NORFOLK, Va. – A major asset at Norfolk District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is calling it a career after more than four decades on the job.
Beloved, admired and respected among Corps colleagues and partners alike, Robert Pretlow has taken on a few different roles over that span. He oversaw construction projects for about two years at Langley Air Force Base, then spent another 20 managing studies and formulating work in the district’s Planning and Policy Branch. Since 1997, he’s managed civil, environmental and military projects for the agency’s Programs and Project Management Division.
Now a senior project manager, Pretlow is stepping away after 44 years of federal service. His retirement becomes official Wednesday.
“I certainly have some very mixed emotions,” he said. “I loved being a project manager, and although it can sometimes be a frustrating and thankless job, I enjoyed the challenge of working with a team to find solutions to problems and build projects that serve the needs of people.
“That’s what I’ll miss the most – the people, especially members of my project-delivery teams and the Civil Works Branch. I will also miss walking up to the Waterfield Building each morning and anticipating what challenges were waiting for me.”
Pretlow reported for duty at Norfolk District on June 23, 1975, a week after graduating from Northwestern University near Chicago with a civil and environmental engineering degree.
He started eight years before the Waterfield Building itself opened. Prior to that, district personnel worked in the historic buildings scattered throughout Fort Norfolk.
“I used a slide rule throughout my college days and was still using a slide rule during my first few years at Norfolk District,” Pretlow recalled. “Small calculators eventually came into everyday use, and we relied on data punch cards and a large central computer for major calculations. We also had central typing stations for correspondence and reports.
“Later, personal desktop computers changed all of that in a few short years.”
It’s believed Pretlow is the first black civil engineer ever to serve in the district, according to Richard Klein, who’s known him at least 35 years and worked alongside on numerous projects over the decades.
“There were earlier black professionals, but in our discussions, Robert and I think they were in the fields of architecture and marine engineering,” Klein said. “Robert is very humble. In this regard, however, I imagine he has been a role model for many younger engineers as he performed over the years in increasing roles of leadership and responsibility.”
MENTOR IN A CHANGING WORKFORCE
In 1975, Norfolk District was a reflection of American society as a whole at that time, Pretlow says.
“There was very limited diversity in the workforce and the majority of people were locally born and raised,” he said. “Most of the professional staff graduated from Old Dominion University or Virginia Tech. The majority of the workforce had spent their entire careers at Norfolk District with the intention of retiring here. In some ways, it was like one big family.”
In 2013, Klein became Pretlow’s supervisor as chief of the district’s Programs and Civil Works Branch. But their working relationship hasn’t wavered.
“I still considered him a colleague and teammate,” Klein said. “He has recently been mentor to several younger civil works project managers over the latter year or so of his service.”
In the past 44 years, Pretlow watched the district gradually develop into the “very diverse and constantly changing and improving organization” it is today, he said.
“Employees now come from all over the nation and graduate from many colleges,” he added. “Many stay for a few years and move on to the next adventure. I’m one of the last retiring members of that Norfolk District family that spent their entire careers here.”
Pretlow and his first wife, a schoolteacher, initially planned to retire in 2007. But two years before that could happen, personal tragedy struck when she died after a long battle with cancer.
He had also started raising their granddaughter, Ella, who was 11 months old at the time.
“I no longer had the desire to retire,” he recalls, “and work took on even greater importance to me.”
Over the years, Pretlow played a big part in high-profile, challenging projects around Hampton Roads and Virginia with state, national and historic significance – whether it was leading the Planning Branch effort to secure approval for construction or guiding the endeavor to completion as a project manager.
“Robert has been a role model in both Planning and Project Management,” Klein said. “He has been known for his steadiness, ability to get the job done and calm demeanor under all circumstances. Local sponsors, stakeholders and higher levels of USACE leadership also have a lot of respect for him and his project-management abilities.”
Pretlow cited several milestone projects that have special meaning. Among them: Buena Vista local flood protection, Virginia Beach Hurricane and Storm Damage Protection and Beach-Erosion Control, Jamestown Island Shoreline Protection for the National Park Service, the Elizabeth River Basin Environmental Restoration Study and Norfolk Harbor navigation-improvement projects.
But the one that stands above the rest is the $34.5 million Willoughby Spit and Vicinity Coastal Storm Damage Reduction Project for the city of Norfolk, which shadowed his entire career.
“It was my first assigned project as a young engineer in 1977 and one of my last projects as a senior project manager in 2017,” he said.
For the past 15 years, Pretlow had the unique opportunity to work in the same building as his youngest daughter, Lindsey Ambush, a program analyst in the district’s Resource Management Office. She started in 2004 as an intern out of high school and remained while attending Old Dominion.
“I was a little nervous because I knew the great reputation my father had at the district,” she recalls about that first summer, “and I didn't want to fall short in comparison.”
Pretlow said it’s been rewarding to watch her take on greater roles of responsibility over the course of her own tenure.
“It has been a wonderful experience for me to work with her,” he added. “I am very proud of her accomplishments and know that she will carry on the family legacy and tradition here at the district for many years to come.”
Ambush says working with him helped shape her work ethic, office-life balance and career as a whole.
“We are very similar, so it was like having an older, wiser, more experienced version of myself mentoring me through the years. He knew exactly when to encourage me to stay true to my gut and when to push past my comfort zone,” she said.
“I’m so very excited for him to move on to this next chapter, because he has worked so very hard these past 44 years. Nonetheless, Norfolk District will definitely be losing one of its biggest assets, and I will be losing my favorite co-worker.”
A ‘BLESSED AND GRATEFUL MAN’
There are some “loosely defined plans” in retirement, Pretlow says, but he definitely intends to remain in Hampton Roads, which has always been home.
“I really just want to spend some time reflecting on life and seeing where things go from here,” he pondered.
He remarried in December 2012. His wife, Oretha, will retire at year’s end from her job as pastoral associate at The Basilica of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in downtown Norfolk. Ella, one of his seven grandchildren, is now 14 and about to enter high school.
Devoting more quality time to them all is high on his list.
Pretlow said he wants to expand his volunteer work at St. Mary’s and is considering becoming a STEM program tutor at a local school. He’ll also do some traveling and might even take up tennis again, perhaps enough to join a senior league.
“I am a very blessed and grateful man,” he said. “For 44 years, I have had the honor and privilege of working at a job that I loved and challenged me and enriched my life and allowed me to raise my family here in Hampton Roads. ... I will miss that greatly, but I also know that it is time to slow down a little and spend more time enjoying life’s other opportunities.”