George Albert Strauss Jr., a retired underground utility, bridge and marine contractor who rose from a construction laborer to contracting company executive, died of congestive heart failure Saturday at Northwest Hospital Center. He was 89.
Born in Baltimore, Mr. Strauss was raised in Windsor Mill and at his grandmother's farm in Sticks, Pa. He attended Baltimore County public schools.
"When he left school at an early age, his mother disapprovingly warned him he would never become anything more than a ditch digger," said a daughter, Carolyn A. Strauss of Randallstown. "Later, as a successful contractor, he would jokingly recall this prediction to her."
Ms. Strauss said her father had a "strong work ethic" despite facing many health problems throughout his life.
"When he was 7, he was hit by a car and dragged a few hundred feet in the spokes of the wheel. He suffered serious damage to his leg, an injury that would cause him problems and leave him with a limp for the remainder of his life," she said.
"No matter what happened, he always pushed on. He never thought to give up," Ms. Strauss said.
After working as a mechanic, Mr. Strauss went to work as a construction laborer on the original Bay Bridge, which opened in 1952.
In 1956, Mr. Strauss established Interstate Construction Corp., and later formed a joint partnership with Jack Feezer, with whom he had attended Randallstown Elementary School.
Interstate-Feezer specialized in underground utility, bridge and marine construction. The partners also established Strauss Feezer Equipment, a heavy-equipment rental company.
"We had no written partnership agreement and did everything on a handshake. Through all the years, we never argued or disagreed," said Mr. Feezer.
"He was fair to his employees and well-liked by them, and in turn, was very faithful to them," he said.
"My dad and Jack ran a very tough and complicated business with little formal education, without mentors and without the benefit of having attended business school. He was a self-made man," Ms. Strauss said.
"They were both self-taught. I don't know how they did it," she said. "They started out bidding on $25,000 jobs and then eventually on jobs that cost millions of dollars."
Projects included construction of the Inner Harbor's Pier Six Pavilion, dredging of the Jones Falls where it enters the harbor and building the bridge over Dorsey Creek near the Naval Academy in Annapolis.
One of their most ambitious and challenging projects in the late 1970s was constructing the Southwest Diversion, a 92-inch pipeline that had to go beneath the Harbor Tunnel. The project required extensive tunneling and pile driving.
"The more challenging a project was, the more George liked it," Mr. Feezer said.
The Rev. James D. Hainley, retired pastor of Chesaco United Methodist Church, got to know Mr. Strauss and his partner when he was chief engineer of Ackenheil & Associates, a Baltimore engineering firm, before leaving to attend divinity school in 1983.
Hired by Baltimore City, Mr. Hainley was assigned to work closely with the construction company.
"That's how I got to know and work with George and Jack, and they were fantastic to work with," he said.
"I know I learned from them a lot about construction, and they learned about engineering," Mr. Hainley said.
He recalled Mr. Strauss examining construction drawings one day and advising him with a few revisions how the job could be done more efficiently.
"It resulted in a lower bid," he said. "He had excellent wisdom and was a very bright man."
Mr. Strauss wasn't content to sit in his Pikesville office, his daughter said.
"He'd often be in the ditch with the men handling a shovel. He worked long hours, including weekends, and spent many sleepless nights trying to figure out solutions to problems on the job," Ms. Strauss said.
Mr. Strauss was a member of the Rough & Tumble Engineers Historical Society and the Utility Contractors Association of Maryland.
He retired in 1992.
Until moving to the Charlestown retirement community in 2005, Mr. Strauss lived on a small Randallstown farm, where he raised sheep and cattle, and collected vintage farm tractors.
Mr. Strauss, whose collection once numbered more than 20 tractors, collected John Deere and his personal favorite, Advance-Rumely tractors, that dated to the 1920s.
Services for Mr. Strauss will be held at 11 a.m. today at the Haight Funeral Home, 6416 Route 32, Sykesville.
Also surviving his is wife of 68 years, the former Dina Tomarchio; a son, Daniel G. Strauss of Catonsville; another daughter, Nancy Strauss of Westminster; a sister, Margaret Freter of Pikesville; two grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.