A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

KAHC: R.C. Durr was legend in his own time; now his legacy lives on through foundation bearing his name

Editor’s Note: The Kentucky Association of Highway Contractors is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. During the year, it is celebrating the men and women who made their living constructing Kentucky’s transportation system over its history. Northern Kentucky’s Robert Charles (R.C.) Durr was a past president of the association, which shared this NKyTribune story from January 6, 2014, with its members. We are re-sharing the story in honor of the KAHC’s 100th anniversary.
By Judy Clabes
NKyTribune editor

Robert Charles Durr – best known to his friends as “R.C.” – was a local legend in his own time. An affable gentleman, born in Kenton County’s Atwood community in 1919, he was a true “self-made” man who never forgot his modest roots.

Today, the legend has become a legacy – a $70-million-plus (and growing) private foundation whose grant-making is focused primarily on 12 counties in Northern Kentucky: Boone, Bracken, Carroll, Campbell, Gallatin, Grant, Harrison, Kenton, Mason, Owen, Pendleton, and Robertson.

The R.C. Durr Foundation was the primary beneficiary of Durr’s estate when he died in May, 2007. This year, the Durr Foundation will distribute an estimated $2.5 million to nonprofits and schools in its geographic area, according to Will Ziegler, president of the foundation, an attorney, and Durr’s long-time friend and colleague.

“Reflective of R.C’s generosity throughout his life, the Durr Foundation focuses on education, special needs and community-building,” said Ziegler.

Ziegler said the Foundation also created special “legacy” grants as well, to honor Durr’s traditional personal giving during his lifetime.

Among examples of grants the foundation has made: training reading tutors for third grade schoolchildren, providing gap funding for the Licking River Trails project, purchasing computers for high schools in nine rural counties, funding “wired school buses” in rural counties, and sponsoring food trucks to go into places where there are no food pantries – while at the same time starting permanent pantries in those communities.

“We are excited to partner with the R.C. Durr Foundation to address the issue of hunger in Northern Kentucky,” said Kurt Reiber, president and CEO of the Free Store Food Bank. “Their grant will provide immediate hunger relief in Owen, Gallatin and Pendleton counties as well create as a long-term sustainable solution by establishing a new food pantry in each county. Each pantry will serve an estimated 200-300 households a month as an integral part of the local community.”

In addition, there’s the continued support for 4-H and scholarships to 4-H kids. Durr himself was well-known for his over-the-top purchases of 4-H animals – which he always returned to the young people who raised them. Today, his foundation sends numerous kids to 4-H camp each year – focusing especially on those who could not afford to go otherwise.

And those computers for rural schools? In Bracken County they are allowing juniors and seniors there to get dual credit – that is, advance college credit while in high school – through a cooperative program with Maysville Community College. Other strategic “technology” grants have purchased such things as white boards, iPads, graphing calculators, laptops and patient manikins for rural schools.

These programs sound very R.C. Durr-like. He had a reputation for helping the less fortunate, had a special soft spot for needy children – and considered education the way to a better life. He often expressed regret that he didn’t have a formal education himself beyond high school.

Since his death in 2007, his foundation has distributed over $8 million in grants in the Northern Kentucky area.

R.C. Durr

Durr was a successful businessman, building the R.C. Durr Company into one of Kentucky’s largest, most successful heavy construction and highway contractors. He operated coal mines, was a horse and cattle farmer, built numerous enterprises, invested heavily in land (“they aren’t making any more of that,” he’d say) and was a successful banker.

In a rare newspaper interview in 2003, he told a reporter: “I’ve had more luck than sense. So many people have been so good to me, and Lord knows I’ve needed a lot of help. I just try to be as good to my fellow man as I can and have love for other people. That’s something I do have.”

Durr was raised on a farm where he developed a love for and life-long interest in “the land” and learned the value of hard work. He graduated in the last class at Independence High School where he played basketball. As a graduation gift, his aunt gave him $500 to attend college in Georgetown, but he used the money to purchase a truck instead – and went to work.

He started his company with one dump truck and one loader just as World War II was coming to an end. He was the successful bidder on his first highway project in 1949, “the Frogtown Road” in Boone County.

Subsequently, the R.C. Durr Company was responsible for the construction of some of the state’s largest railroad, interstate and parkway projects. In 1961, the company was awarded the initial contract for construction of a segment of the Eastern Kentucky Turnpike (Mountain Parkway). The company ultimately constructed at least 300 miles of highways as well as some of the largest railroad projects in the state.

As one of the construction industry’s visionaries, Durr could claim many “firsts”: He built one of the first modern gravel plants in Northern Kentucky. His company was among the first to own and operate a Caterpillar 641 motor scraper and a Caterpillar 835 compactor. He acquired Eaton Asphalt Company in 1964 and quickly established it as Northern Kentucky’s largest asphalt paving construction company.

Durr was active in the Northern Kentucky community; he served on the board of directors of Covington Trust and Banking Company, was one of the founders of Boone State Bank, continued to serve on the board after it was acquired by Fifth Third Bank, and then helped found The Bank of Kentucky where he served as chairman. Governor John Y. Brown Jr. appointed him to serve on the Kentucky State Racing Commission in 1980 and he served through several governors’ terms until 1992.

He was president of the Kentucky Association of Highway Contractors, president of the Kentucky Chapter of the American Road Builders Association and president of the Kentucky Highway Division of the Associated General Contractors of America. He served on the Northern Kentucky University Foundation board and helped found the Northern Kentucky Industrial Park.

Durr received the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce Frontiersman Award in 1994 and the University of Kentucky Construction Management Founders Society Lifetime Achievement Award in 1993 and was recognized by numerous educational and social service agencies for his steadfast generosity. He received the Devou Cup for philanthropists from the Northern Kentucky Fund of the Greater Cincinnati Foundation.

He never got away from his love of the land. He built cattle farms and horse farms and spent his later years on a thoroughbred horse farm in Richwood. He had a fondness for horse racing and mowing his own pastures with his John Deere tractor.

No one who knew him could disagree about his love and concern for other people. His friends knew him as a man of integrity, good humor, great common sense – and the teller of funny stories with a point. He loved people, was good to his fellow man, had compassion for those less fortunate – and he shared his good fortune with a generous heart. There are few charitable organizations or good causes in Northern Kentucky that did not benefit from his generosity in his lifetime.

Having established the R.C. Durr Foundation, that incredible legacy will live on in perpetuity to benefit the place he was happy to call home.

See more about the R.C. Durr Foundation at www.durrfoundation.org

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