Sanford Wilbourn took an aptitude test in high school and the results pointed him toward a career in farming or engineering.
"I grew up in England, Ark., and I knew all I wanted to know about farming," says Wilbourn, whose father was a Ford dealer and farm owner.
Wilbourn, now 94, started working at Garver & Garver in 1954 and was president and chief executive officer of the company between 1970 and 1986.
He originally wanted to be an aeronautical engineer, but he says the University of Arkansas, where he planned to study, didn't have an aeronautical engineering program so he directed his focus to civil engineering.
"It turned out I ended up where I wanted to be," he says.
He scored well on a military exam as a high school junior and was allowed to skip his senior year and start college.
"The idea was to try to give people some college experience before they went into the service when they were 18, so I signed up for that program and went to Fayetteville when I was 16," he says. "They sent me to several schools and what's called the Army Specialized Training Program. The Army sent me ultimately to Stanford, where I was still in the Army for a while, and after the war was over I went back on the GI Bill of Rights for a master's degree."
After graduation, he worked for Marion L. Crist and Associates in Little Rock -- Crist was also a Stanford graduate -- and for the Louisiana Department of Transportation in Plaquemine, La., before joining Garver.
Garver, he says, is "vastly different" now from when he was there. The company hit its 100-employee mark in the 1970s when he was president and CEO.
"Now it has over 800 employees and they're spread all across the southern part of the United States," he says.
In his early years at Garver, Wilbourn dedicated copious amounts of time to the Interstate 630 project.
"After World War II, an automobile company started manufacturing cars instead of tanks, the city hired a Chicago consulting firm to come down and do a traffic study," says Wilbourn, offering a little context to the project that started in 1948. "That was because immediately they ran into the fact that, say for example, you're coming from Texarkana going to Memphis, you enter the city at the southwest corner and go to the northwest corner of the city on just zigzagging streets."
The consultants, says Wilbourn, recommended the creation of an east-west parkway so travelers could more easily traverse Little Rock.
"That's where the whole thing originated," he says. "When I was young, the city wanted to look at it again and I worked on it. It was called the Little Rock freeway, the Little Rock parkway and just a whole bunch of names, and that's why I say I've devoted more hours to that project than any other one project."
Wilbourn was also involved in the relocation of roads and railroads after the addition of the Dardanelle Reservoir, and in the creation of the Little Rock Port.
"It was new and it was on the river and it had its complexities, too, and I can't remember the date that the first barge of steel came down the river but we had a big dedication, and it was in the wintertime," he says. "Actually it started out as a Pulaski County port but North Little Rock at that time refused to participate financially so they moved it to the Little Rock side."
Wilbourn had a part, too, in the Titan II Missile Program, the Cold War weapons system that led to the placement around the state of 18 launch complexes for intercontinental ballistic missiles, each carrying nine megaton nuclear warheads that could be launched to strike up to 5,500 miles away.
"We were involved in the original design of the part of the silos that was on the top of the ground. That was quite an unusual project, and of course all of those silos have been deactivated and filled in now," says Wilbourn, adding that he wasn't involved in the disaster that occurred before the deactivation. "One of them blew up [on Sept. 18, 1980] and the nuclear warhead was thrown out of the silo, and landed up in a ditch [near Damascus]. That was quite an unusual project."
When he was younger, he enjoyed playing tennis.
"I wasn't very good at it," Wilbourn insists. "But that was my favorite sport to do."
The isolation that's come along with the pandemic has been challenging, says Wilbourn, who also lived through the polio epidemics.
"People didn't know how to avoid polio," he says. "People didn't stop going to work but they stopped going to the swimming pools and they stopped going to the movies. This recent pandemic is an example of people who knew what to do and just didn't do it."
His church, St. Mark's Episcopal, has remained important to him through it all.
"It's the center of my life now," he says. "We do a virtual Bible study every Thursday, and we have occasional prayer time at noon."
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