Peter Kiewit was born in Omaha, Nebraska in 1900 and remained a resident of the city throughout his entire life. Mr. Kiewit attended Mason School, then Central High School where he graduated in 1918. Following graduation he studied for a year at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. Mr. Kiewit returned to Omaha in 1919 to work for his family’s general contracting business. Under Mr. Kiewit’s leadership, the small contracting company grew to be one of the largest employee-owned businesses in the country.
Mr. Kiewit believed that there was no better place to live in the United States than Omaha. He attributed his success to the work ethic of Nebraskans and he wanted to return his wealth to their communities. Before he died, Mr. Kiewit directed that his personal estate be used to establish a foundation to support public-purpose projects in Nebraska and Western Iowa. Peter Kiewit Foundation opened its doors in 1979 with a $150 million endowment.
Peter Kiewit was born on September 12, 1900, the fifth child and youngest son of Peter Kiewit, Sr., a bricklayer of Dutch descent, and Anna Kiewit (née Schleicher), an immigrant from Germany. Sixteen years earlier, Peter’s father and uncle had established Kiewit Brothers, an Omaha, Nebraska masonry business.
Peter graduated from Omaha Central High School in 1918, and after attending Dartmouth for a year, returned home to Omaha eager to enter the family contracting business.
After attending Dartmouth for a year, Kiewit returned to Omaha in 1919 to work at his family’s general contracting business.
Peter Kiewit, who took his father’s advice to “have a trade,” was very hard-working and helped keep the business afloat post-World War I, despite the economic recession. In 1924, the family business celebrated its 40th anniversary and landed its first million-dollar contract – the Livestock Exchange Building in Omaha. Within months, just as Pete turned 24, the company undertook its second million-dollar project, the still-standing Burlington Railroad depot in Lincoln.
Kiewit contracted phlebitis and lived with pain for years until a treatment was developed. The experience incited a lifelong interest in health and wellness.
As the company expanded, Peter Kiewit took on more responsibility. His brother Ralph commented, “Pete had a fantastic capability to organize the details.” Around 1930, many of his family members began leaving the business, and it appeared that the Kiewit legacy – nearly 50 years in the making – was coming to an end. The next year, however, Kiewit dissolved the family firm and formed a new company, Peter Kiewit Sons’ Co. He would remain president of the company until 1969, and chairman of the board until his death in 1979.
Peter Kiewit’s hard work and determination were keys to the business surviving The Great Depression. In 1939, as America prepared for war, the Kiewit company won a $7.5 million government contract to build a military base at Fort Lewis in Washington. Shortly after the project began, and with very little warning, the assignment doubled in size; the 90-day timeframe, however, did not change. With Peter at the helm, the base was completed on time. Reflecting on this project later in life, Peter said, “I think our company has succeeded primarily because we recognized, and were prepared to take advantage of, the opportunities that existed even during times of adversity.”
While Peter constantly strove to educate himself and develop better business practices, he similarly pushed his employees to learn and grow. His process of building better men and women through company training sessions formally began in 1944 with the first annual meeting of Peter Kiewit Sons’. Peter said, “Better trained men will perform more and work better and will do so in a safer manner. They will also become better citizens. So, by helping ourselves, we can at the same time help the communities in which we are working. In this way, we become builders. Not just builders of roads, dams and hospitals, but also builders of men.”
In 1949, Peter purchased Pawnee Springs Ranch near North Platte, Nebraska, the second ranch he came to own in addition to the X-Bar-X in northern Wyoming. While Pawnee Springs was strictly business, cattle specifically, the X-Bar-X was a place he went to get away. In his down time, Peter enjoyed horseback riding and fishing.
Peter Kiewit never backed down from a challenge. As the Cold War heated up and the nation needed more protection against a possible attack over the North Pole, PKS was selected to build an air base and anti-aircraft missile system at the high Arctic site of Thule, Greenland. The project required the hiring, training and transporting of more than 5,000 men and countless shiploads of equipment, material and food well above the Arctic Circle. Upon landing, the site was equipped with only a temporary air strip, but 90 days later a 2,400-man city, a 10,000-foot runway and two hangars were in operation.
Because of Peter Kiewit’s deep commitment to his community, he served on the Ak-Sar-Ben board of governors for 16 years, beginning in 1954. Determined to help the Ak-Sar-Ben Racetrack become one of the most attractive and successful tracks in the country, he worked as racing chairman for seven of those 16 years.
In Omaha, as the city’s downtown waned, Kiewit became instrumental in revitalizing the area, serving on the Omaha Development Council and the Omaha Industrial Foundation. In 1959, Peter was crowned King Ak-Sar-Ben LXV and was noted as “the most influential Omahan of his time, the city’s ultimate mover and shaker.”
In 1962, Peter Kiewit, who normally shied away from publicity, surprised many observers by purchasing the World Publishing Company, publisher of The Omaha World-Herald. Vying with newspaper magnate Samuel I. Newhouse, Kiewit sought to keep ownership of the newspaper in Omaha. In a last-minute bid, Kiewit offered $400,000 more than Newhouse and purchased the newspaper, its production plant, television station KETV and a medical building, for $40.5 million.
Later in his life, Peter became more philanthropic and donated millions of dollars to charities and institutions that he admired. One of his first sizeable public donations went to Creighton University in 1965 for the construction of Kiewit Hall, a women’s dormitory. The gift was just under $1 million, but it allowed the University to obtain additional financing for the structure.
Recognizing Peter’s focus on workplace safety, the National Safety Council awarded Peter Kiewit Sons’ its highest accolade, the Award of Honor, based on the company’s record of 21 million man-hours of safe work.
Peter received the Brotherhood Award from the National Conference of Christians and Jews. Throughout his career, he made it his mission to hire the best-qualified employees regardless of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.
Peter served on President Lyndon Johnson’s Committee on Urban Rehabilitation, and a year later he was appointed by Richard Nixon to the President’s Advisory Council for Minority Business Enterprise.
Health problems as a young man inspired Peter’s lifelong interest in health and wellness. He served on the boards of Clarkson Hospital in Omaha and the Eisenhower Medical Center in California. He was chairman of the building committee for the latter, and saw to the construction of the original hospital building, which was dedicated in 1971 before an audience that included President Richard Nixon and California Governor Ronald Reagan.
The Nebraska Society of Washington, D.C. awarded Kiewit the Distinguished Nebraskan Award.
The Jesuit community at Creighton awarded Peter its Manresa Medal for inspirational and enduring achievement and the University of Nebraska Medical Center presented Kiewit with its Distinguished Service to Medicine award.
Peter was recognized as an Honorary Founder of Creighton University, only the second time in the school’s then 100-year history that the honor was given.
Many who knew him, especially those who knew him well, described Peter as a generous man. “Peter was generous to a fault,” his son-in-law noted, “but you had to prove yourself worthy of that generosity.” Before he died, Kiewit directed that his personal estate be used to establish a foundation to support public-purpose projects primarily in Nebraska and Western Iowa. Peter always felt that his success was a product of the hard working people of Nebraska and he wanted his wealth to be invested back into their communities. Peter Kiewit Foundation opened its doors in 1979 with a $150 million endowment. After his passing, Peter’s friend, Bob Hope, shared, “He was a wonderful man who had charity in his heart morning, noon and night. He left all of us with a world that is better.”
On August 4th, Kiewit was thrown off a horse at the X-Bar-X and broke several ribs. Follow-up x-rays revealed a malignant tumor on his left lung. Though the lung was removed, he would never fully recover. Peter Kiewit died on November 2nd.
Peter Kiewit Foundation has honored its namesake’s legacy by awarding hundreds of millions of dollars in grants and scholarships since its founding. Foundation investments continue to be inspired by Mr. Kiewit’s belief in the importance of hard work, individual opportunity and building community.