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The legacy of Bud Ossey: Centenarian, former Portland District engineer helped electrify the Northwest

Published Sept. 22, 2020
Wendell “Buddy” Barnes (far right), national president of the Society of American Military Engineers (SAME), presents Bud Ossey (center) with a placard recognizing his 73 years of membership with SAME during a Portland District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers historical celebration at the district’s headquarters in downtown Portland in November 2019. Also pictured is Terry Hosaka, the SAME Portland Post president.

Wendell “Buddy” Barnes (far right), national president of the Society of American Military Engineers (SAME), presents Bud Ossey (center) with a placard recognizing his 73 years of membership with SAME during a Portland District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers historical celebration at the district’s headquarters in downtown Portland in November 2019. Also pictured is Terry Hosaka, the SAME Portland Post president.

Bud Ossey talks to current engineers and fellow retirees of Portland District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers during a historical celebration at the district’s headquarters in downtown Portland in November 2019. Ossey attended as a guest of honor.

Bud Ossey talks to current engineers and fellow retirees of Portland District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers during a historical celebration at the district’s headquarters in downtown Portland in November 2019. Ossey attended as a guest of honor.

Bud Ossey (center) reconnects with fellow retirees of Portland District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers during a historical celebration at the district’s headquarters in downtown Portland in November 2019. Ossey attended as a guest of honor.

Bud Ossey (center) reconnects with fellow retirees of Portland District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers during a historical celebration at the district’s headquarters in downtown Portland in November 2019. Ossey attended as a guest of honor.

Bud Ossey is probably one of the only people alive today who was there on the cool morning of Sept. 28, 1937, when President Franklin Roosevelt dedicated a brand spanking new Bonneville Dam to the American public.

At least, he’s probably one of the only people who remembers it clearly.

A 17-year-old Ossey waved to the president, and the president waved back. Sort of.

“Of course, he was waving to the whole crowd,” laughed Ossey, who turned 100 last November.

Ossey’s father, who had designed Bonneville’s navigation lock—the highest single-lift lock in the world at the time of its completion—attended as a VIP, taking up a seat directly in front of the speaker’s podium. Ossey tagged along.

The teenager left that day feeling proud of his father, an immigrant who had survived a mechanical engineering program at Oregon Agricultural College (later Oregon State University) by scribbling notes in Russian throughout his textbooks—but managed to graduate early and with perfect grades.

“It made me want to step up and do what I could,” recalled Ossey. “I was never the engineer he was, but I did the best I could.”

But Ossey is modest if he’s anything. He would emerge from that experience in 1937 to carry out some of the most important work for the Columbia River dams that followed in Bonneville’s wake.

“Mr. Ossey is a founding leader for developing hydropower renewable energy in our country,” said Steve Miles, director of the Hydroelectric Design Center, the Corps’ national hydropower center of expertise.

The Corps established Miles’ center, known as HDC, in 1948 to meet the growing demand for hydroelectric development on the Columbia. Ossey was its first civil engineer.

Before joining the Army as an engineering officer in 1943—the same year he finished his civil engineering degree at OSU—Ossey had helped design and build a 234-mile transmission line from Bonneville to Grand Coulee Dam, located upriver.

His work with HDC, administratively part of Portland District, began with McNary Dam, located on the Columbia at Umatilla, Oregon. Together, Ossey and one other engineer designed the dam’s entire powerhouse.

Ossey went on to help design the powerhouses for Chief Joseph, The Dalles and John Day dams, as well as multiple dams along the Snake River. Later, as Portland District continued to set up projects throughout Oregon’s Willamette Valley, he led the design of the powerhouse at Green Peter Dam, finished in 1968.

“And you did that all with a slide rule,” said Rick Goodell, a longtime close friend of Ossey’s and a former Portland District commander, during a recent phone call with Ossey.

Looking back on 100 years
What’s it like to live for a century? We asked Bud Ossey a handful of questions about his life and experiences. Here’s what he had to say:
What’s the most valuable thing you’ve learned along the way?
“My dad once told me, ‘You never know when you’re shaking hands with your next boss.’ Always keep a friendly smile and a firm, firm handshake, and always be nice to people. I just try to make friends with everybody I meet.”
What’s the secret to living a long and happy life?
“I think the most important thing is good health—to be active and exercise. And eat good food. Have a good diet. I tell people my secret to success is vodka.” (That’s also Betty White’s secret.)
When it comes to your time with USACE, what are you most proud of?
“I’m really proud of the work I did on the designing of the powerhouses.”
If you could offer one piece of advice to young engineers, what would that be?
“Work hard, and try to learn as much as you can from your associates and your superiors. And don’t be hesitant to look for better opportunities. Be happy where you are, and work hard where you are.”

Goodell was referring to the now-outdated, manual method of making calculations. A slide rule—merely a distant relic in the era of the smart phone—bears a passing resemblance to the standard ruler. In the heyday of hydropower generation that accounts for much of Ossey’s career, it was basically an engineer’s computer—at least, for Ossey it was.

Using the slide rule and other manual instruments, Ossey pioneered the design for dams on the Columbia and others throughout the American Midwest and Southeast, according to Miles.

“He has had a monumental impact on building and maintaining hydropower engineering technical excellence in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,” said Miles.

But Ossey’s legacy didn’t stop at dams and hydropower. In 1964, the Portland District commander convinced Ossey to take a job as chief of the district’s Resource Management section.

The catch: There wasn’t a Resource Management section. Ossey would be the one to build it.

Authorized in the 1940s, Resource Management—today, referred to as Natural Resource Management—oversees and conserves Corps natural resources and public lands while providing quality public outdoor recreation experiences.

Setting all of that in motion meant meeting with a lot of important people across the area. A slide rule wouldn’t help Ossey there. Luckily, though, he had a knack for human interaction.

“That was my forte, you might say—meeting people and spreading the good word of the Corps of Engineers all over the Northwest,” Ossey said.

And so Ossey became a local Corps ambassador, quickly partnering with the Forest Service, the Bureau of Reclamation, local governments, and municipalities to develop recreation facilities and amenities at Portland District’s projects.

Some experience in the broadcasting booth during football and basketball games at OSU in the 1950s had helped Ossey establish contacts all over Oregon and Washington, which made the job easier.

Once, back in the late 1960s, Ossey gave a talk in Eugene to a roomful of angry fishermen who opposed the Corps’ dams in the Willamette Valley. Suffice it to say that things got a bit awkward. So Bud educated them about the valley’s flood history and the role of dams.

“I gave them a pretty good history on what the scenario would be like without the dams,” recalled Ossey. “They couldn’t believe the dams were worth that much. I think I convinced them.”

Ossey retired from his position as chief of Resource Management in 1974 but has remained busy in the years since.

Ossey is a 74-year member of the Society of American Military Engineers. He once led the society’s Portland chapter and recently served as an honorary director. He’s a lifetime member of OSU’s Alumni Association Board, in addition to his membership in other OSU boards, clubs and foundations. (See: OSU Dad’s Club.) And for the past nearly 50 years, Ossey has held an annual golf tournament—today called the Ossey Scramble—to raise funds for OSU’s golf program.

In 2006, Ossey was inducted into the OSU Engineering Hall of Fame, and in late 2019, SAME named a college scholarship for Oregon engineering students after Ossey.

After 100 years, Ossey certainly has a lot to look back on. And through it all, his time with the Corps stands out.

“Just being a part of the Corps of Engineers and meeting so many wonderful people was the success of my life,” said Ossey.