Distinguished CSU alumnus Joseph Phelps left lasting legacy

photo of Joseph Phelps

Few people will have as much of a tangible, lasting impact upon Colorado State University’s campus as 1951 construction management graduate Joseph Phelps, who passed away on April 15 at the age of 87.

Soon after graduating from what was then known as Colorado A&M, Phelps joined his father’s small construction firm, which was incorporated as Hensel Phelps Construction Co. in 1957, where he served in the role of president and general manager. The company’s first CSU contract was received in early 1958.

photo of Phelps
Larry Grosse, right, former head of CSU’s Department of Construction Management, watches as Joseph Phelps autographs a bottle of wine prior to Phelps receiving an honorary doctorate degree at commencement on May 14, 2004. The wine was auctioned at a department fundraiser. (Click to enlarge.)

“It was always very important for him to have a job on campus and it seemed like there was always at least one going on, sometimes as many as two or three at a time,” Phelps’ son, Bill Phelps, said of his father in an interview.

Bill Phelps’ comments, along with those of industry leaders and colleagues of his father, were unveiled in a video produced by CSU in honor of Phelps’ 85th birthday. The video chronicles Phelps’ lasting contributions to Colorado State, as well as the construction and wine industries.

Many buildings on CSU’s campus have received the benefit of his craftsmanship, from the Animal Sciences Building to the Plant Science Building to additions to the Lory Student Center.

History of giving

Phelps’ legacy also lives on through his philanthropic donations to Colorado State and the Department of Construction Management. The support has come through scholarships, support for university priority campaigns, faculty development grants, and most importantly, internships and employment opportunities for construction management graduates.

In 2001, Phelps gave a $1.5 million gift to CSU’s construction management program to create the Joseph Phelps Endowed Chair, which supports a distinguished faculty member in the department. Endowed chairs help the University attract and retain top-quality faculty.

photo of Phelps
Grosse shows Phelps the Hansel Phelps classroom in Guggenheim Hall during a reception prior to the college commencement ceremony where Phelps received his honorary degree. (Click to enlarge.)

Phelps’ generosity also extends to other programs, including $100,000 that he donated to the Morgan Library Campaign. Early on, he gave $500,000 to establish the Phelps Internship Placement Program for construction management students, benefitting thousands of students who have gained hands-on experience in the industry.

“My dad realized that CSU could be a terrific training ground for people that would be joining him in the business,” Bill Phelps said, “and therefore he wanted to encourage that kind of active internship at a very early time.”

In 2014, Phelps donated $50,000 to create a memorial garden at CSU in honor of his brother John, who was killed in a car accident while driving between his family’s home in Greeley and his college home in Fort Collins. John, an active member in the Sigma Nu Fraternity, was killed in 1940 near the end of his freshman year. The gift created the John Quincy Phelps Memorial Garden at Danforth Chapel on the CSU Oval.

The wine business

By the late ’60s, Phelps had turned Hensel Phelps Construction Co. into one of the largest construction companies in the U.S. and won the bid to build Souverain Winery outside of St. Helena, Calif. Struck by the beauty of Napa Valley during this project, he bought a 600-acre cattle ranch in Spring Valley in 1973 and began planting vineyards.

In 1974, the first grapes from Joseph Phelps Vineyards were crushed at his newly built facility producing his flagship wine, Insignia, which is still recognized as one of the world’s great wines nearly four decades later.

“When people say, ‘How did you get into the wine business from the construction business,’” Phelps commented with a smile, “I always say, ‘One sip at a time.’”

photo of Phelps
Former CSU President Larry Penley awards the degree Doctor of Humane Letters to Phelps in 2004. (Click to enlarge.)

Phelps received the CSU College of Health and Human Sciences Honor Alumnus Award in 1977, part of CSU’s Distinguished Alumni Awards. In 1987, he was honored with the William E. Morgan Alumni Achievement Award, the highest honor given by the Alumni Association. In 2004, CSU presented Phelps with an honorary doctorate.

‘A visionary’

Over the course of his life, Phelps has created a legacy that includes building two nationally renowned companies in two completely unrelated fields, constructing numerous buildings on campus, as well as having a lifelong dedication to philanthropy, with generous donations to CSU and numerous other organizations.

“When you think of Joe, you think about not only a construction leader, but also a visionary,” said Mostafa Khattab, head of CSU’s Department of Construction Management. “He’s a person that, as a result of his contribution to our program, established the internship office. Not only did he impact the industry but he also impacted our ability to teach our students, to really get them ready to become industry professionals.”

To make a gift in honor of Joseph Phelps to benefit students in the Phelps Internship Placement Program, visit advancing.colostate.edu/JOEPHELPS. Donations will help carry on Phelps’ vision while supporting construction management students in their career pursuits.