remembering Fred

A few minutes ago I received an email from my friend Steve, letting me know that a fellow who was one of my life-models, Fred, passed away this last Friday.

I first met Fred at MTL in Fargo in the summer of 1976. Fred was the quiet fellow who sat in the back of the office under the mezzanine in what was the most “permanent” of all the workstations out in the big room. That summer was filled with the excitement and terror of a first job in my profession. The partner in charge had assigned me my work schedule as he walked me to what was to be my workplace … “On mondays you build models with David, Tuesdays you follow me around jobsites, Wednesdays you pick up redlines for Fred, Thursdays you help Harold and Steve, and Fridays you work on your project, its a bank in Casselton, the owner has fired pretty much every firm in town and now its our turn and its your job.”

I was excited, and not smart enough to be worried about how much I didn’t know…yet. Drafting was not too much of a problem, and the instructions I had been given was, “whenever you don’t know something, ask Fred.”

Redlining is an easy task, which is really making corrections on drawings. The job captain, Fred, would make a set of blueline prints, or have a new person like me make them by placing the transparent drawing sheet (a two foot by three foot piece of beautiful linen fabric!) over a paper sheet with a green chemical coating on it. You’d push these two sheets through a machine that had a UV? light that burned off all the coating except what was blocked by the lines of ink or graphite. Then you’d put the sheet through the upper part of the machine which would turn the green lines to blue (or black depending on the paper) by exposing them to anyhdrous ammonia…a pretty stinky process and if you spent enough time doing it, and were exposed to ammonia long enough, can’t be great for your health either.

Once the blueline prints are prepared, my job pretty much was to put away the drawings, and give the prints to Fred, or Steve, or Harold. They’d look over the drawings very carefully, looking for incomplete thoughts, errors in materials, or assembly, or drafting errors that could cause confusion in the field. They’d mark up these drawings with a red pencil, and add the next level of detailed information to each page, then hand off the “redlined” sheet to someone like me who’d go get the right drawing page (yes, I “corrected” a drawing from the wrong building set once!) and tape it down, then erase, redraft, reletter or whatever as directed by the redline.

Fred made great redlines, so did Steve and Harold, who’d been taught by Fred, and David, and Rick, and Kerry, come to think of it, Fred taught all of us to be precise, to think, not just draw, and to stay calm. I remember my first visit to the construction site of the first project I ever had project architect responsibility for. It was a 12 unit elderly housing project in Ulen, Mn. We’d been called the day before by the builder to officially inform us they would be pouring the foundations the next day. I drove up and…clipboard in hand, walked around the formwork, looking inside as Fred had told me to, checking for pop cans, debris, souvenirs, and counting the bits of steel to make sure it was all there. I had walked by the corners a few times, and thought something wasn’t there, looked again and realized the rebar that would tie the corner together wasn’t in the form. By this time the concrete drivers had joined along as I looked, checked the drawing, looked again and almost apologetically asked the superintendent “where are the corner bars?”

The crowd got bigger as more concrete trucks arrived, the drivers being impatient to dump their loads and get on with their day. Most looked at my age and gave me improvised reasons why corner bars weren’t needed. The superintendent joined in saying the steel fabricator hadn’t sent them so they must not be needed. It was pretty intimidating, but I remember Fred saying I should call if I had a question so, I went to the job shack (no cell phones back then) and called Fred. He checked the office set and told me what was likely to happen if there were no corner bars, and that since they were on the drawings, and the drawings are part of the contract, that the builder would be in violation of the contract terms if they weren’t installed, then Fred said, “look around in the weeds, I’ll bet there all piled there.” I hung up, walked out into the crowd, walked to the tall grass around the excavation and sure enough, there were the bent rebars. I picked one up, walked back to the job shack and told the super that they bars were in the tall grass, that they must have missed them during installation and that “Fred says if there are no corner bars, we won’t be able to recommend that the owner pay at the end of the month, and will recommend removing all the concrete and starting over.” That did it. The super had his crew digging through the grass, tearing forms apart and even the concrete drivers joined in, then successfully poured the foundations.

Thanks Fred.

That was one of many many things Fred helped me learn, helped me understand that when on the job and discovering a mistake, to treat it as such, give the fellows a chance to make it right, or don’t recommend payment until its done right. No ego, no raised voices, no smugness, just facts and business. That’s when I started learning professionalism.

Fred built a cabin for his family on a beautiful Minnesota lake. I felt honored that he invited me along to help frame it on cold autumn mornings. I never saw it finished, but know that Fred did it beautifully, precisely, and without any angst. He knew how to put a building together and was happy to share that knowledge with everyone in the office.

Friday, I didn’t know he was passing away. I had spent the day sitting with students talking and sketching wall sections with them. I have a pretty good idea how to put buildings together today, and I know he taught me that. So, to Tammi, Jason, and Amy, I was channeling Fred on Friday as we spoke. I shared with you-all as Fred shared with me.

Please share what you know with those who want to learn. Its a gift and even though they don’t realize it then its a way of building a culture. Fred built us, helped all of us become some of the few who could pass the licensing exam at first sitting, and unfortunately, at the time, we didn’t credit him enough. He never sought credit, was happy doing a job well, living a life well, and as a result made the world a little better.

Thanks Fred
Share with each other, look out for each other as we approach the longest night.

One Response to “remembering Fred”

  1. Gretchen (Drenkow) Anderson says:

    Mike,

    What a loving tribute to my sweet dad. Your last paragraph sums up my dad to a “t”…….never sought credt, simply happy with a job well done.

    We are very pleased that his professional life has crossed over and touched people personally. He was such a good dad. I am, and have always been, very proud to be his daughter.

    Gretchen (Drenkow) Anderson

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