A towering feat caps his career

Cement: After completing a once-in-a-lifetime project, the $270 million expansion of the Lehigh plant in Union Bridge, manager Dave Roush, a 38-year company employee, retires.

February 20, 2003|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

Through the 12-hour workdays, the tedious permit hearings and the nights spent hearing people tell him he was blocking out the stars, Dave Roush never lost his enthusiasm for the tower.

His thick hands would always come to life when he talked of it, the steel structure rising as high as 20 stacked farmhouses above the crop fields of western Carroll County.

And when it was done, Roush knew he had succeeded in the greatest endeavor of his life. So he quit.

At 60, Roush could have spent a few more years as manager of Lehigh Portland Cement Co.'s Union Bridge plant. But how many chances would he have to bring North America's most productive cement kiln to a rural town of about 1,000? After seven years of all-consuming work, it seemed an impressive way to go out.

"Sometimes I wanted to shoot myself, and sometimes I wanted to go to bed for a week," Roush said. "But it was the sort of thing a person gets to do once in a career."

Cement has been at the heart of Roush's working life, but his formal relationship with the substance ended last month, when he retired after 38 years with Lehigh, a Pennsylvania company now owned by German conglomerate Heidelberger Zement AG. Heidelberger has not appointed his replacement.

A respected but usually soft-spoken member of Carroll County's business community, Roush oversaw the $270 million expansion that gave out-of-the way Union Bridge a monument to modern ingenuity. The Westminster resident said he's now ready for some "pampered loafing."

Those who have dealt with Roush over the years say he will be missed.

"He's one of the highest-quality individuals I've known in my life," said Paul Denton, president of Maryland Midland Railway, which has done business with Lehigh for 17 years. "He's just all integrity from top to bottom. He knows all aspects of the business, and he is very thorough."

Those who haven't driven to Union Bridge in the past few years could hardly appreciate what an odd and awesome sight the expanded plant makes. One approaches the town through miles of sloping fields, flecked with crops and farmhouses. Then, over what seems like just another ridge, there it is, glinting in the distance -- a 400-foot-high metal colossus. It's as if someone built a space station on a medieval manor.

The 265-foot steel tube at the heart of the tower lets limestone from the plant's quarry room fall as 2,000-degree air heated by coal rises to meet it. The melted material gets hotter still in the hulking cylindrical kiln, where 2,800-degree heat brings the cement to its final state.

Once up to speed, the new setup will produce 2 million tons of cement a year while spewing far less dust than the old plant did, Roush said.

Elaborate software has made Lehigh more automated than ever, with pneumatic tubes and robot claws doing what men, horses and rail cars once did.

Roush, a Rockville native, had no idea he was heading for the cradle of American cement when he decided to study engineering at Pennsylvania's Lehigh University. He said he wouldn't have thought much of it if he had.

After earning his degree in chemical engineering, Roush needed a job. He had been cruising the Lehigh Valley dropping off resumes when he happened upon Lehigh Portland's headquarters on the main drag in Allentown. He stopped because he liked the look of the building, he said.

The company's recruiters were out that day, so he received an interview with the head of personnel, who offered him a job hours later.

The job took Roush and his new bride, Dee, to three cities in the first year they were married. Miami, where the local bank wouldn't give the Roushes a credit card, did not suit them. So they were happy when the company sent Roush to its plant in northern Iowa. There, the town department store sent them a credit card unsolicited.

Roush gradually moved up the ladder at the plant, thrilling particularly in the maintenance jobs that required him to solve engineering conundrums. He also learned about fitting into a small, rural community dominated by agriculture. It was good training for Union Bridge, where he moved in 1977.

Happy to be back in Maryland, Roush was assistant manager for seven years, then took over the plant just as a new quarry was about to open outside nearby New Windsor. The prospect of a giant rock-blasting operation next door did not please residents of that quiet town, so Roush had to learn public relations on the fly. He began attending community and government meetings and, for the first time, offered regular plant tours.

People had long regarded Lehigh, which has operated in Union Bridge since 1909, as the big, bad company on the hill. So Roush set to convincing people that the plant was staffed by 200 trustworthy friends and neighbors. The medicine he delivered was sometimes bitter, but he developed a reputation as a reasonable man, even among critics of the company.

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