Building Blocks

A close friend of mine, who is a carpenter, was nearing retirement and finding himself conflicted with the notion of living a life where there is no hard evidence of daily productivity such as a well crafted set of stairs or multi-spindled railing.

He was and had always been a craftsman, producing admirable results. The self-worth he carried in his manner was largely the result of his reputation in the trade.

But retirement was knocking at the door and reminding him that his working years were more behind him than in front of him. While many of us dream of retirement in our youth, the real accomplishment of reaching retirement carries with it a few gentle reminders that are not always so welcome.

The onset of age slowly indicates our move from active participant to educated observer, and it is natural to deny some of that as it starts to set in. As a buyer, the depreciating term "useful life" comes to mind.

He's feeling some pressure to "step down" as the rigors of the carpentry trade are beginning to make his body ache and stiffen. He's put in all the "required" years to establish an ample retirement plan.

As a freelance contractor he has fewer and fewer jobs per year and often finds himself in the coffee shop two or three days a week waiting for word that the next wooden deck may need to be built or fireplace mantle constructed, all the while thinking it may indeed be time to retire. That maybe that which he supplies is not so "needed" any more.

Now it's a Friday and he has no work planned for next week and he goes to bed with these thoughts heavy on his mind. Now it's Saturday morning and he opens his garage and walks to his trade van and finds that it has been vandalized. All of his power tools have been stolen and the van has been virtually stripped. Missing are drills, saws, jigs, compressors and hand tools that he spent a lifetime collecting and making virtual extensions of his hands. A lifetime of developing an "instrument" that he has customized and honed to his liking is now an empty shell sitting before him. He closed the door to the van and drove to my house with a heavy heart.

I poured the coffee and sat down in front of him shoving a plate of cookies his way. He fumbled with one and set it down gently with a sigh. He estimated that more than $8,500 would be required to replace all that had been stolen. Yes, he had insurance to cover the loss and he had no doubt he would get the money to replace everything but that wasn't the question.

The question was should he replace everything? Should he bother? Was this act of vandalism actually going to serve as the nudge that pressed him into his decision -- this big, life-changing decision -- to retire?

Seize the Day

In today's fast-paced, results-driven era, the sure hands of tradesmen and craftsmen are often forgotten. The blacksmith, the carpenter, the tool and die maker, all spent a lifetime honing skills that very few can perform. As many of these people near retirement, they find their skills still sharp but often their need greatly diminished.

It is here that the parks and recreation professional can seize an enormous opportunity and tap into a valuable resource. With as many as 500 people added every spring/summer as temporary/seasonal staff at Cleveland Metroparks, solid crew chiefs and task force leaders are always needed.

The steady leadership and sound discipline found in the aforementioned retirees dovetails quite well with the often "playful" groups of teenagers or college kids that provide the majority of summer labor.

Though the spirited youth provide an energetic and revitalized approach to the work, having an older mentor in charge of a fired-up group like that assures that the work is focused and that the energy remains on task. Because as one of our well-seasoned retiree-veterans always says about the student workers, "Summer help. Some aren't."

I thought about all of this as my friend sat contemplating his retirement. I'd heard Cleveland Metroparks needed a carpenter's assistant for the summer at our wood shop and after a little research, suggested he interview for the job.

As fate would have it, he was by far the most competent candidate and he got the job. After meeting with our head carpenter, he learned that what was really needed was someone to build about a dozen information kiosks that would later be placed throughout the park district.

He could work at his own pace with the simple goal of completing these kiosks within the designated time frame. There was a shop full of new tools so he didn't have to replace his own and he was working five days a week among friendly people who were interested in his skills and wanted to learn from him. I went out to the shop to visit him one afternoon and I cannot recall seeing him that happy in the last 15 years.

George Bernard Shaw once said, "This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy."

The logic of hiring a seasoned and skilled veteran who can both teach and love his work appears to be a win/win situation as far as I can see. A choice I heartily recommend.

Ronald D. Ciancutti is the purchasing manager for Cleveland Metroparks, a metropolitan park system that encircles Cuyahoga County and includes more than 20,000 acres of natural land, six golf courses, seven nature centers, a variety of special interest facilities and the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo. Ron can be reached at