by Ruth (“Meisy”) Howland
Jim and I were married in June 1941 in my home town, York, Pennsylvania. We left York the same day to drive west to Los Angeles, CA, where Jim had a job waiting for him with Standard Oil Company of California. Five weeks later, he was a second Lieutenant in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He was called to duty because he had participated in the ROTC program while attending Oregon State College.
In December 1941, Jim was shipped out of San Francisco to Hawaii to serve in the South Pacific area with the 47th Engineers. When WWII was over, Jim was happy to be discharged in Pennsylvania in November 1945; and we spent Christmas at my childhood home. On December 26, 1945, we started our journey west, headed for Corvallis, Oregon. There, Jim was eager to join Fred Merryfield and Holly Cornell who had already begun the job of creating their mutually shared dream of starting their own engineering firm in Oregon.
Fred Merryfield was a full-time professor in Sanitary Engineering at Oregon State College. He had also served in New Guinea until illness caused him to be returned to the U.S. where he was subsequently discharged from the armed forces.
Holly Cornell had served with the U. S. Army Engineers in Europe until Germany capitulated in August 1945. Following his discharge, Holly first set up his drafting board in his bedroom in Corvallis and had already commenced work on some initial projects. He had also identified suitable office space to house the newborn enterprise. Burke Hayes was expected to join the others as soon as he, too, was discharged from the U.S. Navy.
In January 1946, Jim and I began our new life in Corvallis. At first, we rented a bedroom in a rooming house, sharing bathroom privileges with a number of other residents. We were able to find a boarding house for our meals–a house that housed and fed male college students. We were allowed to join the college students for meals, but had to continue to rent our housing at the other boarding house.
Camp Adair was still an active military base about 10 miles north of Corvallis, which resulted in a severe shortage of civilian housing in the area. We were shown a former chicken coop that had been converted to serve as housing for a military couple. Finally, we found a small house on Whiteside Drive. Jim’s military service was helpful in getting a mortgage; and on April 1, 1946, we moved from the rooming house to our new home.
But finding a house was only our first hurdle. There was a stove and a furnace, but no refrigerator and no washer or dryer in our newly purchased home. The local appliance stores were waiting for shipments to arrive and had none on hand. We finally bought all the furniture from a small house to obtain the much needed refrigerator. This purchase also included a small dining room table, four straight chairs, and an unfinished small dresser. Please remember that in 1946, the milkman delivered milk, grocery stores delivered groceries ordered by telephone, and drug stores delivered medicines. While we waited 5 months for a washing machine, I washed our clothes in the bathtub and hung them out to dry in our small furnace room.
I had been employed as a secretary and an x-ray technician during the war. Thus, we had been able to save most of Jim’s Army salary, and some of mine. We were confident that with Jim’s separation pay from the Army, we could get along just fine. Besides that, we had unshakeable confidence in the abilities of the four young fellows who were building the engineering firm of Cornell, Howland, Hayes and Merryfield.
Jim had spent his college years in Corvallis, and his parents still lived in Oregon City. He was a third generation Oregonian. And while he was working with three close friends, Holly, Burke and Fred, it was quite different for me. I had known Billie and Burke Hayes in Cambridge as “Jim’s friends from Oregon.” I had met Cleo and Holly Cornell once in New Haven, Connecticut. Mildred and Fred Merryfield were new acquaintances, but they gave me immediate acceptance along with introductions to their church, their doctors, and their friends.
Jim had numerous requirements for travel to various Oregon towns to call on city engineers of water, sewer, and electrical departments. On occasion, I could travel with him; and it afforded fine opportunities to become acquainted with the Oregon coast, to view the mountain scenery, and to become acquainted with Oregon’s capital city of Salem and the metropolitan city of Portland. Indeed, it was great fun to be with Jim day after day–after 5 years of marriage, we had had spent less than a year together!
As the firm began to grow, more engineers were hired; and my circle of acquaintances grew accordingly. I felt a responsibility to help people who were new to the area feel welcome and comfortable in their new surroundings. There was rarely a week when we did not have a dinner guest at our home. Our first child was born in 1946, and then had twin sons in 1949. We led busy lives; entertaining was casual, but frequent. We wanted the young engineers and their wives to have a sense of belonging with the firm’s growing family. On occasion, we even entertained a few clients in our tiny 900-square-foot home!
Because so many of our new employees found themselves far from their familiar home locations, we started the firm’s Christmas parties and summer picnics to reinforce the bonding process among the growing CH2M family members. Many of the wives got together to make the Christmas decorations and to plan picnic games for the children.
Yes, the men did travel frequently, and often on a day when a small child needed to go to the doctor or the wife had a dental appointment to keep; but we wives always helped one another to resolve these emergencies. For example, during the early months, I baby-sat Steve Cornell when Cleo needed to type reports or a proposal to a city council. Cleo was the first secretary for the firm. Her work was done mostly at night on a typewriter. In 2.5 years, the firm of CH2M had become a busy, no nonsense, workplace; but the wives all knew that paychecks could be counted on at the end of each month!
Those early years were great years. We were young; the war was over; we were healthy; and our children were normal, frisky, funny, and delightful. The business was growing and new ideas engendered new functions. Old customers came back with new problems needing solution. The CH2M staff was making the dream of a major engineering firm become a reality. Good people doing good work and having a great time in the process.
We were all very happy people!
Meisy Howland, 95, died March 23, 2014
Tribute contributed by Emily Walker and Lee Overcamp
Ruth Louise “Meisy” Howland, the wife of the late CH2M HILL co-founder Jim Howland, died March 23 in Madison, Wisconsin. She was 95 years old.
Best known by a nickname taken from her maiden name, Meisenhelder, Meisy was a strong supporter of the Corvallis, Oregon, community and well-known among earlier generations of CH2M HILL employees.
She and Jim met on a blind date in 1938 when Meisy was a junior at Radcliffe College and Jim was a graduate student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They married in 1941 and were together until Jim’s death in 2008.
Meisy was a big part of CH2M during its founding years. After Jim’s return from World War II, the couple headed to Corvallis, Oregon, to meet up with Fred Merryfield, Holly Cornell, and Burke Hayes to begin making the group’s shared dream a reality.
The Howlands began their new life in Corvallis renting a bedroom in a boarding house where they shared living space with other residents and joined the college students for meals. It wasn’t too long before Meisy and Jim moved into a small house of their own on Whiteside Drive, but it took some time to get fully situated. In the beginning, the house had a stove and furnace, but no refrigerator and no washer/dryer.
Meisy recalled years later that they knew they would get along just fine. “We had unshakable confidence in the abilities of the four young fellows who were building the new engineering firm.”
As the firm grew, more and more engineers were hired; and Meisy took it upon herself to make everyone and their families feel a sense of home and belonging. The Howland’s 900-square-foot home became a familiar place to all.
“Those early years were great years,” Meisy said. “We were young; the war was over; we were healthy; and our children were normal, frisky, funny, and delightful. The business was growing, and new ideas engendered new functions. Old customers came back with new problems needing solution. The CH2M staff was making the dream of a major engineering firm become a reality. Good people doing good work and having a great time in the process. We were all very happy people!”
Jim and Meisy were not only well-known and respected at CH2M HILL, but also in the broader community where they were regarded as active civic leaders and humble contributors to numerous societies and the arts. In fact, the Corvallis Chamber of Commerce celebrates longtime civic engagement every year with an award that is named for the couple.
Described as “the most beautiful, wise, gentle and accomplished lady,” Meisy was well-known and well-loved. She will be missed. Our hearts go out to the Howland Family.