My Masonry Life Story
The Take and Give of the Trade
“Mentoring is a brain to pick, an ear to listen, and a push in the right direction,” says American politician John C. Crosby. But a mason who mentors will want to bring tools along.
Gene Swafford has owned GSM Masonry for nine years. Mentoring was a big part of his beginning and is still part of his current trade.
Swafford got into masonry after high school, having worked a few months for Daniel Construction Co., a local firm constructing the nearby Michelin plant, which ended with the completion of the factory. When Swafford later returned to a job at a South Carolina cotton mill, a friend mentioned he did outside work for bricklayers, and they needed another laborer.
Swafford always liked working outdoors, so he left the inside work at the mill to begin a career in masonry. “At that time, the wages were $3 or $4 an hour — probably 40 cents more than I was making inside the textile mill,” says Swafford. “After trying it, I’ve been doing masonry ever since. My first experiences in this area were with Triangle Construction, where I learned all the laboring skills I could need. About a year later, I started driving various pieces of equipment, such as forklifts. During the next five years, I worked at building various types of scaffolding and becoming, basically, the head laborer on jobs that were mostly residential home-building projects.”
Swafford worked with Triangle for nearly four years, taking advantage of a local housing boom. Triangle builds a lot of commercial buildings, shopping centers and schools, so he worked on eight-story Greenville Memorial Hospital, where he had his first experience with swinging scaffolds.
Swafford learned much of what he knows and does through on-the-job training. Though he’d been placed in masonry classes at the local vocational school in high school, at that time he wanted to work on cars. Over the years, Swafford has tried to learn from his coworkers. “I took [my coworkers’] best qualities and incorporated them into what I was doing,” he says.
While working for Triangle Construction, Swafford had his own mentor in Jerry Alterman, superintendent of the company’s masonry division. “Jerry was a straight-shooter,” Swafford says. “When you were doing something wrong, he didn’t hesitate; he wanted you to get your work as close to perfection as it could be. His policy and motto was ‘You get paid once to do it right; if you do it wrong, you’re doing it on your time.’ That really stuck with me. He knew every phase of the masonry business. He was, at times, testing me, putting me on little projects just to see how far I’d come with something.”
Though Swafford doesn’t believe anyone in his family will continue the tradition of masonry, he is glad he’s had the chance to work in a trade that’s been so good to him throughout the years.
“It’s satisfying to know you can do something like this that will last through the weather and may even be there 100 years later,” Swafford says. “Every project has my ‘name’ on it. It’s something akin to being an artist. It’s hard work, but something to be truly proud of, too.”
Recently, Swafford received a call from a local youth who is interested in being mentored by Swafford. He’s worked with several individuals as a mentor, and several have gone on to become masons.
“It generally takes four to five years to be a top mason,” says Swafford. “I’m happy to have mentored others who are now finding success in masonry as well.”