Successful engineer and entrepreneur helps future generations

By Lauren Winton

Published: Oct 12, 2020 8:02:00 AM

John Watson John Watson

As a high school student, John Watson, ’60 mechanical engineering, received a call from Jennings B. Whitworth to play football at the University of Alabama on scholarship. The problem was, Watson had made up his mind to go to Auburn.

“In ninth grade, I decided I was going to go to Auburn University, which was then Alabama Polytechnic Institute, study engineering and play football,” Watson said. “I had no money, and didn’t consult anyone on my decision. I just made up my mind and knew that was what I was going to do.”

After graduating from high school a year early, Watson entered into the engineering program at Auburn. He also walked on the field and tried out for the Auburn football team.

“That was 1955,” said Watson. “And I didn’t make the team. But during high school, I had saved up a thousand dollars for college. The football coaches told me to focus on my engineering studies, so that’s what I did.”

Watson had saved up just enough money during his time in high school to pay for three quarters at Auburn.

“After that, well, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do,” Watson said. “One night during my first quarter, I was studying and these guys came up to me and asked if I was going to take the civil service exam to co-op. I didn’t know what it was, but I went with them. I took the test, passed and went to the co-op office to talk to the administration there.”

It worked out perfectly for Watson. He co-oped, which allowed him to pay for the remainder of his education.

Watson was the first in his family to go to college. He wasn’t the last. His daughter, son and grandchildren have all attended Auburn University. His grandson also walked on to the Auburn football team and played linebacker during Auburn’s 2010 national championship season.

But the Watson family’s Auburn legacy started the weekend John Watson graduated.

“It was a big weekend, my graduation weekend,” Watson said. “I graduated on Friday, I was commissioned a Second Lieutenant in the Army on Saturday, and I got married on Sunday.”

Following six months of active duty in the Army, Watson was offered a teaching fellowship at Auburn and wanted to return for his graduate degree, but he was called back to active duty during the Berlin Crisis, and stayed in the Army another eight months before settling in Huntsville. Or so he thought.

“I saw an ad in the Huntsville Times for a mechanical engineer and one in Dothan for a mechanical engineer. My wife, Gail, was cooking and said ‘call them.’”

The rest, as they say, is history. Watson called Jim Smith, the owner, president and CEO of Smith’s, Incorporated and went to Smith’s office for an interview in Dothan, Alabama.

“Mr. Smith told me he had already interviewed four people, and was going to interview another four after me,” Watson said. “I told him during the interview that I wanted to know all I could about mechanical engineering and contracting, that I intended to start a business for myself one day.”

Smith liked Watson’s initiative and drive, and hired him on the spot. Several years later, he ended up buying out Smith, and has since served as the president and chairman of Smith’s Inc. Years later, Watson is still involved with Smith’s Inc., and serves on the company’s board.

“Since that time, I have gotten involved with a lot of other things,” Watson said, humbly.

“A lot of other things,” is putting it lightly. Ever the entrepreneur, Watson has ventured into various businesses outside of mechanical engineering and contracting. He started a latex glove company in Alabama in the 1990s, which became the largest latex examination company in the United States. After about eight years in the latex industry, Watson sold the company to a firm in London.

His business ventures have also led him to the yeast industry, windows, bricks, fiberglass and general construction. Watson was even involved in building out the third phase of the Tiger Town shopping center in Opelika.

Throughout all of his different ventures, Watson stayed true to his roots.

He never left Smiths, Incorporated. And he never lost his love for Auburn Engineering.

“Auburn prepared me very well for my career,” Watson said. “For one thing, my engineering degree made it easy for me to talk to other people and other engineers outside my field and understand what they were saying. With my degree, I can question things and make informed decisions. That’s how I have been able to venture into so many other business areas.”

When Watson decided to give back to Auburn, he approached his giving with the same tenacity and determination. The John H. and Gail P. Watson Scholarship Endowment currently supports eighteen students on scholarship. He also recently contributed an additional $2 million to the scholarship fund.

“I decided to focus the scholarship on the Dothan area. I thought it would have more of an impact on the counties here, and help hometown folks,” Watson said.

Watson also served on the Auburn Alumni Engineering Council for many years and has an endowed professorship in mechanical engineering. He was inducted into the State of Alabama Engineering Hall of Fame in 2004.

“The key to everything is to be good with people,” Watson said. “It’s all about being honest and fair, and then you’ll win the deal.”
Media Contact: Lauren Winton, lmw0090@auburn.edu, 334.844.5519

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