Dennis Washington was born in Spokane, Washington, in 1934, but he moved with his family back to his mother’s hometown of Missoula, Montana, when he was very young. “Like a lot of people in the 1930s, we didn’t have a lot of money,” he says, “but my parents were good people. My mother was a very loving person, and my father was a tough, strong guy.”
When World War II broke out, Washington’s parents migrated to Bremerton, where his father worked at a defense shipyard. Living in a government housing project, Washington contracted polio when he was eight. Fortunately, he recovered.
Following the war, Washington’s parents divorced. He bounced around California, Washington, and Montana, living with relatives and going from one school to another. By the age of 14, he was self-sufficient, earning money by boxing groceries, delivering newspapers, shining shoes at a railroad depot, and working as a mechanic in service stations. During his final two years in high school, he lived with his grandmother in Missoula. “She gave me love and stability at a time in my life when I really needed it,” he says. “She believed in me and my dreams and my desires.”
After high school, Washington went to Alaska to pursue a job in heavy construction. Two years later, he returned to Montana and worked for his uncle who owned a construction company. By age 26, he was vice president of the largest construction company in Montana. Three years later, with a loan from a Caterpillar dealer, Washington went into business for himself. His first contract was a challenging one: carving a parking lot at the rocky summit of Glacier National Park. Forest road building work led to interstate highway construction jobs. By 1969, he was the largest contractor in Montana; within 10 years, Washington Construction would be listed among the largest in the nation.
In the early 1970s, Washington branched into mining. A daring purchase of a dormant copper mine in Butte, Montana, brought that mine back into profitable production in 1986 and provided resources for more expansion. He diversified repeatedly, venturing into dam building, railroads, and marine shipping. “It’s all possible because of teamwork,” he says, “and people with a passion for their work.”
In 1996, Washington Construction merged with Morrison Knudsen, a publicly traded construction and engineering giant. From that, Washington directed the formation of Washington Group International—acquiring components of Westinghouse and Raytheon to mold one of the largest design/build companies in the United States. His other private businesses, the Washington Companies, soon comprised more than a dozen affiliated companies, including the largest privately owned railroad in the United States and the largest marine transportation company in Canada.
An ardent philanthropist, he established the Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation in 1988. Focused on education, health and human services, community service, and arts and culture, it has contributed to organizations in Montana and throughout the nation and has a particular ongoing commitment to Young Life, an interdenominational Christian ministry to youth. A gift to Young Life of the 64,000-acre Washington Family Ranch in Oregon provides a summer camp experience for hundreds of teenagers annually.
Washington believes strongly that by reaching out to young people in their formative years, and by presenting opportunity to the disadvantaged, our society will see great benefit. “Every person will get a break at some time in their life,” says Washington, “but not everyone will recognize it or have the ability to use it. The best you can do is to be prepared. The Horatio Alger Association strives to enable that preparation.”