James Bihr remembered as a visionary, legend and friend
James Bihr, a visionary who led the International Conference of Building Officials (ICBO) to national and global prominence in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s, and who served as one of the primary architects of the International Code Council consolidation, died September 7 in Whittier, California, following a battle with cancer. He was 85.
Although Bihr retired as ICBO President nearly 20 years ago, his legacy remains strong among those who remember him as a quiet, yet forceful leader.
“He was without a doubt a visionary,” said Jon Traw, longtime friend and the man who succeeded Bihr as ICBO leader in 1993. “And he was able to communicate that vision to others so they became part of the vision as well.”
When Bihr handed over the ICBO reins, Traw said he also gave him a document outlining his views of the future of the organization, a view that included not only cooperation with other groups such as the Building Officials and Code Administrators International and the Southern Building Code Congress International, but one set of model codes that a jurisdiction could use anywhere in the nation or around the world. The International Code Council was founded a year later with the late Bob Fowler serving as its first chairman of the Board of Directors, and the consolidation took place within the next decade.
Along with Fowler, “Jim Bihr was the man who struck the blow and created the ICC,” said Roy Fewell, Building Official for the City of La Habra, California, a former ICBO Vice President and longtime friend of Bihr’s. “Jim and Bob had long planned that concept.”
Although he made his mark with the California-based ICBO, Bihr was born in Buffalo, New York, and reared in Binghamton, New York. He attended Syracuse University on the G.I. Bill after serving in the Army toward the end of World War II. He earned an engineering degree at Syracuse and married his childhood sweetheart, Betty, in 1951. They began to raise a family in upstate New York when Bihr heard California calling. “He felt L.A. was a dynamic place,” Fewell said.
Bihr worked for the city of Los Angeles for about 10 years before joining the ICBO’s predecessor, the Pasadena-based Pacific Coast Building Officials Conference PCBOC, in 1962. Fewell said Bihr became aware of the model codes while in Los Angeles and was drawn in a new direction. “He said the PCBOC was a place to have maximum input on the industry,” Fewell said.
Bihr continued to move up in the organization ladder, becoming Executive Director in 1979, some seven years after the group became known as the ICBO and moved to larger quarters in Whittier.
Fewell said he first met Bihr in 1979. A few years later, Bihr asked Fewell to manage a regional office in Austin, Texas. “I always said he had a great sense of humor because he hired me,” Fewell said chuckling.
Fewell traveled a lot while working for Bihr, who believed it was important to get his philosophy of making the model codes as personal and interactive as possible to as many jurisdictions as possible. “Jim spent a lot of time on the road, as well, growing membership and carrying his message to the local offices, as well as national, state, county and municipal officials,” Fewell said. “He was not only interested in marketing our codes (but) he was interested in feedback from the members.”
As a result of those trips, Fewell learned how strongly Bihr felt about family. “He sent my wife flowers and a note saying how sorry he was that I had to be away so much and how much he appreciated her sacrifice,” Fewell said. He also asked the very fiscally conservative Bihr at one point if he could expense the daily long-distance calls he made to his family during his many ICBO trips. “He said, ‘I would expect you to.’”
Rick Okawa, the Code Council’s Deputy Vice President of Global Services and Business Development, still works out of Whittier, California, where he started with the ICBO in 1981. Later, as Vice President of Codes for the ICBO, Okawa would work very closely with Bihr. And, again, that meant a lot of traveling, but this time, overseas.
“He was a visionary,” Okawa said, echoing sentiments from many of Bihr’s contemporaries. “He could see that our codes were very useful to other countries, including Japan. He took his whole Board to several countries: New Zealand, Australia, Canada and Russia.
“He was adamant about improving our professionalism by stressing education, certification and inspections. He wanted to energize the whole building regulatory system, not just the codes. He really expanded our membership with that philosophy. He also wanted the membership to have a say in the process. Other countries really liked that idea of a democratic process.”
Okawa said the lessons he and others learned from Bihr can be applied anywhere in life.
“He instilled in me, as well as many others at ICBO, a real purpose, importance and objective in their positions which made our individual careers so fulfilling and rewarding,” Okawa said. “He taught me so many things, like a leader doesn’t need to be a dictator. A lot of people liked him as a person and respected him as a leader. That doesn’t happen often.”
Nick Horeczko, Director of Professional Services for the ICC Evaluation Service, also thought of Bihr as a mentor, a man who provided an outstanding example and excellent professional advice after Bihr hired him more than 40 years ago. He also remembered him as a passionate advocate of code development process controlled by local building officials, not the federal government. And he recalled Bihr was willing to put his reputation on the line and testify to that position before Congress.
And Bihr really cared about his employees, both personally and professionally, Horeczko said. “Jim was very interested in professional development of engineers who worked for him and strongly encouraged their participation in code development committees of Structural Engineers Association of California and attending technical seminars and conferences.
“I will always remember him as being intensely loyal to his employees and he cared deeply for their well-being,” Horeczko said. “We have lost a very great human being. His influence on my life has been immeasurable.”
And that influence wasn’t always about work. Bihr was a devoted golfer, and anyone who worked with him usually wound up golfing, as well, sometimes even if they didn’t want to.
“For years, I would sit in my hotel room and work while he and others took a day for golf during conferences,” said John Nelson, who served as ICBO General Counsel under Bihr. “One day, at a conference in Palm Springs, he came up to me and said, ‘You’re golfing.’ I said, ‘No, I’m not. I hate golf. I don’t have clubs; I don’t have shoes.’ He said, ‘I rented clubs and shoes. You’re golfing.’ Since that day, I’ve been a golfer. And I love it.”
Nelson and others noted that Bihr passed on that love of golf to his family as well, including his daughter, Kathy. “She grew up playing golf with him on Saturday mornings,” Fewell said. “Now, she’s director of the Tiger Woods Learning Center based in Orange County.”
Bihr brought Nelson on as general counsel in 1984. “He was a very quiet person,” Nelson said. “But I very quickly saw that he was quiet but very strong. He always stood by me. He would listen to my advice. He didn’t always take it, but he listened. And he would explain to me why he was doing something.”
The many late nights, business trips and various emergency meetings did more than help build the ICBO, Nelson said, they helped the two become close friends. “When you go through a lot of battles as we did,” he said, “you become comrades.”
Traw said that camaraderie forged a strong group of friends and workers. “Jim fostered a feeling of focusing on the goal, not the person,” he said. “You had people thinking as a team, working sometimes on projects that weren’t their usual responsibilities. One time, a group of us engineers and others even went to the mail room after hours to stuff envelopes to get code information out to the members.
“When you can get employees thinking like that, you have good employees.”
And that’s why the ICBO prospered, said John Nosse, former head of the ICC-ES Evaluation Services.
“He was strict,” Nosse said. “He wanted everything to look just right. And he was a stickler for professionalism and sound engineering. But he really treated his staff well. When we went to Japan, he told me to buy gifts for all the secretaries. And every Valentine’s Day, he made sure he gave each one of them something personally.”
Nosse also remembers Bihr and Fowler putting their heads together in 1991 at a model codes meeting. They knew there was a growing movement toward uniform codes throughout the nation, one that Bihr saw coming nearly 20 years before.
“As far back as the ‘70s, Jim felt that it was inevitable that there would be one building code organization for building regulations or the federal government would do it for the sake of national uniformity,” Nosse said. “Jim had that unique ability to view the future with wisdom.”
Nosse said Bihr was instrumental in the start of true unification with the formation of the Council of American Building Officials. “(CABO) was merely a skeleton to represent a single voice for the three model code groups,” Nosse said.
Nosse chuckled as he recalled a trip to Southeast Asia with Bihr. “They had never heard of the ICBO,” Nosse said. “But Jim told them we were responsible for the Uniform Building Code. The guy smiled and pulled a copy from his shelf. That’s the kind of impact Jim Bihr had.”
Those close to Bihr also knew how deeply he loved his family: daughter Kathy; his three sons, Jim Jr. Tom and Bob; and his beloved wife of more than 60 years, Betty. “When you were around the two of them,” Nelson said, his voice choking with emotion, “you could tell it was a strong marriage.”
Mark Johnson, ICC’s Executive Vice President and Director of Business Development, figured it was Betty who always kept her husband up to date with the doings of his employees’ families.
“Despite all he was responsible for, he always asked about my two daughters by name,” said Johnson, who joined the ICBO in 1980. “And I didn’t even work with him directly. It made him seem omnipotent.”
Traw said Bihr was a person who cared deeply about people, whether serving with ICBO or with him in Rotary. “Thousands of people knew him, and he knew them,” Traw said. “That’s something I couldn’t get the hang of when I became President and CEO.”
Traw said it was more than a little daunting to take over from a legend such as Bihr. “But by then, Jim had all the foundation in place, so the transition was pretty easy.”
After leaving the ICBO, Bihr became a consultant in Whittier, often providing expert testimony in building-related court cases. But as his health began to fail, he gave up much of that. Occasionally some of the old-timers would see him at restaurants in Whittier with Betty, of course, by his side. Traw said he and his wife would go out to dinner with Bihr and Betty, sometimes talking over technical issues like in the old days. “I will miss that,” Traw said. “I will miss his friendship and his sense of humor.”
In addition to that quiet, dry humor, Birh also was known to be unflappable, rarely if ever losing his composure. Johnson said he certainly tested him one time:
“I would run at lunchtime with our CFO. We had a shower on the second floor. We would see who could get back to the office first to use the shower. One day, I opened the curtain, and there was Mr. Bihr with a delegation from China in our washroom area. They looked confused. He never said a word, but he looked confused as well.
“The next day, he saw me in the hallway. He said, ‘Mark, have you ever thought about getting up early and running before work?’ “That’s quiet leadership.”