It was a story that I only needed to hear once: a story that I can tell today just like my father told it to me 37 years ago. If it weren’t real life it might have been a Tom Sawyer-type novel. It was a story of his youth and how he came to leave home at just 16 years of age. With a chicken under each arm and the clothes on his back, he set out on a journey that would soon find him homeless and hungry. Dad would not see his family again until he was 24 years old, bringing his new bride to meet them. At the age of 17, he got his first construction job. This was in a time before power saws, electric drills, and air guns. He began his construction career with the daily task of hand-sawing random oak flooring for 50 cents per hour. That is correct… $ 20 per week.
In his career, Dad helped build hundreds of homes, thousands of apartments, and dozens of commercial buildings across the nation. He worked hard each day and did the best that he could to provide for his family. He never found fame or fortune, but on the other hand, he was never seeking it. He was a hard worker and learned everything that he knew about construction through the sweat of his brow. For our family, Dad provided everything that we needed and a bit of what we wanted. My father truly graduated from the School of Hard Knocks and did very well with his diploma.
The year was 1985 and I had just finished my sophomore year of college. I was going to school full-time while also working a full-time job. I was not setting the woods on fire at either endeavor. My dream had always been to attend the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, but I knew that I could not continue working and going to school at my current pace.
Dad understood my plight and asked if I was willing to help him construct a new home that summer. If I agreed, I could take half of the money that we earned and apply it toward furthering my education. It was an offer that I could not refuse.
We contacted a REALTOR and found an appropriate site on which to build. As soon as the spring semester was over, we met on the job site for the first day of work. Early that morning, my father handed me a shovel. I asked him, “Why a shovel?” He said that one day I would understand but for now to just start digging. For the next two days, I labored with the shovel and found out what a level, square, ditch looked like. I also learned how my dad had earned the calluses on his hands. Toward the end of the second day, along came a concrete truck. We poured the concrete into the trenches that I had dug to complete the footings. On the third day, the block truck showed up and delivered what I thought were enough blocks to construct an entire city. My dad handed me a hoe and asked me to get the wheelbarrow. Again, I asked him, “Why?” He stated that one day I would understand, but for now, I needed to get busy mixing the mortar for the foundation blocks that we were going to lay. And that’s the way it went. We laid the foundation, framed the wood, installed the shingles, ran the plumbing, installed the electrical and HVAC, hung the drywall, painted the walls, installed the trim, and so on, until finally the home was complete.
I asked Dad why we hadn’t just hired crews to do the work. He just looked at me and said that one day I would understand. We did such a fine job that not only did we sell the home that summer, we were lucky enough to build and sell two more homes just around the corner. My instructions on these homes were a simple repeat of the first. We made a profit on each of the homes and the dye was cast.
Although I never realized the dream of attending the university, I felt like the lessons that I learned that year were far more valuable. Those were the types of lessons that only a father could teach. Dad was never one to give much help with my schoolwork but he sure knew how to give me an education.
Later in the same year, at the insistence of my father and a $500 gift from an uncle, I obtained my contractors and real estate licenses. My father continued to work on the construction sites while I took the time needed to accomplish the task. I asked him why it was important for me to take the time off work to do this. He simply stated that one day I would understand, but for now just to just concentrate on the required training. At the time, I was the youngest person to have ever received a general contractors license in the State of Tennessee and one of the youngest, if not the youngest, to have a real estate license. This was not because of my efforts, but simply because my father knew that if I were to succeed in the business, I would need these professional licenses. Since that time, I have never worked in an industry other than construction and real estate.
When Dad died in 2010, I found his diploma in a box of keepsakes…a diploma that I had never seen and that he had never mentioned to any of us. Apparently, Dad never finished grade school but he was awarded an eighth grade General Equivalency Diploma. No one could have ever guessed that he had no formal education. In the almost 30 years since I helped my father build that first home, I have built dozens of homes, owned and sold thousands of properties, developed dozens of communities, built office and retail buildings, and employed hundreds of people. I have met congressmen, senators, business leaders, governors, and have even shaken the hand of a U.S. President. I have been fortunate enough to be able to provide a very comfortable lifestyle for my family. We have all that we need and almost of what we want as well. I have truly lived what I believe to be the American Dream…a dream that my father never had, at least for himself.
Two years ago, I purchased a small condominium out of foreclosure, as a summer project for my eldest daughter. We set about remodeling the home and she was quickly able to act as both contract manager and interior designer. The project was completed on time and on budget. Simply put, I was amazed at how quickly my 5’5″ American Beauty could master the tasks that took me years to understand. We sold the property for a nice profit and put the money toward tuition to help pay for the remaining costs of her undergraduate degree.
Yesterday, my wife and I received a text from our daughter. Megan will graduate in December of this year with a degree in construction management from Middle Tennessee State University.
She will be the first female in the history of the University to graduate with a degree in Commercial Construction Management . She will also be the only one in the program to have competed in the Miss Tennessee Pageant during her time there. She told us that she wants to get her masters degree and plans on paying for that with the money she will make selling real estate.
As my chest swells with pride when I contemplate Megan’s accomplishments, as well as her dreams for the future, I am sure that I now know how my dad felt so many years ago.
In fact, as I think about it, I think that perhaps today was the day that Dad was talking about when he said that one day I would understand why!