A $250 Sears and Roebuck scholarship changed a life in 1955. In the scheme of things, most would think little of the event. Now the magnitude of that single act cannot be weighed in terms of dollars, but in the number of lives it has affected.
James J. Powell, born in 1937 in Nashville, used that scholarship to attend the University of Tennessee from 1955-59. While a student, Powell met and married Sandra Pless from Knoxville. Powell worked with a family member in the steel business and in 1969 he started a fledgling company with three employees and a 30-ton crane.
By 1971, the company had moved to Johnson City and had diversified into coal industry construction by 1974. In Whitesville, West Virginia, a viable business component emerged that resulted in the largest-ever Powell project -- Marfork Coal, a division of A.T. Massey Company. The 1980s saw the company further diversify and enter into a joint venture with an Australian group called Decanter Services. In 1990, the commercial division in Nashville opened, and a crane service was added in 1992.Powell Construction Company continues to grow. Today, 600 employees are at work at sites in five states with five offices in Tennessee and West Virginia. Annually, the company averages above $60 million in business.
While Jim was about building a company, Sandra was home building a family and the next generation of Powell leadership. Three sons, two of whom are in the family business, have grown up under her watchful eye. James J. Powell, Jr. (ETSU B.B.A., Management,'93) is the crane service manager in Nashville, and Jeffrey (University of Tennessee, B.S. Agriculture, '93) is the crane group manager in Knoxville. Michael Wayne (ETSU B.S.'88, M.S.'91, both in computer and information science) is in Johnson City working in his own computer business. And yes, another generation of Powells currently includes five grandchildren.
At ETSU, James and Sandra Powell have added to their family. Three hundred sixty-two students have benefited from their generosity and financial support to the university that amounts to over $858,500. From 1978, when asked to join the ETSU Foundation, the Powells have held a key role in establishing: the James Welch Scholarship, the Floyd Cramer Scholarships in music and business, the Lamar Alexander Scholarship, the Street Family Scholarship and the Lester Scholarship for Southwest Virginia students, as well as the Sandra G. Powell Endowment for Women's Basketball. Several of these endowments were among the earliest established at ETSU. Jim served as ETSU Foundation president from 1981 to 1983. Currently, the Powells have given the lead gift and are spearheading another effort for the ETSU College of Business that they hope will create a $1 million fund to benefit students.