John Shea, construction company leader and Pasadena philanthropist, dies at 96

John Shea, whose multi-billion-dollar construction company built infrastructure and real estate projects throughout California and the country, and who along with his wife turned much of that wealth into prolific support of Catholic schools in marginalized areas in the Los Angeles area and beyond, died Sunday, Oct. 16, after a brief illness. He was 96.

A resident of Pasadena, Shea was chairman of construction giant J.F. Shea Co. Inc., a Walnut-based company that worked in heavy construction, homebuilding and commercial real estate. He led the company for more than six decades as chief executive officer and ultimately its chairman, as it grew with the country’s expanding infrastructure needs and the real estate market.

In that span, the company emerged as a nationally known civil contractor, with major subway jobs in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and New York, completing numerous tunnel, highway and water treatment projects. The company remains a major player in heavy construction and tunneling.

Shea, the company’s chairman until his death, would ultimately be the driving force that steered the business into real estate, establishing offshoot companies such as Shea Homes and Shea Properties, said to be the largest privately held home builder in the U.S.

The growth made Shea a billionaire, and among the region’s wealthiest Angelenos.

While the scope of his business was broad and his wealth was vast, Shea’s life away from the company was rooted in Los Angeles and the San Gabriel Valley.

Born on Sept. 29, 1926, in Oakland, Shea grew up in Hancock Park and graduated from L.A. High School. He attended USC’s Viterbi School of Engineering, where he was a standout tennis player, winning an NCAA championship with his brother and doubles partner, Gilbert Shea. Tennis was a hobby he would stick with, including in his 50s, when he was a top player in that age bracket.

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After college, he joined the family’s construction business, working on dam and tunnel projects throughout the West and Pacific Northwest.

In 1958, the company — founded in 1881 in Portland, Oregon, by John Francis Shea as a modest plumbing business, and grew into an infrastructure business known for its work on the Golden Gate Bridge and the Hoover Dam — was dissolved, and then reincorporated by John Shea and his cousins, Edmund and Peter Shea. The trio built the reorganized J.F. Shea Co. into one of the largest privately held companies in the country, according to John Shea Jr., his son.

But even as his company — based in Walnut — grew, Shea was a philanthropist at heart. He and his wife, Dorothy, gave tens of thousands in scholarships and funded more than 1,000 renovations at more than 500 campuses in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and outside California too, according to an announcement of his death.

“Their charity is legend,” said Monsignor Clement J. Connolly, of Holy Family Church in South Pasadena, a friend of Shea’s for decades who will celebrate Shea’s Friday funeral Mass.

In that time, Connolly said, that charity — of both John and Dorothy Shea — spread beyond the L.A. Archdiocese.

“Whenever there was a need, John and Dorothy came through,” Connolly said. What they did was an expression of his spiritual life. The notion of sharing and blessing other people was integral to his faith. He was an extraordinary fellow.”

The couple had always been givers, Shea Jr. said, but during a walk in the mid-1980s, reflecting on the success they’d enjoyed, he and his wife decided they would take their giving to a new level — funding scholarships and improving schools.

“He just loved helping others, especially those who were disadvantaged,” Shea Jr. said. “He wanted to help them gain a step in life,” he said, noting that a key goal was to stop generational cycles of disadvantage among families. “That was really important to him. He wanted the work to go on after his passing.”

Ultimately, his son said: “He had a long, full life. There were a lot of people he touched in a positive way.”

Connolly echoed Shea Jr.

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Many will come to his funeral Mass on Friday, he said, and yes, his business skills will be remembered.

“But that’s not why people will come,” he said. “The people will come because of his extraordinary generosity. He gave life. He gave hope.”

Shea is survived by his wife of 54 years, Dorothy Babbitt Shea; his eight children; 31 grandchildren; and one great-grandson. He was preceded in death by his first wife Susan Hitchcock in 1967; his brother, Gilbert Shea; his sister, Susie Shea Hanrahan; and his granddaughter, Maura Davison.

A funeral Mass will be celebrated at 10 a.m. Friday, Oct. 21, at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Downtown Los Angeles, 555 W. Temple St., Los Angeles.

In lieu of flowers, donations in honor of John Shea may be made to the Catholic Education Foundation of Los Angeles:

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