“Hello this is Sue, I hate to bother you on the weekend so I’ll get right to the point. Leif is on leave for a while. Do you think you could supervise the remodeling project at the Sylvan Way Library?” A wave of anxiety washes over me. Despite my qualifications, do I want this headache? “Yes, I can manage the project.” I hear myself say. “Great! I’ll see you in the morning and we’ll talk about the details. First thing tomorrow, I will introduce your new role to the team.”
The team – my mind flashes to an onsite inspection many years ago when a contractor whistled at me from the top of a ladder, “Yur the purtiest little architect I’ve ever seen.” He stopped whistling when I told him the veneer skins on thirty recently installed doors were rotary cut not plain sliced as called for in the specification.
I also replay the countless times my non-handy husband Gary has come along to the lumberyard merely to provide muscle and the guy at the counter looks past me to him, “what can I do for you today sir?” Unfazed I rattle off my list while Gary wanders over to the popcorn cart, “Six eight foot 2 x 4 studs, a bundle of 12” stakes, four bags of Quikrete and these lag bolts. I’ll go out to the yard and pick the lumber myself to avoid garbage like the last time.”
Although I was a quiet child, happier playing alone with my dolls than venturing out into the world, I come from a deep well of independent women. Mother never let gender specific labels deter her. I can still see her running back and forth across the front lawn behind a power mower while the neighbor ladies peek at her through tilted Venetian blinds. My mother’s mother grew up in mining camps where she learned self-reliance. When her husband was called back to Montana one summer to help his family with ranching duties, Grandma preached at the church he served in a small Illinois town. Members of the congregation were overheard saying, “The lady is a better preacher than the man.” My grandmother’s mother, born in Maine and raised on the Montana prairie, worked as a post-mistress to support her nine children when her blacksmith husband died.
Back to the problem at hand, how did I get myself into this mess? A few weeks after accepting a half time volunteer coordinator job at the nine-branch rural library district in our county, co-workers began talking about an upcoming remodel of the library service center. After thirty frustrating years in commercial interior design I was ready to try a new career, but sitting there at my desk in the middle of the chaotic office I wondered if it would be more painful to watch the project unfold or offer my help. I chose the latter. Eighteen months later the first phase of a three-phase project is nearly finished with a fast approaching project completion date only two months away.
I spend the remainder of the day doing what I always do in a daunting situation, over-prepare. Beginning with an assessment of the unpalatable issues dished onto my plate and then moving on to creating a plan for Monday, my biggest concern is supervising an all male team consisting of two in-house facilities staff members, Terry and Rory, augmented by a variety of casual laborers and sub-contractors. They spend more time standing around talking than they devote to getting the job done.
Monday morning came early following a restless night of adding items to the list. I walk into the conference room prepared and confident on the outside – Jello on the inside. Sue gives the guys some background and then introduces me. They all know my other hats, volunteer coordinator and designer, but they don’t know me. Deciding to jump right in, “My extensive hands-on construction experience doesn’t mean I have all the answers. If I tell you to do something one way and you have a better idea, let me know. I don’t want to waste anyone’s time. I also expect high quality work so we can take pride in the finished product. We will meet every morning to go over a list for the day.”
I hand out my list, assign tasks, answer questions, then everyone goes to work. Much to my surprise, we all survive the first day. I spend the evening making a new list of projects for Tuesday because the team has already blasted through the first one.
Tuesday morning when I pull up to the curb behind the heating contractor’s truck, I notice a ladder leaning against the building. Until this moment, I never considered the fact that my new role would require going up on the roof. “No time like the present,” my mother would say. While the women in Technical Services peek through the blinds, I reach down and pull the back of my skirt between my legs, carefully climb, up the ladder, step warily off onto the slope of the roof, find the contractor in the mechanical room, then retrace my route back to solid ground, all without killing or exposing myself. Terry and Rory meet me at the bottom of the ladder and I can see my stock just went up on the market of male opinion.
Over the next week I discover the guys aren’t slackers at all. They wanted to work; no one gave them anything to do. Day after day they gobble up lists of tasks like candy and beg for more. They call me boss and get a kick out of observing reactions when they point and say, “Don’t look at us, she’s in charge.”
Two months pass, the project is almost complete. One day, Terry and Rory ask me to come with them to see the finishing touches in a new conference room. As we walk into the room, Rory apologizes because the white board is mounted off center due to the heater location, “We know it isn’t up to your standards, but we did our best.” Touched and grateful I say, “It’s perfect.”