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The Trailblazers

"Mr. Region 15"

E. J. Woodrow

In this Bicentennial and election year, much is being written of the American presidential campaigns. One of the best remembered in our history courses is the 1844 struggle between Henry Clay, the Whig, and James K. Polk, the Democrat. Polk was the victor in an election famous for his winning slogan "fifty-four forty or fight."

If those of us who grew up in Region 15 had adopted a slogan it might well have been Polk-like in characterizing our operations: "1440 and fight."

Fourteen-forty was Region 15's street number on Columbia Pike in Arlington, Virginia. Region 15 was not born there. No one really knows the origin of the organization. There is an impression among us that the outfit was a sort of nebulous assemblage of talent seen entering and leaving the Windler Building in Washington, D.C. But in the early thirties, there appeared on the scene one H. J. Spelman, a tall, erect Stewart Granger-looking person, sharp of gaze and sharp of mind and tongue. As the new chief, there is little doubt that H. J. set in high priority an escape from the bureaucratic environment. In due time Region 15 "seceded" from the District of Columbia.

The new headquarters was "1440," as unlikely bureaucracy in style as was the new chief.

Some have said that "1440" was the average annual salary of the staff but in fact "1440" was the seat of power, the large old brick house in a row of lesser buildings (complete with rat traps) which housed the units of the organization. It was there at 1440 Columbia Pike, Arlington, Virginia, that Region 15 fought and flourished.

The heart of all operations was not an oval office, but a large rectangular room, the "H. J." office in which were a desk and long conference table, events at which were legion and legend. It was here that H. J. prepared and directed the order of battle - dogged fighting for quality with economy, for simplification, for common sense exercise of authority in meeting responsibilities.

But who am I to write the story. I was not one of the Arlington bunch. I was in the Roanoke office, over 200 miles from 1440. In Roanoke, however, we had a telephone and mail service. H. J. used both. Moreover, he visited us from time to time and every now and then certain of us were summoned to 1440. Nonetheless, regardless of mileage, the H. J. mark was upon us all and it was indelible.

His memorandums were classics - just plain, direct, punchy language. His conversations were the same pattern(granting that choice expletives were added for emphasis). On the telephone he had the fastest handup in the East. "Mr. Spelman (it was always "Mr. Spelman" in direct conversation, "H. J." by ourselves, the jobs we have are badly undermanned. When may we expect action on the twenty-odd appointments we asked for? On Project XYZ, we have only one man, the project engineer." H. J.: "Who is he?" The answer: "Paul Wright." H. J.: "A good man. We'll move fast on your appointments but if you have new men on Project XYZ you are going to have mistakes. You're better off with only one fella who knows his job." CLICK. Another time, we yielded to pressure for a sharp reverse curve, esthetic reasons. Preliminary plans were submitted to H. J. His call: "I reviewed your alignment on Project 1G2. There are millions of dollars being spent in this country to eliminate existing curves of the kind you plan to guild into this project. Smooth it out and do a good landscape job." CLICK. As it turned out, we eliminated the reverse, worked out a stream relocation through a "Nose"; put in a dam; and the lake killed the scar and provided a roadside relationship that was a delightful parkway feature.

Sessions at the 1440 conference table were always memorable. We had at one time a difficult situation wherein two officials, each from a different collaborating agency, had diabolically ganged up, double-crossed and otherwise fouled us up in a matter of right-of-way affecting the location. We were furious and frustrated. We laid it out at the conference table. "How could they do this? Why would they do this? They are not even friendly with each other." H. J.: "Mr. A is an SOB (abbreviated for cleaner reading), Mr. B is an SOB. That's why." H. J. took it from there. He was not one to look for feuds, but when one began to build, there is no doubt that he relished the action.

In a casual conversation with one of the Spelman staff, we asked how it went from day-to-day working so close to H. J. The answer: "It's often hectic, but always satisfying because he is absolutely unafraid to make a decision." It should be added that he was equally unafraid to reverse a decision, given convincing evidence on appeal. The risk of looking foolish was of no concern to him, only the rightness of the approval.

On a certain parkway project, the design for the end third of it was vetoed by H. J.; vetoed so positively that we had to cut off the project at the two-thirds point and build to there. The H. J. objection was out failure to utilize for dual purpose a short length of existing State highway. We pondered, we stalled, we debated among ourselves, actually doing nothing about design revision. Finally, there came a day when schedule demands ran us out of time. With an armload of project matters, including the hot one, we appeared at the 1440 conference table. At length we got around to the hot one, confessing gingerly that we had made no effort to proceed with redesign. We intended to give our reasons a try, but H. J. noted the pause, smiled, and said, "Good. I'm not surprised. Earlier I had the drunken notion that we should combine facilities. Go ahead with the project as you had it laid out." To us at that moment, H. J. looked 12 feet tall. As it turned out, the delay was a blessing. Some further learning on roadside treatment was applied and the area of proximity to the existing highway became a gem (high marks for the collaborating landscape architects).

At another time, we were working with these same landscape architects on types of designs for a bridge carrying a State highway over the Blue Ridge Parkway. There was a stream at the crossing and we agreed on a viaduct type of structure as opposed to separate structures for parkway and stream. Somehow, the sketches and explanations got to the 1440 conference table. H. J. gave them some thought and asked about consideration of a stone masonry-faced twin arch structure. Our answer was that the viaduct types were within the cost limits we judged would be acceptable. H. J. commended somebody on the economy angle, but then captured the group with a short statement much like this: "We have many good looking stone masonry bridges under the parkway and they are not always fully seen by the parkway motorist. Here you are on the parkway passing under for a total view of the structure. Why not stone masonry? This is the place to strut your stuff." There might have been more said by everybody but if so, it was of no significance. H. J. had said it all - and "strut your stuff" is what happened. The twin arch near Galax, Virginia, carrying route 89 over the parkway and the adjacent stream is a color postcard favorite.

If the on-duty H. J. was always a special experience - and it was - the off-duty H. J. was no less so. His reading is wide and in depth. History is his bag; detective stories are one of his recreations; his family and his church, his loves. Everything about him was always flavored with a lively sense of humor. It could merely entertain or drive home a point, dissolve some group tension, or cut and twist.

Was he respected by everyone? There just couldn't be any exceptions. Was he loved by everyone/ Hell no! (That would be his answer and he wouldn't want it any other way.) Probably his idea of a great presidential campaign would be a Teddy Roosevelt versus a Harry Truman. H. J. would be a Rough Ridin' Teddy man with Give-em-hell Harry in the role of worthy adversary.

In the years that followed the H. J. retirement in early 1958, and to this day, he has been the No. 1 invitee at Region 15 get-togethers (retirements, transfers, etc.). He never makes an address nor a speech. It is always a delightful chat, a warm expression of pride in Region 15 work, its quality and variety but never without sincere recognition of the dedication, capability and loyalty of his "boys and gals."

Few indeed in a lifetime are held in as great esteem as is Harold J. Spelman. In every respect he was and is Mr. Region 15 - and even more. When World War II ended, President Truman declared instantly a 2-day Government holiday. We shut down our Roanoke Office for the celebration. It happened that our boss, E. G. Middleton, was returning from a trip and didn't get the word. Upon finding the office closed, he asked up by telephone for our explanation which was, of course, the President's declaration. This brought the question, "Yes, but what did Mr. Spelman say?" Maybe Mr. Truman should have asked Mr. Spelman. Maybe he did.

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Updated: 06/27/2017
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