Kenneth Cianchette, one of the founders of Cianbro Corp., addresses employees on Sept. 25, 2009, during a celebration of 60 years in business. Credit: Christopher Cousins / BDN

Maine construction industry legend Kenneth Cianchette was known by friends and colleagues as a “thinker,” always searching for new ideas.

Those included the now widely used I-beam grab, for which he holds a patent. In his final days after suffering what was presumed to be a stroke, he sat with grandson Michael working on a puzzle silently after nurses had said he might not respond to what those around him were saying.

“I talked to him for a while and then said, ‘Well, I know you’re busy, so I’ll catch you later,’” Michael Cianchette said.

His grandfather mustered the strength to look at the puzzle and then Michael, saying, “If I was busy, I wouldn’t be doing this.”

Kenneth Lyle Cianchette died in his sleep the morning of Feb. 7 at the home of his daughter Jean and her husband in Yarmouth at age 98. Michael said he had been suffering from congestive heart failure for the past five years or so, likely had a stroke, then died a couple of days later.

Cianchette and his three brothers, Carl, Bud and Chuck, founded the company in 1949 and grew it to one of the largest U.S. construction firms, with about 4,000 employees in 40 states.

The brothers were scrappy and worked smartly to grow the company. Just after World War II, Kenneth lent his brother Carl $5,000 to buy a car, flatbed truck, Willys Jeep and other equipment to expand the fledgling firm.

“It was all about sacrifices,” Kenneth said at the company’s 60th anniversary celebration in 2009.

He described the times he or one of the other brothers had to mortgage their house to make payroll or be bonded for a construction project as it competed with out-of-state contractors.

The Pittsfield-based company has been a major force in construction in Maine, having been involved in building the Casco Bay Bridge, the Wex global headquarters and the Cross Insurance Arena. Cianbro also is part of a $1.7 billion contract awarded in 2021 to enlarge a submarine dry dock at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery.

Kenneth graduated from Maine Central Institute in Pittsfield and built bridges with his father until he was drafted into the Army at age 18. He was a radio mechanic in Germany, France and England before returning home in 1946. Three of the brothers incorporated as Cianchette Brothers in 1949, later to become Cianbro Corp. Chuck joined them in 1954.

He married Nina Evelene Lancaster in 1949. She predeceased him in 1997. He is survived by his five children and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

He will be interred with military honors beside his wife in the Village Cemetery in Pittsfield on Saturday at 1 p.m. A reception will follow at Maine Central Institute from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.

Grandson Michael, a lawyer and a Bangor Daily News political columnist who has been taking care of Kenneth’s affairs for the past 10 years, said his grandfather would like to be remembered for “leaving things better and finding ways to do things smarter.”