George Rowe, former APWA President, dies at 80

Howard Rosen, Ph.D.
Program Director
University of Wisconsin-Madison
President, Public Works Historical Society

George Rowe was an important figure in the public works history of Cincinnati, Ohio. He also made a crucial contribution to the history of APWA. But ultimately, it was his life itself, overcoming tremendous odds with inner strength, persistence and grace that will be George Rowe's true legacy.

  George Rowe

George Rowe was born in Montgomery, Alabama on November 6, 1925, and lived almost his entire life in Cincinnati, Ohio. From the time he entered high school he had wanted to become an engineer. At a time when blacks were not encouraged to pursue professional education, George Rowe's mother told him not to even bother coming home if he didn't bring his schoolbooks and do his homework. His academic record earned him a place in the Hampton Institute, an all-black college in Virginia, where, with limited financial resources, he worked his way through, graduating with a B.S. in engineering. His first job in Cincinnati was as a draftsman for $1 an hour. In 1951 he was the first black professional hired by the Department of Public Works. He started on drafting projects because his supervisor didn't believe that he was an engineer. George was required to have Hampton provide proof of his degree. On his own, he studied and passed the P.E. exam the first time, to the amazement of his supervisor. Some of his coworkers resigned so as not have to work under George, now that he was a P.E. There were many other obstacles that George Rowe encountered in his career and life. None of them made him bitter and none of them stopped him from moving forward.

George Rowe's success as public works director was based on many factors. He was an engineer who had years of experience with drafting, surveying, construction inspection, contract management, stormwater, sewerage and solid waste. Beyond his having broad technical expertise and a willingness to work long hours, he was a manager who got the utmost from his staff through communication and delegation. Unlike his predecessor, Rowe's Division Heads did not have to clear everything through the Director first. He held weekly meetings of all Divisions not to make reports but to present issues they needed to discuss. He encouraged his staff to coordinate and communicate directly with each other, to do whatever was necessary to get the job done. He wanted them to look to each other and to themselves to solve problems, not to wait for the Director. His approach was fundamentally similar to what APWA called "the integrated management of public works." As Public Works Director, Rowe instituted a Stormwater Utility, a Solid Waste Management Division, a curbside and apartment recycling program and an Employee of the Year program.

When he became the public works director for Cincinnati in 1980, George Rowe found a city that had long deferred maintenance. Faced with an aging and deteriorating infrastructure, Rowe initiated a process that would result in the development of public support for long-term investment in Cincinnati's public works. He convinced the city's elected officials to establish a blue-ribbon Infrastructure Commission to examine the condition and estimate the needs for public works. This commission included many community leaders and was headed by John Smale, CEO of Procter & Gamble (which is headquartered in Cincinnati). Public works staff worked with dedicated volunteers to come up with reliable information, which starting in 1983 was published annually in The Public Works Story. For several years, Rowe and Commission members went to countless neighborhood meetings to present them with their findings and to get their support. As a result, in 1988 the citizens of Cincinnati voted to approve a tax that would begin the process of providing improved long-term funding of public works. George Rowe was able to go directly to the people with solid facts and the willingness to face the problem and get their support for a solution that they could now see would benefit them and the entire community.

As president of APWA during a time of financial crisis, George Rowe would perform the same crucial role. He had retired in 1993 from the city in order to be able to devote his full attention to APWA. He personally visited many APWA chapters to ask them for their support. With his honesty and sincerity he was able to get that support from every chapter he visited, including Chicago Metro, which he understood still felt the loss of the move of headquarters. It was his ability to face the problem and people directly and sincerely that helped APWA weather its financial storm. In recognition of his crucial contribution, he was presented with a plaque that said "The right man for the right time."

George Rowe passed away unexpectedly, but peacefully in his sleep on May 4, 2006. His wife Beatrice and his son Gregory and daughter Gisele survive him.

Note: A more detailed account of the life and career of George Rowe will be available soon in an oral history interview to be published by the Public Works Historical Society.

Howard Rosen can be reached at (608) 262-4341 or

"Those of us who were privileged to know George personally recognize that he was a very special person. He not only was personable in meeting with APWA members on his chapter visits, but he also had a very special insight into the heart of problems and ways to solve them." - Jim Martin, former APWA President (1983-84)

"In all the years that have passed since I had the privilege of working with George, my esteem for him during his year as APWA President only grows. It is not stretching very far to suggest that APWA might not even exist today but for his quiet and balanced leadership in a time of very real need. He bought us time when time was something the organization badly needed and had little of. With an understated 'I'll take care of that' that I can still hear him saying, he set off to reassure chapters across the country that things were going to be all right. And he was believed. He was believed because he was the kind of man people believed in. And he delivered. His presidency gave new life to APWA and made it possible for it to be the wonderful organization it is today. That is a legacy he would have liked and I suspect he did." - William J. Bertera, Executive Director, Water Environment Federation; former APWA Executive Director (1993-98)