When I was in high school and college I worked during the summers as a laborer helping bricklayers. Well, actually most of the time I was helping the laborers who helped the bricklayers. But my Dad, a bricklayer since the age of 20, worked for Mr. J.O. Collins, a general contractor, almost all of his bricklaying life and when you‘re 16 looking for a summer job I suppose it‘s helpful to have connections -- even if it involves working around mortar, scaffolds, blocks and bricks. Back then, in 1967, I made 50 cents an hour. Dad’s whopping wage was $1.90. I never really did have the urge to make a living as a bricklayer but I tried my hand once at it once and I can tell you it took me less than half a day to realize I’d better be thinking about another way of making a living other than laying brick. Something indoors with air-conditioning sounded nice.
Monday marks the 13 anniversary since my Dad passed away and today would’ve been his 83rd birthday and like others, on or around the birthdate anniversary of someone close who’s passed on, I reflect on his life as well as muse and wish he and Mom were still around, especially to see all the changes that have happened. A lot happens over 13 years. But one of the most remarkable things about this bricklayer, who by the way did this work till he was 65, was that upon his death he left my mother their residential home and two rental homes free and clear of any mortgage or financial encumbrances, as well as a good chunk of savings. I suppose living on the frugal side of life allows you to do this. So does being self-sufficient, and directing your efforts to your family rather than yourself.
When he’d bring home his paycheck, which he received each Friday, he would hand it over to Mom who would endorse his name on it (the bank never knew the difference), deposited it like clockwork, and from this pay the bills and then if conditions permitted, put a little aside. I can’t remember them arguing over how to spend what they did have, probably because they operated as one mind, as strange as this sounds in this day and time. And incredible as it may sound today, this was a household, with seven kids, a stay-at-home wife and mother, supported by a bricklayer’s wages, wages which only slowly rose over many years from $1.90 an hour to about $10/hour.
He belonged to a combined union of skilled tradesmen and I remember every few years or so there would be a strike, which he loathed. He’d get aggravated, claiming that by the time you figured the lost wages from being off work during the strike, which would last anywhere from 3-6 weeks, that the increase he got in wages would take almost a year to make up. But he appreciated the cost of living increases. As a result he always had a little savings set aside for these times and other emergencies.
When I was in college, and thought I was smart – or getting smart -- I had urged him on several occasions to begin his own home building operation. He knew everything there was to know about building a house and had close friends in the skilled trades. I told him, and he knew, he had the know-how to be a huge success at it. His reputation for quality brickwork was well-known. But he had come to appreciate the problems that come with managing other people, employee issues, dealing with taxes, accountants, complaints, the liabilities, the legalities and such. He had no taste for this new set of problems. Industrious, hard-working and intelligent as he was, his pursuit of happiness was driven not by ambition or wealth-building but by a more simpler approach to life and living, which caused him to receive immense joy and contentment in being with his family, involving himself in his children’s activities, and just sitting back in his easy chair, and savoring the taste of a slow drag on a lit cigarette while watching his cowboy shows.
Standing over 6 feet and weighing about 240 he was strong and somewhat imposing. His approach to discipline was always fair, always consistent, and I’d have to say many times memorable. But with this he had a wide sensitive streak. Once while working on a scaffold he and his crew witnessed a 9 year old boy get hit by a moving car. He quickly climbed off the scaffold and went to the boy’s side, bent down and while waiting for the ambulance, held the boy in his arms only to watch him take his last breath. It shook him up -- this burly bricklayer who cried intermittently for the next week.
He was strong in his faith and as we all entered adulthood he continued to monitor the practicing of our faith, encouraging us to practice our faith and receive the Sacraments. Spiritually, he was authentic, mature, and grounded.
Dad never had a claim to fame like some men but if they had given out degrees in character, role model, being a husband or fatherhood – not to mention bricklaying – he would have easily received his Ph.D. He would have been 83 years old today and while I know he’s not here so that we could celebrate his birthday today I’ll forever be grateful and appreciative for the example he gave and the things he taught me during the 70 years he was with us.