Ship Channel Deeping Project.
Having earned a degree in chemical engineering in 1943, Otis is amazed with the extraordinary advances made in the field of engineering.
"When I first started working, we used slide rulers, logarithms, manual calculators and standard tables to develop the engineering," said Otis. "Today, everyone has their own computer to help them with their projects. Although computers are a great tool, sometimes I believe there is a tendency to over rely on them."
With more than 60 years of engineering experience under his belt, this seasoned professional advises young engineers to keep active, remain current on training and try to learn new ways of operating to avoid getting stuck in a rut.
During the next week, as his colleagues prepare for him to hang up his hard hat and transition from a "Custodian of the Coast" to a Corps retiree, they know he will be taking with him a tremendous wealth of knowledge but leaving behind a legacy that he can be proud of.
"Jack is a model employee who epitomizes the Army Core Values and is a true representation of our Greatest Generation," said Col. Christopher Sallese, USACE Galveston District commander. "Though the district will be losing invaluable institutional knowledge when he retires, we are extraordinarily happy for him and proud of his numerous achievements."
Always looking at the glass half full, Otis views retirement as a new beginning rather than an end as it affords him the opportunity to do things he never had time for in the past - such as travel.
"I've never been to Europe and I really want to go," said Otis. "Although I did some traveling in the Pacific during World War II, that's not the kind of travel I'm talking about."
A native of Syracuse, New York and resident of League City, Texas, he intends to remain in Texas following his retirement Sept. 26, 2012.