“Experience, judgment and instinct built over time are the keys to attaining success, responsibility and leadership.” — Leo “Lee” Dondanville, 1930–2021
Last November, we said goodbye to and celebrated the life of one of our company’s former leaders, colleagues, mentors and friends, Leo “Lee” Dondanville. Lee dedicated his entire career to Hanson and led our firm through major growth during his tenure as president and CEO.
When Leo “Lee” Dondanville accepted Walter E. Hanson’s invitation to join his new engineering firm, Hanson, Collins and Rice, in 1956, he didn’t know he was starting what would be a 39-year career with the young company. During those four decades, Lee and Hanson would grow and flourish together.
“I thought I’d stay a couple years,” Lee reflected in a 2015 interview. The Midwest city of Springfield, Illinois, Hanson’s headquarters, felt like the right place for Lee and his wife, Ann, to start his civilian career after his two post-college years in the U.S. Air Force. Hailing from northern Illinois, Lee had graduated in 1952 from the University of Notre Dame, where he majored in civil engineering, and pursued his master’s degree at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he narrowed his focus to soil mechanics and foundation engineering.
Early years of engineering
In his early years with Hanson, Lee worked on dam foundations and bridges, including the design of the proposed Ruck-A-Chucky Bridge, intended to span the American River near Auburn, California. The necessity of anchoring the cable-hung structure in the fractured rock of the surrounding mountains made the bridge one of the most geotechnically challenging projects of Lee’s career. Although the bridge was never constructed, it gave Lee invaluable engineering experience and led to professional relationships that would enrich his career.
Lee also spent almost 20 years working on AT&T radio relay tower and blast-resistant cable site locations across the U.S. During the Cold War years, the long-running project evolved from above-ground microwave relay sites to below-grade cable locations because of concerns about potential atomic weapon use. Lee partially credited the rugged site conditions for the close camaraderie he formed with his Hanson and AT&T co-workers, asserting that “crawling up sides of mountains together” bonds people for life.
Called to be a mentor
Although Lee excelled at these and many other geotechnical engineering projects during the first half of his career, he ultimately realized that he was more drawn to the human side of engineering than the numbers. In the 1970s, he became the company’s president and then the CEO in the ’80s.
“The thing I remember most about my career is the incredible staff we were able to attract, hire and keep,” Lee said in 2015, adding that it takes a strong team to establish a company that inspires decades of employee service and loyalty. He retired from full-time service in 1995, but that didn’t stop him from coming to the office regularly to recognize and celebrate his colleagues’ tenure.
Thoughtfulness and a sense of humor
One way Lee acknowledged success was by leaving notes for employees on their service anniversaries.
“While I didn’t know Lee well, he still took the time to leave a handwritten note on my desk (and many others, too!) for my work anniversary for many years, even well into his retirement. This spoke to his valuing the people of Hanson in a real and significant way,” recalled Mike Flatt, P.E., S.E., PMP, LEED AP®, a vice president and Hanson’s chief project management officer. “He is a founding figure for Hanson, and I appreciate his legacy and thoughtfulness over the years.”
Lee’s ability to manage and mentor with a sense of humor is one of the qualities his Hanson colleagues will most remember about him, and his legacy will remain a defining aspect of Hanson’s history. His life and career were recently celebrated as part of the Illinois Time' special issue, "Remembering."