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Honoring an influential leader, Gene Wilkinson

Four men in business suits posing for a photo in a board room
Clockwise from bottom left are the late Lee Dondanville, Hanson President and Chief Operating Officer Jeff Ball, Hanson Chairman and CEO Sergio "Satch" Pecori and the late Gene Wilkinson.

On Feb. 7, Hanson lost one of its great leaders and mentors when Chairman Emeritus Eugene “Gene” Wilkinson passed at age 89.

A skilled structural engineer and a pioneer of Hanson’s early growth, Gene began his almost-60-year Hanson career with an unexpected phone call.   

About a year after beginning his structural engineering career with Dravo Corp. in Pittsburgh, Gene realized he wanted to return to his home state of Illinois. He wrote a letter to his former professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Thomas Thornburn, who made a recommendation to his close friend and “Foundation Engineering” co-author, the late Walter Hanson. Soon after, Gene’s phone rang.

“Walt hired me over the phone. Never met him. Never was interviewed other than a phone call,” Gene said in a 2015 interview. “That's how I started with Hanson.” 

black and white headshot of Gene Wilkinson in dark suit jacket
The late Gene Wilkinson poses for a photo taken in 1968.

Corporate and professional growth

In 1966, Gene helped Hanson establish its first branch office in Peoria, Illinois. Upon his arrival, he was charged with developing work in the area, which he recalled as a personal challenge because his background was in engineering, not business development.

“I loved the analysis, design and drawing of structures — it was exciting to me. Having to expand my responsibilities to client development, knocking on doors and trying to convince people that we were there for the duration to do the work they needed was a real challenge to me. I learned early on that any business that developed was just a personal relationship with the people; eventually, they liked to work with you and keep you going.”

In 1970, Hanson was awarded a major structural project for the state of Illinois: the McClugage Bridge in Peoria. Massive in its scope, the project was completed in 1980. Hanson’s Springfield, Illinois, office performed the structural work following preliminary planning and design phases worked on in Peoria.

Technology goes ‘bananas’

Gene said one of the most interesting parts of his early structural engineering career was seeing the changes in equipment available to engineers and draftsmen. The first pocket calculator, for instance, had only basic math functions. Even so, Gene and his colleagues found a steep learning curve when they first started using it. When the company acquired a newer model, employees would rush to get their turn with it.

“From there, it just went bananas,” he said.

Gene’s direct involvement on the McClugage Bridge decreased in 1973, when he returned to Springfield to assume the position of lead structural engineer. However, he continued to oversee the company’s structural engineering services for several years, until he assumed increasing responsibilities for general company operations. Although Gene had enjoyed the years he spent as an active engineer, he was ready for the opportunity to progress in his career. In 1990, he became Hanson’s president.

“That was an exciting time for me,” he said.


There were challenges involved with moving out of the design arena and into operations management, and Gene credited Walt Hanson and late Hanson president and CEO Lee Dondanville with helping him make the transition from engineer to executive.

“I think Walt’s philosophy of employee involvement and shared company ownership was pretty amazing, when you think about it,” Gene said. “That culture has continued through the ages … It’s a culture of being a people company rather than a corporation.”

Mentorship and memories

Gene’s son, Dennis Wilkinson, joined Hanson in 2001 and serves as an assistant vice president, geostructural practice lead and chief facilities structural engineer. Another of Gene’s sons, Brian Dye, and his daughter, Amy Hill, also worked at Hanson during his tenure — Amy as an administrative assistant and Brian as a technician.

“Gene was a pillar of Hanson’s success, from his structural engineering expertise to his business development efforts and his outstanding leadership and mentoring in his later years with the company,” said Hanson Chairman and CEO Sergio “Satch” Pecori. “Hanson would not be what it is today without the indelible mark that Gene left.”

Don Oglesby, a senior vice president who started with Hanson in 1955 and specialized in geotechnical, environmental and structural engineering during his career, worked with Gene from the time he joined the company in 1962.

“I always felt, from the beginning, that Gene was destined to become Hanson’s top executive in later years,” Don said. “As president and CEO, Gene maintained his key attributes of being transparent and approachable, creating high levels of trust both internally with Hanson employees and externally with Hanson clients. He will be missed by his many friends and those of us at Hanson who benefited from his leadership.”

“Gene was always gracious with his time and advice when approached about fundamental issues facing our industry in general or Hanson in particular,” said Hanson President and Chief Operating Officer Jeff Ball. “His calm demeanor and analytical assessments made it clear why Hanson was so successful under his leadership. He has already been sorely missed.”

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