Words: MASONRY Magazine
Photos: Issac White
Editor’s Note: In this month’s installment of the GEN NXT series we sat down with Masonry Apprentice Issac White. Isaac is currently completing his apprenticeship with Hugh Townsend Masonry in North Carolina. He is also enrolled at Caldwell Community College and Institute where he plans to get his Associate’s Degree in Business. Isaac was also a 2020 Mortar Net Masonry Apprentice Scholarship recipient and is excited to see where his career in the industry will take him. We’d like to thank Isaac for taking the time to talk with us and JagClamp for sponsoring this series.
MASONRY Magazine: Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Isaac White: I’m 18 years old, I was born and raised in Hickory, North Carolina, and went through the Caldwell County School System. From Granite Falls Elementary to Granite Falls Middle School and South Caldwell High School where I graduated in 2020. I’m currently taking classes at CCC&TI (Caldwell Community College and Technical Institute) and am working on an Associates Degree in Business. I’m a country boy, I like fishing, working on my truck, and stuff like that.
M.M.: Are you apprenticing right now?
I.W.: Currently No, because I have completed the apprenticeship hours with Curtis Townsend at Hugh Townsend Masonry. I’m still a laborer for the most part, but I get time on the wall every now and again. Every time there’s an opportunity for me to get on the wall, I’m there.
M.M.: Can you tell us a little bit more about your apprenticeship?
I.W.: I started out working on the new Granite Falls Middle School where I attended as a kid. It’s sort of like I’ve come full circle, my mom started working there when I was a newborn. I always rode the bus there at the end of the day in elementary school and I attended there during my middle school years.
M.M.: You were one of the recipients of Mortar Net Solutions’ Masonry Apprentice Scholarships in 2020. Can you tell us a little bit about how that felt when you found out?
I.W.: I was surprised. I didn’t expect it because I was just going to work to get started with my career and I’m excited. I appreciate being noticed for my work ethic.
M.M.: How did you get into the masonry industry?
I.W. Well, it started with the classes offered at South Caldwell High School in the CTE department. I started out with a seriously broken ankle but the teachers worked with me to do as much as I could until I was all better. So, I took the core class that was offered and worked as hard as I could with a broken leg. I’ve always liked working with my hands, being outside, and stuff like that. I take pride in looking back at the projects that I have been able to work on, and am able to say, “Wow, I did that.” I learned as much as I could and ended up taking the carpentry and masonry classes that were offered.
In the end, I grew to like masonry classes the most. I tried out for the masonry competition team— SkillsUSA, and we had tryouts that required us to build a sample panel like we would see in competition. I started competing in my junior year, and my first competition was at state. I was really nervous and I freaked out. I laid a horrible project. Mr. Settlemyer said that my nerves got the best of me and it was what he expected for the first time competing. He was proud of the effort I put in, even though my project sucked.
Next, we competed at the county level where the prizes were bigger and the bragging rights were close to home. The county competition allows for three hours to build our level two projects. I think I finished in about two hours. My mom planned on getting there to watch me work, and I was finished by the time she got there. I think I placed fourth, so just barely out of the top three.
In my senior year, COVID stopped us from being able to compete like we had planned. We went to Rowan County and competed there, and then we went to the Regional Skills USA competition, and I placed third.
M.M.: So how did you guys prepare for the different competitions? Did you guys just have almost like a workshop-type deal where you would just go in and give a certain amount of time in a random project to build?
I.W: Yep, for regional competitions, there were three possible projects that it could have been. So we went to the shop and we would practice. We would start a timer and give ourselves three hours and we tried to build the projects in that time frame. It was after school. So it was sort of like football practice, amd we’d be done at six or seven in the evening or however long it would take for us to get the projects right. Settlemyer would go through and he would grade them all with the step gauge like they used at competition. So we would be able to physically see what we needed to improve on, what we were pretty good on, and what we really didn’t need to work on. It was just a matter of doing it repeatedly, it made us get faster and made us get better.
One time I had a project that’s supposed to be 47⅝ inches, and it ended up being 48½ inches, it grew at the top. It just mushroomed out, but we were able to see the mistakes we were making, and the next time we came back and did it we could work on specific issues to fix.
My masonry instructor, Scott Settlemyer, and I became really good friends and I asked if he would help me find a job working in the masonry industry. One time he took us on a job site tour at Granite Falls Middle School where he introduced me to Curtis Townsend. From that introduction, arrangements were made for me to work over spring break. Then COVID hit and school shut down on March 13. I called Curtis that weekend and started working for him on March 16, 2020.
M.M.: Can you tell us a little bit about your instructor?
I.W.: I was going through some stuff personally and Mr. Settlemyer could tell that something wasn’t right. Sometimes I was pretty hard to handle, I’m not even gonna lie. It was rough. He took me under his wing and he invested in me. I haven’t really had a whole lot of teachers invest in me nearly as much as he has. He’s really personable with me, and he and I just clicked. So we are really good friends, and I still talk to him a lot. He watches out for me and when has seen me make some questionable decisions, he called my momma to tell her that I was flying down the road and he didn’t want to see me get hurt. I know he cares about my best interest. I really appreciate that, now.
M.M.: It sounds like you both have a really good relationship, which is awesome. He’s a mentor for you.
I.W.: Yeah, I talk to him a lot, he gives me advice and lets me know he cares. He tells me stories about when he was on the crew and when he was young and did stupid stuff too.
M.M.: Do you have any family members in the industry?
I.W.: No, all of my family members are teachers, and my dad works for Corning Inc. So none of them do manual labor.
M.M.: How does everyone in your family feel about you going into the masonry industry?
I.W.: I think at first my mom was kind of scared because she wasn’t sure what effect construction would have on me because I broke my ankle in five places. Yeah, so I think she was concerned about that to start with. But, they’re proud of me, because they see how hard I’m working and they see the drive that I have.
M.M.: Where do you see yourself in five years?
I.W.: Right now I’m looking at buying land and put me a house on it. Because I figure if I’m young and if I pay it off now I then I ain’t got to deal with it when I’m old. Honestly, I see myself still working for Curtis as long as he has work for me. I’m working on an associate’s degree in business so that I can run my own business in like five to ten years. I still have a lot to learn, so I feel like I need to stay with Curtis and have him teach me as much as he can. He teaches me a lot every day like the day he taught me how to drive a manual truck.
Curtis teaches me a lot, shows me different techniques they use on the wall. He calls me Big ‘un because of my size, I’m one the biggest people on most job sites. I think Curtis likes me because I learned the hard way — I lied a lot when I was younger, and it came back and visit me pretty hard. But I’ll tell him the honest truth, whether it’s what he wants to hear or not.
He will ask me just about anything, and I tell him exactly what I think, and it might not be what he wants to hear —but he’s getting my honest opinion. I think he respects that about me. He invests in me just like Settlemyre did. I mean, Curtis took fishing. He called me up and said, “Hey, you want to go crappie fishing tomorrow morning?” I said to him, “Heck yea!” and we crappie fished all day. It was a fun day.
M.M.: What’s gonna keep you interested in the industry?
I.W.: All of the new opportunities I have ahead of me are what will keep me interested. I have lots to learn and experience.
M.M.: What’s your experience been like working with the older guys in the industry?
I.W.: I’ve always gotten along with people that are older than me. One of my really good friends, Gene passed some time in March or April and he was 60 or 70 years old. Another friend of mine, Brian “Brownie” Ramsey who is around 52 or 53 years old will call me up and say, “Hey Big ‘un I need some help,” and I’ll drive over to his house and help him. One day I needed help with my truck because I put oversized tires on and they were rubbing on the inside of the fender well, and I asked Brownie to help me. He told me, yes, and he let me borrow his angle grinder and he helped me cut out the inside of my fender well. We help each other out.
Another friend, Frank Sigman, had a gun safe he needed to move and he texted me and said, “Hey, Big ‘un, I got a gun safe we have to move.” I said ok and asked how big it was, he told me it was big. So, I asked him when he wanted me over there, and we decided after church that Sunday. I went over to his house and helped him move that gun safe. He always gives me vegetables from his garden. So, I left his house with two grocery bags full of vegetables. I had peppers, tomatoes, spicy mustard greens. I mean all sorts of stuff. I just get along with people that are older than me. For the first week, I worked there, I didn’t think any of them knew my name, because the only thing they called me was Big ‘un— because I’m six foot three. They told me they couldn’t remember my name so they called me because Big ‘un. So, now, on a daily basis I’ll walk around if I hear Big ‘un’, I’ll turn around look and it’ll probably be one of those guys. I have my nickname that they gave me the first week I started working and it has stuck.
M.M.: That’s awesome to hear. It seems like everybody pretty much embraces you like you’re one of the guys.
I.W.: I work really, really hard at integrity, and it’s not always easy. I work really to have as much integrity as I can. I work hard to always be above reproach. So that if somebody asks me, “Did you do this?” And I tell them, “No.” They know I didn’t do it. They don’t think I’m lying or anything like that. I mean, my dad told me for years and years and years. It doesn’t matter what you do in front of people, what matters is what you do when nobody’s looking. Because if you’re gonna do right, when nobody’s looking, then you’ll do the same thing when they’re looking.
Like my dad always told me, if you’re good at what you do, you don’t have to tell anybody about it. You let your work speak for itself, because if you’re always doing good work, it’s going to get recognized.
M.M.: What advice would you give to someone your age or younger, looking to get into the industry?
I.W.: You have to have a sense of humor, I mean, there are days that can be horrible out there weather-wise. Some days are cold and wet. Some days are blue-blazin’ hot. No matter the weather when we’re working, you gotta work so you work while you shoot the bull, joke around and pass the time. It just makes the time go quicker.
One of the guys I work with—Jeff, he’s hilarious. Sometimes, there are times we get mad at each other and we just jab at each other just a little bit, but we both know at the end of the day, there are no hard feelings. It makes us closer together and makes us like a family.
M.M.: Have you had any challenges thus far?
I.W.: The holes on the hoist-o-matic scaffolding are little and I’m not. I guess just being how big I am, it makes it hard to fit through the holes.
M.M.: What’s your proudest moment?
I.W.: Honestly, my proudest moment was whenever Curtis told me to get on the wall for the first time. So, I got on the wall and I laid bricks for the rest of that day. Granted it only lasted for a couple of days. But I look forward to being able to get on the wall again. I am glad that I have made the guys all my friends now, even if they don’t want to be by choice. I’m just out there with my friends, it’s a good time. At the end of the day, we can look back and we’d say: “Damn, look at what we’ve done today, we started at 7:30 a.m. and we ended up running a wall all the way up and it is just a 15 – 20 foot long wall but we ended up running it all the way from the ground most of the way to the top today. We always walk away from the job site joking around and say see y’all boys tomorrow. At the end of the day when I get in my truck and drive away I think, I love this!