UPDATE: A public memorial for John A. Cavanagh will be held at St. Patrick's Cathedral in Manhattan on Jan. 24 at 3 p.m.


John A. Cavanagh admitted he was "scared to death" scaling high-rises as a young field engineer for a New York City contractor, but he ended up climbing to the heights of the city's tough construction business some 50 years later as a top company executive, the founder of a leading contractor bargaining group and an industry activist for union construction.

Cavanagh died on Nov. 26 in Manhasset, N.Y., of complications of pneumonia after a lengthy illness. He was 77.

Cavanagh became president and chief operating officer of Morse Diesel International Inc. He was vice chairman when the Manhattan builder became AMEC Construction Management Inc. after its sale in 1995 to U.K.-based AMEC.

He led its work as one of four prime contractors in the post-9/11 cleanup of the World Trade Center site in 2001, which was finished ahead of schedule and under budget. "Everyone knew who he was and looked up to him," says Michael Burton, the cleanup's former manager and now an executive of construction management firm, The LiRo Group. "He knew the unions and how to work in the New York City environment."

Cavanagh retired from AMEC in 2004 after it opted to exit the commercial building sector by selling U.S. assets and closing offices. On a troubled U.S. courthouse project in Florida in the mid-1990s on which the former Morse Diesel sought $45 million in damages, the firm ended up settling for $10 million. Cavanagh later became an industry consultant and board member.

Cavanagh was a founder, in 1984, of the Contractors Association of Greater New York (CAGNY), an industry trade group and collective bargaining unit in metro New York. He also was chairman of the New York Building Congress, three-term president of another collective bargaining group, the New York Building Trades Employers' Association, and a representative to various city and developer groups.

Cavanagh also was "one of the earliest industry supporters" of women in craft trades, according to CAGNY. "He was a pioneer for womens' issues," said Susan Hayes, president CEO of construction management firm Cauldwell Wingate LLC, in a 2004 video tribute to him.