The architects say one thing; the construction experts say another. The fans want more bells and whistles, but the bean counters say it’s too expensive. There are suppliers, contractors and regulatory agencies to deal with, and all the while, intractable deadlines creep closer.
Yet for the past 18 years, despite the crush of such competing demands, Dick Laurance has cheerily steered construction projects large and extra large to successful completion for the University of Virginia.
“He has never failed us,” says Leonard W. Sandridge, the University’s executive vice president and chief operating officer.
Laurance, who turned 66 on May 5, has been at the helm of what Sandridge calls “our most complicated projects,” starting with the $230 million hospital expansion 18 years ago and continuing through the $86 million renovation of Scott Stadium that concluded in 2001.
Now, Laurance will retire upon the imminent completion of what has in many ways been his most challenging project: the $129.8 million John Paul Jones Arena.
Between his Navy service and his time at the University, he’s been at it nearly 45 years. In his career, he has overseen more than $1 billion worth of construction, more than $500 million worth at UVA.
“That,” Laurance says with his customary smile, “should be enough.”
He will be missed, both by University executives such as Sandridge and by the hundreds of men and women who have worked alongside and under him.
“He knows how to cut to the chase and not get bogged down in the details,” says Kevin McMichael, a senior project manager for the construction firm Barton Malow, who has worked with Laurance on both the stadium and arena projects. “He has a very clear plan for making sure we’re hitting our milestones.”
“Dick is able to reduce things to very simple terms,” says Bob Dillman, who was the University’s chief facilities officer for 10 years before taking a similar position at the College of William and Mary last year. “He’s very single-minded about getting things done, about identifying obstacles to getting things done, quantifying the obstacle, figuring out who the decision maker is … [and] pursuing that decision until he gets it.”
Laurance’s singular talents for managing resources, time and people have made possible an arena project that was an immense financial challenge in a tough fundraising climate. If renovating Scott Stadium was a huge undertaking, said Barry Parkhill, the chief fundraiser for both campaigns, the arena is “bigger than huge.”
Laurance and his staff excised more than $70 million from the initial cost estimates, giving the University a manageable final budget.
“You know,” Sandridge says, “it’s one thing to manage a project if you are simply going to let the budget float to whatever it takes to get things done. But to make a commitment that you’re going to deliver a project within a certain amount—particularly when it’s a project that’s going to take two to three years to complete—is a real challenge.
“Not everyone can do that, and Dick has demonstrated multiple times that he is up to the task.”
From Vietnam to Charlottesville
Looking back through the past seven decades, Laurance needs some time to tick off all the places he has lived. He grew up in Connecticut, Oklahoma, Florida, New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia, the son of an aircraft industry executive, and received his undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Maryland in 1962.
Laurance worked briefly at the engineering firm of Martin Marietta in Colorado before joining the United States Navy’s Civil Engineer Corps. He earned a master’s degree in financial management at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., and became a world traveler, building roads, bridges and hospitals in Hawaii, Europe and several U.S. locations as he attained the rank of commander.
“I’ve been in most of the countries around the world,” Laurance says. That includes Vietnam, where he assisted with construction-related “security work”—“That’s all I can say,” he says with a laugh of apology—in long and short tours of duty with the Navy Seabees (from 1965 to 1967) and the State Department (from 1967 to 1970).
By the late 1980s, though, Laurance was looking for a new challenge. Higher education seemed to present one, with colleges and universities increasingly devoting huge sums of money to capital projects that required oversight by experienced professionals.
Bill Middleton, a former Navy colleague who was then UVA’s assistant vice president for facilities, suggested to Laurance that Virginia might be a good fit. “He indicated it wasn’t as bad as Vietnam,” Laurance says.
The hospital project, begun in 1985, was close to halfway finished when Laurance arrived in Charlottesville in May 1988. He was hired to be second in command, but was quickly promoted when the senior project manager left and guided the most expensive project in University history to its successful completion.
Laurence oversaw the construction of Hereford College and served as the director of facilities management at the UVA Medical Center from 1993 to 1998, when he began work on Scott Stadium. He also built the $42 million Biomedical Engineering and Medical Science Building.
When Sandridge needed someone to helm the most scrutinized capital project in recent University history, he knew whom to call.
“This has been a great run,” Sandridge says of Laurance’s tenure. “He has done extraordinary things for the University and the fruits of his labors will be apparent for many generations.”
The Final Countdown
Yet another tour of the as-yet-unfinished arena is complete as Laurance returns to the on-site trailer that has served as his office for the past four years. In a front window, the large red numbers of a digital clock count down the days, hours and minutes until the project’s June 30 deadline.
Late in the afternoon of March 22, the clock reads 100:13:01. That is enough time, Laurance reasons, but he literally can’t afford any last-minute problems. There is only a $110,000 cushion—less than 0.1 percent of the budget—left in the coffers.
Laurance is enthusiastic and warm as he explains the project at a conference table in the trailer’s central meeting room. It is easy to see why Parkhill calls him “critically important” to the arena fundraising effort.
That effort was particularly challenging because of the declining fortunes of the UVA basketball programs in recent years and the general uncertainty some alumni have about the relationship athletics has to the University’s overall mission—though, as officials are quick to point out, the arena will host no more than 35 basketball games each year.
Laurance did all he could do to help. With enthusiasm, he led more than 100 arena tours. He made sure Parkhill and his staff had all the photos and other information they needed to sell the project to potential donors.
“He treats everybody great,” Parkhill said. “I can’t imagine anybody being more effective, yet professional and flexible and always responsive and always trying to help in any way possible. … He’s not only become a colleague, but he’s become a really good friend. It’s just been a joy working with him.”
As he leads a private tour on that March afternoon, Laurance is excited about the arena but unwilling to relax until the project is totally completed. Inside the main entrance, he points toward the rafters, where a pair of giant video boards will hang. That might be his favorite part of the arena, he says—but there are so many good parts.
Around the concourse, down to the arena floor and back into the coaches’ offices, team locker rooms and study areas, Laurance knows every inch of the building. He shows off the suites, the bathrooms—nearly three times as many toilets as University Hall—and the athletics dining hall. “We’ve got all the best stuff,” he says, noting the generous contributions made by Paul Tudor Jones II.
From here and his trailer offices next door, Laurance marshaled an estimated 750 managers and workers over three years of construction. On an average day, 240 workers were on-site.
A longtime season ticket holder for Virginia basketball and football games, Laurance said he doesn’t expect to have great seats in the arena he built. “If you give a lot of money, you get a good seat,” he says. “Well, I don’t have a lot of money.”
Posh seats or not, he plans to stay in Charlottesville with his wife, Pat, and do some part-time consulting work for the University. Before moving here, he had never lived anywhere for more than six years, but now he can’t imagine leaving.
Middleton predicted as much two decades ago.
“My boss said, ‘You won’t have a dull moment at UVA,’” Laurance recalls. “I believe he was right.”
What’s in a Name?
History-savvy patrons of the John Paul Jones Arena may spy the quotation inscribed in concrete on the arena’s eastern end—“I have not yet begun to fight!”—and assume that the facility is named for the American Revolutionary War hero who defiantly uttered it.
They would be incorrect. The John Paul Jones for whom the arena is, in fact, named is an 86-year-old UVA alumnus (Law ’48) and lifelong Memphis resident who practices yoga and is an “absolute basketball fanatic,” according to family members. He’s a fixture in his courtside seats at the FedEx Forum, home to both the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies (he’s missed one home game since the team’s arrival in 2001) and the University of Memphis. The naming came courtesy of his son, Paul Tudor Jones II (Col ’76) of Greenwich, Conn., founder of a money management firm who has given $32.6 million to the arena project.
“The only thing [the elder Jones] follows with a greater passion than basketball in Memphis is anything to do with the University of Virginia,” says Paul Jones, who at the arena’s May 2003 groundbreaking called the naming “payback time for his being a great father.”
John Paul Jones—he goes by “Jack”—is unrelated to the historic seaman, but holds great admiration for the man called “The Father of the American Navy.”
The quote inscribed on the arena arose from Jones’ most famous battle. On Sept. 23, 1779, his ship, the Bonhomme Richard, engaged the HMS Serapis in the North Sea, in close combat off the coast of England. The well-armed British ship had the best of the initial conflict, but when its captain asked Jones if he was prepared to surrender, he declared, “I have not yet begun to fight!” Even as the Bonhomme Richard sank slowly beneath their feet, Jones’ crew rallied and ultimately captured the British ship.
“My father has recounted that story to me many times and told me to always remember those historic deeds whenever I was down and in need of inspiration,” Paul Tudor Jones says. “It only seemed appropriate and fitting to highlight this same will to win in our arena, where so many competitive athletics will be fought.
“Let’s just hope that at the ‘Jack,’ the ghosts of battles past will be there to give our team a lift when it needs it.”