Corps of Engineers
Morris (far right in hardhat) observes recovery activities in Buffalo, N.Y. after 1977 blizzard.

Lt. Gen. John W. “Jack” Morris II, who led the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the 1970s through an agency revamping and a period of tough scrutiny from regulators and environmentalists, but also one in which the Corps managed two huge and politically charged construction programs, died on Aug. 20 in Wilmington, N.C.

His son, Col. John W. Morris III (ret.) confirmed the death at age 91 of natural causes.

The elder Morris, a veteran of 36 years and numerous command posts, was agency chief from 1976 to 1980. His tenure was marked by friction with President Jimmy Carter over the Corps mission and environmental impacts, and with Congress over funding and tax rule changes that he and other opponents said hurt U.S. competitiveness.

“Carter made it known that he would put the Corps out of business,” the younger Morris told ENR. But he says a short White House meeting his father requested, the first ever by a Corps chief engineer, lasted more than two hours and softened Carter’s stance.

Gen. Morris went on to adjust the agency’s mission and methods to reflect changed priorities, according to two biographies. He later was honored by the Audubon Society, Sierra Club and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, among others.

In addition to key roles on large U.S. water projects, Morris ran what became a $20-billion U.S.-staffed military construction program in Saudi Arabia, and he launched a multibillion-dollar Corps-run effort to build air bases in Israel. The Saudi effort earned Morris recognition in 1977 as ENR’s Man of the Year, predecessor of its Award of Excellence.

Carter specified the Corps role in the Israeli effort in the 1978 Camp David peace accord, says Col. Morris, himself a Corps veteran and former commander of the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center. In a 2000 Corps memoir, Gen. Morris refers to the base construction project as “probably the most complicated and most difficult job I had in my Corps military service.”

Gen. Morris also expanded the Corps’ public profile and sought a bigger agency role in the nascent nuclear waste cleanup mission at federal sites. “We should not keep a low silhouette for fear somebody was going to shoot at us,” he said in the memoir. "It's better to keep a high silhouette and let people know what we stand for, even at the risk of getting shot at occasionally."

Morris, whose graduation from the U.S. Military Academy was accelerated during World War II, later was stationed in Guam where he oversaw construction of airfields for B-29 aircraft missions to Japan.

Morris later founded and was president of a consulting firm, J.W. Morris Ltd. He also helped launch a graduate construction program at the University of Maryland, where he also taught.

Among numerous career awards, he received highest honors from his alma mater and from the National Academy of Engineering.

Contributions in memory of Gen. Morris can be sent to support the Gen. John W. Morris Graduate Scholarship Endowment at the University of Maryland.