February 29, 2024

The Boss: The Builder Within

In the 1960s, Ozark Airlines was building its headquarters next to my elementary school in St. Louis. I spent most of third and fourth grade staring out the window, longing to get to the construction site. After school, I’d walk over and wander around. My dad, a painting contractor, fueled my curiosity by asking me questions about the work. I knew then that I’d be a builder.

I had a vivid imagination as a child and gave imaginary presentations using my ViewMaster reels, but nothing helped me in school. It was very painful. A young fifth-grade teacher who drove a motorcycle told me: “You’re not stupid. Something else is going on.”

He had me and a few others sit in front of the class, and he’d give us the day’s lesson in 10 minutes. Then he’d tell us to draw or something and teach the rest of the class. He understood that some students can absorb material in a short time but can’t focus for an hour.

In my senior year in high school, I was in a co-op program. I spent three hours a day in classes and the rest of the day working for my dad, estimating and supervising painting jobs.

I started a painting business and, at 19, became a partner in an equipment company. But, drawn to the building industry, I sold my stake and started a construction company in 1984. I was 25. The first year I made $1.2 million in revenue, but didn’t know anything about construction or running a business.

Our office space was in a rundown warehouse in an underprivileged neighborhood. One day, an 11-year-old African-American boy who hung around the site visited our offices on a dare from friends. His name was Todd Weaver, and he said he needed a job to take care of his family. His mother was ill.

I told him that he belonged in school, but that he could come and work with us in the afternoons. We took him under our wing and eventually he came to live with my wife and me. His mother was very appreciative. Todd was like a big brother to our three children when they came along. He graduated from college and has his own construction business, the Legacy Building Group.

In 2001, I took a sabbatical to run the nonprofit Central Institute for the Deaf in St. Louis, which my wife, Ellen, had attended as a child. Ellen relied on hearing aids and lip-reading. I had been on its board at one time, and when the organization faced financial difficulties, I was elected interim president. I made some management changes and became executive director, forgoing a salary. Then I merged much of the institute with Washington University Medical Center.

Last year, Ellen died from a rare genetic disorder that causes strokes. We had been together since junior high. I needed to decompress, so I traveled around the world alone and ended up in Katmandu, Nepal. I hired a guide and trekked a couple hundred rugged miles with him. I wasn’t in good shape, and at one point I was in such agony that I lay down. My guide said he’d leave me there if I didn’t get up.

Also in 2010, President Obama appointed me to the Committee for the Preservation of the White House. It’s a great honor.

My wife helped shape the legacy I’d like to leave. Once, when I bragged about a building we had completed, she reminded me that no building is as important as what occurs inside. When you build a research lab, for example, it’s not the outside skin that’s significant; it’s the researchers developing life-saving cures who are crucial.

As told to Patricia R. Olsen.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=5de6ae4b46a3ea54ec3be4dd40e17efb

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