An Engineer Shapes Paths To A Better Society
Ross Forney

What causes a person to volunteer? Some people see a need and they hope it will get addressed. But Ross Forney saw needs he could respond to and spent a lifetime stepping in the breach. The causes were many and not all of the same stripe.


In the 50's and 60's in Texas the big issue was desegregation. Fairness dictated that opportunities for work and education should be apportioned according to ability, not race. So he believed. Banding together with the American Friends Service Committee (Quakers) and a number of black leaders, he sought to open employment opportunities for people of color. He found an ally in Stanley Marcus, then President of Neiman Marcus, Dallas' premier store. Marcus had employed blacks but always in positions not visible to the public. Now he hired a fine black secretary to sit at his office door; that was followed by a receptionist at the front door. Soon other stores were hiring capable blacks in all sorts of positions.


The timing of Employment on Merit by the U.S. Labor Department helped. The next question was "How can we help black-owned businesses to get needed bank loans and better business practices? And so the Interracial Council for Business Opportunities was brought to Dallas. Chaired nationally by Rodman Rockefeller, it didn't have a presence in Dallas until Forney saw it as a vehicle. He found a smart, energetic man to hire, formed a committee to select black business candidates whom the committee accompanied to the bank to secure needed capital. Sometimes it was downright laugh­able when the banker was "hit" with a proposition so contrary to customary practice that he exploded.


There were always jobs crying out for attention. After the Vietnam War there were thousands of refugees who had been promised a better life in America in return for helping our soldiers. Many were housed at Ft. Smith in Arkansas. These folks needed a way for Dallasites to sponsor them. That would take organization. It would require many appeals to churches and other organizations. Forney became Dallas Chairman for resettlement of Vietnamese refugees. Altogether more than 5,000 would find homes, jobs and a new life in Dallas.


A few years later in Denver, Colorado, Forney was selected to serve on the Colorado Board for Occupational and Community College Education. In the process he learned that the dropout rate of Hispanic youth was high. No one had a ready explan­ation. After searching for answers locally, Ross Forney went to northern Mexico and he investigated root causes there. His discoveries there also brought him face to face with a water table that was continually lowering so that agriculture in the "Food Basket" region of Mexico was threatened. He stayed on (now in his late sixties and retired from engineering) and brought farmers together for seminars in "best practices for water conserva­tion" conducted by experts from Lubbock, Texas where the Ogallala Aquifer had been endangered.


In his retirement setting of Sedona, Arizona, he and a fellow engineer were invited to judge elementary school science exhibits. What they saw alerted them to a lack of strong science teaching in the system. They formed a loose organization of about 35 people willing to share their knowledge in specific fields of science and mathematics. A directory was composed indicating areas of expertise with telephone numbers so that each elementary teacher in the district could call on the right person to conduct a class in a subject where the teacher felt inadequate. These "experts" also sat in the classroom with the youngsters who were trying to set up scientific experiments for exhibition. In the course of four years there were dramatic improvements in the quality of the science exhibits.


Recognizing that the town of Sedona was growing faster than newcomers could be assimilated socially and that the situation was stressful to the infrastructure, Forney led a new organization called Responsible Residents of the Red Rocks to a victorious public vote for slower growth. Developers contested the validity of such a conclusion and threatened heavy penalties for the City with the result that the City Council backed off enforcement. Nevertheless, the heightened awareness caused some changes to occur in the way people regarded non-renewable resources like water and may have led to changes in the state mandates controlling allocation of water.


I've left out many of Ross Forney's activities, like chairing the Dallas Child Guidance Clinic or the Water Resources Committee of Northern Arizona. There's not enough time to recount every volunteer activity. The fact is that a common thread runs through all his endeavors: An unmet need existed, something he thought he could affect. And, I suspect, there were personal rewards in digging deep into a new body of know­ledge and gaining enough information so he could lead like-minded people to a good solution.


The fact that he was an engineer who became President of a small company and had the usual work requirements laid on him and that he had a wife and six children, two of whom were adopted, only accentuate the fact that his volunteer efforts took place in "off' time. And that he could have chosen other ways of spending it.


Regrettably, Forney has fallen victim to Alzheimers in his 80's. So his wife, Joyce, has contributed this essay.

About the Author:

Ross Forney lives in Dallas where he was born and educated. He served Forney Engineering Company of Dallas as Engineer, Salesperson and President. The company excelled early in automated systems to detect power plant burner failures, thus preventing costly explosions. His territory included Japan, Germany and the whole of the U.S.

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