Jim Ross has come a long way since learning to use a slide rule in the eighth grade to calculate the speed of cars racing past the school.
On the other hand, he hasn’t gone far at all. And that’s just fine with the retiring Idaho Transportation Department’s chief engineer. His heart has never been far from home, and home never far from his heart.
Ross closes his engineering career next week only a few miles and more than three decades away from where it began in Emmett. Between a family dairy farm north of Emmett and his custom home near Eagle Hills Golf Club in Eagle, the soft-spoken Ross turned his passion for science into a career on Idaho’s highways.
Known simply as Jim by most of his colleagues and friends, Ross modestly proclaims the growth of Idaho’s transportation system is a credit to legions of dedicated professionals, of which he was just one player.
But in unrehearsed unison, colleagues within and outside the Idaho Transportation Department will say Ross has played a critical role in the system’s development. He added reason, patience and compassion to a profession driven by formulas and calculations.
“I like solving problems of an engineering nature… building things and making things work more efficiently. I’m lazy by nature, so when you talk about process improvement, I’m always interested in making it easier. I’ve been able to facilitate the accomplishment of many projects, working with designers on through to contractors to complete quality jobs by working together.”
That collaboration is evident far beyond highway rights-of-way. Ross built four homes during his ITD career, functioned as the general contractor on most of the projects and designed and created blueprints for them.
Building relationships has been as important to Ross as building highways and homes. He readily admits he will miss those relationships when he walks from his office for the last time Thursday.
“Long-term, I will miss the associations I have with people. There are so many good people who work for this organization, bright, capable professionals. You like to think you’ve left behind a legacy, but it’s hard to measure.
“Our people know how to succeed; what I’ve done is allowed them to do what they’re best at, to give them the freedom to be the best they can be, professionally. Growth of an agency has to be based on growth of individuals.”
Ross understood that freedom as a high school student in Emmett.
Born on an 80-acre dairy farm about 15 miles north of town, Ross attended a three-room schoolhouse through the eighth grade, as did his sister who was five years older. He concluded, as a 15-year-old sophomore, that milking cows would not be among his career considerations.
Eighth-grade science teacher Dewey H. Cofield unwittingly influenced that decision. He instilled in Ross a love for science, beginning with a slide rule and transportation. Students monitored vehicles passing in front of the school, calculated their speed and passed the information on to classmates at a distant location. When drivers reached the last checkpoint, they found students holding signs reminding them of how fast they were traveling.
After graduating from Emmett High School in 1965, Ross enrolled at Boise College during its first season as a four-year college. Three years later he transferred to the University of Idaho in Moscow, where he earned a civil engineering degree in 1970.
He launched his ITD career as a senior in college, working in the materials lab on campus. In the ensuing 3-1/2 decades, Ross worked in half of the state’s six administrative districts (2, 3 and 6), worked on a project in District 1 and had two tours of duty at Headquarters. Ross has been chief engineer the past 10 years.
Following his professional career is like reading a road atlas; highway mileposts are professional milestones:
His career has been a checkerboard of accomplishments, many of which go unheralded when viewed in the context of a statewide system. A few, however, stand as crowning achievements, such as:
• Constructing four lanes of U.S. 20 from Rexburg
to St. Anthony
“I saw completion of the interstate system, and now we’ve rebuilt parts of the interstate, so I’ve been there through construction and reconstruction. I like to say that I was part of it, but I can’t take ownership of it,” said Ross in a typically humble assessment. “I’ve really been a facilitator/administrator of work. But I take a certain amount of pride in knowing that I was part of it.”
Although U.S. 95, Idaho’s primary north-south route, has been vastly improved the past 35 years, Ross considers it a never-ending work in progress. It will never be finished, he insists, reflecting on the enormity of the process. That also affirms a message he has been delivering the past 10 years: “It is important to take care of our assets… never forget them.
“I’ve had the opportunity to work on something that every man, woman and child uses. You develop a sense of how much everyone benefits from your product. There are a lot of people working out there who can’t say that.”
The transportation department has been a good steward of the taxpayers’ money – working efficiently and effectively to deliver a product that is indispensable to the public.
Less tangible, but even more important, has been development of the people who make the system work. “I’ve always tried to be fair, responsive and sensitive to the needs of people. I’ve tried to make this a good place to work, a place where you wanted to go to work.”
Still, Ross’s most cherished legacy can’t be found on a state map; it is visible as branches of a family tree.
He and wife Shirley, the love of his life dating back to high school, have four grown children – daughter Andrea, 32, is married and lives in Meridian with three children; J.J. (Jeffery James), 31, is married and lives in Eagle, with three children; son Tim, 29, is married and lives in Idaho Falls with three children. Youngest son, Matt, 25, breaks from the pattern set by his siblings. He is unmarried and is stationed in Fallon, Nev., with the Navy.
J.J. will graduate from Boise State University Friday (Dec. 17) with a graphic arts degree.
And true to the freedom Jim’s parents allowed him in charting a lifetime course, Jim and Shirley encouraged their children to create their own identities, develop their own talents and walk their own paths. None chose engineering, and that’s just fine, Ross says.
Shirley and the family followed Ross without hesitation and supported him faithfully during his circuitous career. She worked briefly as a school aid and for a Boise-area developer. But she preferred volunteer school positions to a career for herself.
“She is a good wife, a good friend, a good companion, and just a beautiful lady,” Ross says of his 36-year partner. “She has supported me all through my career. She is a stay-at-home mom, so our kids had the advantage of having her home.”
Early next year they will celebrate their 40th high school reunion and 37th anniversary by taking a cruise to the Caribbean, with stops in Jamaica, Grand Cayman and Cozumel.
Eventually, they hope to complete a mission for their church. Regardless of where their travels or missions take them, they’ll never be far from home and family.