Soon after the Mississippi Engineering Society named Harry James, P.E., Engineer of the Year, someone asked his secret to success in the engineering profession.
“Learn all that you can about as much as you can,” James said succinctly. “Engineering is about problem solving, and it will serve you in whatever career or path in life that you take.”
A native of Madison County, James was the youngest of three children born to Tommy, a farmer, and his homemaker wife, Louise. When he wasn’t in school at Canton Academy, James row-cropped with his dad, who primarily raised cotton. His responsibilities increased substantially after James’ older brother left for college.
“I love the outdoors, and working on the farm through high school gave me the opportunity to be outside, hunt and fish on the 2,000 acres that we farmed, full of farm ponds and small patches of woods full of wildlife,” said James. “During my senior year in high school, I decided that I wanted to farm after I graduated and not go to college. My father discontinued his farming operation that year, and I would have had to start from the ground up in securing land, equipment and labor to farm. He convinced me to go to college and get a profession where I could make a living.”
James also dreamed of being a fighter pilot in the U.S. Navy. His family had a crop dusting service on a small grass airstrip behind their home, and he had earned a pilot’s license in high school and worked at the Starkville airport during college. “It was at the time the Vietnam War was winding down, so my chances of attaining this were not very good,” he said.
Following his father’s advice, James enrolled in the civil engineering program at Mississippi State University. After earning a degree in 1976, he worked for a local highway contractor, focusing on the asphalt and ready-mix concrete aspects of the industry. Four years later, he joined a small, local consulting engineering and land surveying firm, but left nine months later when his father became ill and needed business help.
When James returned to the job market nine months later, he landed a job as a designer in the bridge division of Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT), then called the Mississippi State Highway Department, and soon became involved in the design, construction and maintenance of bridges statewide. In 1999, he was appointed bridge engineer. In 2003, he was named deputy executive director/ chief engineer.
“That was my proudest moment in my career, being named chief engineer,” said James. “It was something I never dreamed that I would ever be when I first went to work for the department. The most rewarding and challenging parts of my work are the people. Without them, we can’t do anything.”
In his spare time, James and his wife, Cynthia, and daughters Elizabeth and Lauren, head outdoors — fishing, viewing wildlife and riding four-wheelers — on the family farm, which he bought soon after graduating from college. He hobby farms 350 acres of row crops — corn, soybeans and wheat — and is heavily involved with First Presbyterian Church in Canton, where he is a deacon and an elder. He also serves as board president of the 80-student First Presbyterian Kindergarten. He would like to write technical papers or pen a novel, but that goal is on the back burner until retirement.
“If there was one thing I could change about our business, it would be to make people more aware of the good things that we do for the people of Mississippi and how important transportation is to all,” said James. “Next to eating, no one can do without it.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at firstname.lastname@example.org.