When Bruce Lake, future president of James McHugh Construction Co., joined the firm in 1978 just after college graduation and was assigned as project manager for the firm's work on underground concrete structures for the Red Line extension of the Washington, DC, Metro subway line, it was company superintendent Donald Rieser who was sent from Chicago to show him the ropes.
The difficult concrete work on the cathedral-like arches was a Rieser specialty, as was expertise in keeping the complex project's delivery on schedule.
Rieser died at age 92 on Sept. 19 in Glen Ellyn, Ill., after a long illness, a family member confirmed. He retired from McHugh Construction in 1994 after being a key contractor team member for more than 40 years as the firm contributed to the Chicago skyline and significantly advanced concrete construction practices in the city and worldwide, particularly with difficult shapes such as the wave-like balconies of the Aqua skyscraper and the out-of-plumb planned frustum shapes of Vista Tower.
"[Rieser] started as an engineer and then decided he wanted to apply his abilities more into the field end of getting things done," said Lake, who became president in 1997. "He had amazing team building abilities and leveraged that with really superior knowledge of jobsite organization and planning. He turned himself into one of the best superintendents and managers of construction who I've had the honor to work with."
Rieser "was always the first to try something ... and definitely the guy who was willing to do anything or go anywhere," says Lake. "He executed successfully in all given areas. He helped me in my career a lot."
After serving in the U.S. Navy during the tate 1940s, Rieser earned an engineering degree from New Mexico State University and joined McHugh shortly after. Throughout the late 1960s and early '70s, he traveled extensively for work on concrete projects that would define the contractor.
Lake refers to Rieser as the company's well-known go-to-superintendent for hard-to-deliver jobs.
These include the Sandcastle I and II condominium towers in Marco Island, Fla., that were the first mid-rise (15 stories) hurricane-proof residential buildings built on the state's Gulf of Mexico coast when completed in 1982 and 1983. Rieser was the project concrete superintendent.
"There were 140-mph code requirements, breakaway walls required on the lower levels and a bunch of other requirements," Lake says. "Don organized the crew and got the concrete work done and then stuck around and got all the finish work done also. He was very versatile."
Chicago concrete structures that Rieser oversaw include Bertrand Goldberg's Marina City Towers and Water Tower Place, a shopping mall, hotel, theater, and condominiums in a 74-story high rise that was the tallest concrete structure in the world when completed in 1975. The job was behind schedule when Rieser was brought in after construction began in 1975.
"They had a lot of problems with it initially and then his crew came and got everything back on schedule and it was done on time," says Lake. "He was a major contributor there."
Rieser also worked on bridge and highway projects for the firm in the Chicago area and assisted in helping colleagues with project estimating when time allowed.
"During concrete pours, many 13-hour days were the norm," says Rieser's son James. "Many times on Saturdays I would tag along. One of my best memories is when he brought me along on a concrete bridge demolition and let me push the plunger to blow it up."
The elder Rieser was an early proponent of minority hiring at McHugh.
"In the very early '70s, he had a lot of African-Americans in his crew, including in key positions. He had one of the very few black foremen in the city at that time, John Randall," Lake says, as well as Hispanic crew members.. Reiser "didn't care what color your skin was. He was definitely about the quality of your character as far as that goes."
Blas Belmonte, hired by Rieser in 1982 on the Sandcastle I and II project, rose to become a senior estimator at McHugh before becoming a soccer coach in south Florida and retiring from McHugh.
"We called him Mr. Don and as I and many others will attest to, he had a large impact on my life," Belmonte says. "He was a mentor, a leader, an advisor and one of the most fair-minded men I knew. He had a clear vision on what had to be done ... and then executed the plan.
Belmonte recalls one key piece of advice from Rieser that he never forgot: "He said 'If you stay close and listen you will learn.' I did that, even at times when I did not understand. As it always happens at the end of the day, you got it."
Adds Belmonte: "I worked for him until the day he retired. For that, I am eternally grateful. He started my career off and gave me the knowledge I needed."