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Dennis Washington
Dennis Washington
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Dennis Washington Interview

Construction, Mining and Railroads

May 23, 1997
Baltimore, Maryland

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  Dennis Washington

When you were growing up, did you ever imagine you would become what you are today?

Dennis Washington: No. When I was a child, I never in my wildest dreams ever thought that I would do what I am doing now. I was a normal little kid, and had very loving parents. Poor family, but we ate every day. Most people in rural areas didn't live too fancy back then. The first part of my life was pretty normal.

I was about eight years old when I contracted polio. It was a very traumatic time in my life. I was just old enough to know that something was really wrong, but really too young to be able to digest it properly. I had an aunt -- in fact she just passed away last week at 93. She smuggled me out of Bremerton, Washington, where the homes were in quarantine, and got me into the Children's Orthopedic Hospital in Seattle, where I spent almost a year.

I was one of the first people to get the "Sister Kenney treatment." They put hot packs on you, like old army blankets. They'd soak them in hot water in an old Maytag-type washer. This idea of heat therapy really saved my bacon.

Before that, I remember the terrifying screams of these kids you'd hear in the hospital. They had a little bosun chair they'd sit in, and they'd swing them out into a pool of ice water. It was absolutely the worst thing they could possibly do, but they thought they could shock the nervous system. They just didn't know. That was a very traumatic period.

When I got back, then my folks got a divorce. Then you have to adjust to kids calling you a cripple, because I used to drag my leg along all the time. So I didn't think I had a lot of self-confidence in the early years. Then, you're broken-hearted. You love your parents, and you always have this hope. You know, "What's wrong? They both love each other, they should be together." They'll come back and see each other, and they're like honeymooners for the first couple days, then they're fighting again and they're gone.

[ Key to Success ] Courage

I lived with a lot of different relations, but I had a grandmother who was a very stabilizing influence in my life. But in my wildest dreams, I never thought I'd become a major businessman.

Was there a teacher who particularly stood out in your mind, somebody who encouraged or inspired you?

Dennis Washington Interview Photo
No. The first and only teacher who ever stood out in my mind used to hit you on the hand and stick you in the corner. That probably accounts for my bad start in school.

I was never geared up for school. I was about halfway through the first grade when we migrated to the navy yards in Bremerton, Washington in World War II, as a lot of people did. I never really caught up with school. It's a poor excuse, because I'm sure that had I been offered a full scholarship, I wouldn't have accepted it because I just never had the desire for school. I think that's something that you either have or don't have. I had this love for machinery, and I thought school was kind of a waste of time. I thought I should be out there running machinery.

I've looked back, and it's one of those things I'm not real proud of. Not the fact that I didn't get good grades -- I probably couldn't get good grades -- but I didn't apply myself. That was my little failure. You should do the best you can when you are doing something, and I didn't do that.

If it wasn't a teacher, was there someone else who offered you a lot of encouragement in your formative years?

I think that the stabilizing factor in my life was my grandmother. She cleaned hotel rooms, and we lived in a little railroad house. I had a step-grandfather. He was a nice little old railroad man. In fact, we own that railroad today, that he was a carpenter on. I think it was the fact that my grandmother didn't have much money, and I didn't like her cleaning hotel rooms. I was so very happy one time. I saved enough money, I had my car, and I had a girlfriend, and was a pretty conscientious guy when it came to work. I bought her a freezer, put a new roof on her house, a little house. And I was so happy when I could do that.

[ Key to Success ] The American Dream

Dennis Washington Interview Photo
Did your grandmother ever give you any specific advice that stuck with you?

No. My grandmother just gave me a lot of love. She was just a nice, simple, old lady. She always cooked, and she'd have my friends over. She was just a very good person. She'd make me do things like dig up the potatoes in the garden, and I'd mow the lawn. That work was really not that much fun to do when you're a young kid. She was a very stabilizing part of my life, and I think everybody needs that one little anchor that you can look back on. I think I was born responsible. I knew if I didn't work, I was going to get fired, so I was always very conscientious about my job.

My love, my passion if anything, at that time, was if I could just own a neat car. I worked in service stations and I loved anything that ran. I was very lucky. That's the one thing in my life that I knew I wanted to do. My goal was to, first of all, just own a car. Then it was: "I want to run big machinery." I accomplished that, and life just evolves, until we don't even know what's happening. But I never realized I'd be a major businessman.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

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