Honoring Their Legacies — The 2021 Masonry Hall of Fame Interviews Presented By SOLA

Honoring Their Legacies — The 2021 Masonry Hall of Fame Interviews Presented By SOLA

Words and Photos: MASONRY Magazine

During the MCAA’s Midyear meeting MASONRY sat down with this year’s Masonry Hall of Fame inductees being honored: Eugene Johnson, Jim O’Connor, Paul Odom, and Teddy Jenkins. These four men have been influential in the masonry industry, and took time out of their plans during the meetings to reflect on their careers, experience, and just how meaningful this honor is to them. We’d like to thank this year’s Hall of Fame members for sharing their inspiring stories with us. 

Eugene Johnson

MASONRY Magazine: Tell us how you get started in the industry.

Eugene Johnson: In 1967. I was introduced to masonry in high school in my sophomore year. 

M.M.: How did you make your way through the industry to where you are now?

E.J.: I graduated from high school in 1969. I went to Denmark Technical College in Denmark, South Carolina, where I graduated in 1971. In November, I started with a residential housebuilder, I worked for him for about eight months, and it was hard. So I went to commercial work and found out it was a whole different world. I worked ten years in the industry, and in 1980 I started teaching at Holly Hill Robins High School in Holy Hills, South Carolina, and taught 37 years total.

M.M.: So, what are some of the challenges you face during your time in the trade?

E.J.: When I first started, being new, I didn’t know I ran from job to job and met all kinds of different bricklayers. It was a good thing in a way and a challenging thing because one would tell you this and do this, do that, or demand this or that. But when you think about it and do what’s right, it all comes together.

M.M.: What are some of your proudest moments?

E.J.: Some of my proudest moments were in 1992, I had the first female to compete at my school district level and state level. That was a proud moment for me.

M.M.: What’s the one piece of advice you’d give your younger self?

E.J.: Well, if I had to do it all over again, I would say hey, go out, be more serious, more dedicated, and go from there.

M.M.: What’s the biggest challenge you think the industry is facing now?

E.J.: The challenge we have today is we can’t find and train enough masons in the field. We need more young people to get interested in masonry.

M.M.: What is your legacy?

E.J.: As I spoke earlier, that first female I had to work with finished high school and worked twenty years in the masonry field. Until she started having carpal tunnel, it began to bother her, and she had to quit. But that was one proud moment. In 1999, my student won first place for South Carolina to go to the national competition. Those are some proud moments. As well as tonight (the Hall of Fame Induction). 

M.M.: What advice would you give to younger people who are entering the industry today?

E.J.: When you go out, take pride and love what you do. But make sure you take pride in what you do.

M.M.: What does being inducted into the Hall of Fame mean to you?

E.J.: This is something that every bricklayer, I’m sure, would want to accomplish. When I started, I didn’t have any idea that this would be happening now.

Jim O’Connor

MASONRY Magazine: How did you get started in the industry?

Jim O’Connor: My dad worked for a brick company and sold brick, and in the summers he had me come out and work and stack brick that was shipped from Texas. I worked at Beck Brick, stocking and loading brick. When people would buy 200 bricks I would take care of them. So when I was 13-14 years old, I started doing that and by the time I made it to High School, I became a laborer for bricklayers because my dad was selling bricks to their companies. He always knew there were job openings and I labored all four years of high school and four and a half years of college in the summers. 

So I met a lot of mason contractors and I worked for many of them who I knew were doing fairly well, some were Cub fans and some were Bears fans, and when I got out of college, I started with a travel agency. So I contacted them knowing that they might want to travel and I made a commission on the travel and things went well. I took care of a lot of mason contractors who were Cubs fans or Bears fans or wherever they were going. They contacted me because the Mason Contractors Association Executive had passed away and said that I might be a candidate and I interviewed three times at Medinah Country Club and they screwed up and they hired me. So here I am today, 32 plus years later, and have worked for some of the greatest people that I could ever imagine.

M.M.: 33 years is a long time. What are some of the challenges you faced throughout your time in the industry?

J.O.: Trying to find a footing on what you’re supposed to do, because I think originally I was a cruise director. I put on their golf outing, I put on their smoker, I put meetings together, I went to meetings and I took notes. But I saw value in getting a little bit more involved because if a mason contractor spoke up about certain issues that might be sensitive with the union. They could pay a price. Well, what else could I do to make good things happen for my contractors and the bricklayers that are working for them? I saw in meetings, where contractors were apprehensive of saying things that needed to be said because they would be challenged on their jobsites. 

I thought that would be a place for me to step in because I don’t have any men, I don’t have the benefits, we’re not making the profits, but someone needs to say something. So I became a little bit more outspoken. Many would say that Jim O’Connor speaks his mind, although it limits his conversation, and I would have to agree with them. But, I always tried to find a way that I could do more to help grow our industry and grow the association.

M.M.: What are some of your proudest moments?

J.O.: I’m proud to be a part of the MCAA, they represent the mason contractors and I’ve always said they are the Association of, by, and for the contractors. Meaning it was started by contractors and is for contractors. I really believe that’s what the MCAA and our small sector of the MCAA in Chicago does. I would have to say that I lean on the MCAA for all their help, their resources are much larger than ours, and we work together to try to make it better for everyone.

M.M.: What else are you proud of? You have to be proud of the SPEC MIX Bricklayer 500®. 

J.O.: 22 years ago, it started with a megaphone and I think maybe 70 people with me, it was one of the coolest memories I have. It’s grown and grown, and grown until I think two years ago there were 10,500 people there, two jumbotrons, huge growth, announcers — plural, have to hit marks on the floor. It is a production now. I thank SPEC MIX and all of their suppliers and sponsors all the people involved. I find it hard to believe that I have been one of the announcers for 22 years. It has been just phenomenal. 

Every year I wait for them to replace me with somebody, but they’re doing such a great job. Man, it is the single greatest brick promotion every single year the hits are unbelievable, and I’m very proud of that. I’m proud of the relationship that we have with the union. I’m proud of what MCAA has done on the legislative level. There are meetings and things that we’ve been able to accomplish or stop from happening, which is just as important. It’s not always about passing legislation. It’s about stopping legislation that could really hurt us, and to be a part of that, to see everybody come together and go into these meetings with legislators with their folders, their knowledge, and with their competence to talk about the same issues that have been really enlightening. I’m very proud of that and I hope the CMU checkoff passes, it could be the single greatest thing to happen to this industry. We’ve all worked very hard to get it to this level, let’s get it over the goal line.

M.M.: What would you tell young Jim as a piece of advice?

J.O.: You are going to be the luckiest kid in the world to work for some of the greatest guys. Let me give you something I’ll never be able to take back. I lost my father to Alzheimer’s and he was a brick salesman. When he got Alzheimer’s, for some reason my board called me off to a meeting, the four officers and I thought I might be in trouble now and went to sit down with them, and they said, “Hey, we know what you’re going through. But if you ever want to take a day and go play golf with your dad, do it, we know you’ll make it up on a Saturday, or you make it up on a Sunday.” I can never get that time back. I played a ton of golf with my dad, because they gave me that ability, and that alone is the greatest thing that I can ever remember about the mason contractors that I work for. That’s how they all are today, different board, and the same attitude.

M.M.: What’s the biggest challenge our industry is facing now?

J.O.: I always say in our area, we have three enemies. We have non-union contractors, we have competing products, and we have union contractors that don’t play by the rules. Okay, so non-union contractors are exactly who they are. They go out there and do what they do, they’re getting better every year, so they’re a huge challenge. Competing products is a different story, there’s a lot of people telling stories that they cannot match what we do. We need to be able to defend that, and that’s where the CMU checkoff and the money that could come in from there would be super helpful. 

Then there are union contractors that don’t play by the rules. They are the ones that really hurt us because they are wearing our uniform and stabbing us in the back. So my challenge is showing the union that this is happening, and trying to get something done, and getting it to stop. So the good union contract is suffering and we really don’t have a whole lot against nonunion. It is what it is, and it’s across the country, and tons of MCAA members are nonunion. That’s fantastic, but where we are you’re going to sign that contract or live by it or get out.

M.M.: What would you tell younger people entering the industry? I’m sure you’ve talked to some kids going into the industry; what would be your advice to them?

J.O.: I think our biggest failure in reaching out to the young people is not telling them what they can be and showing them the brass ring that they can grab. Because there’s going to be 100 kids that try to get into bricklaying, and they want to own their own company and all that kind of stuff, and maybe five will do it. But they have to know that it’s there because if you don’t tell them that, laying brick for 30 years doesn’t sound all that exciting. I would also say that it’s a great stepping stone, whether you become a bricklayer and stay bricklayer, which is a fantastic trade, and you can get a pension and you can set yourself up for life. 

Or you become a safety engineer, or you become a brick salesman or a block salesman or a mortar salesman. But you have the knowledge because you work on that wall and you understand what it means, you have the respect of other people that are buying it because they most likely did. So I think we’re missing the boat by saying you can lay brick for 30 years. But you can also transition into a safety engineer, a superintendent, and an estimator. So we have to say that this it’s a stepping stone, you can continue along that rail. But you can also do other things and if they don’t know that you’re beating it in them about how hard this job is, people are walking away before they even get in. So I think that’s one of our biggest mistakes is to not let them know that there’s opportunity out there on all sides of sales, everything we just talked about. 

M.M.: What is your legacy?

J.O.: I think together with what the contractors have helped and allowed me to do. We grew this thing like nobody’s business. When I started, we had 32 members, I would say we have 130 now. The way that we have positioned ourselves by getting money through the collective bargaining agreement, and sponsors have put us in a position where we can do things that we have never been able to do. So the legacy would be bringing people together. So when you have amazing contractors on a national level, you get a lot done here, because they don’t all compete against each other. 

But my challenge is getting people to understand, we can accomplish so much more together than apart. So when you come into our board meeting, take off your company’s hat and put our hat on and let’s work together to get more hours because if the pizza is bigger, your slice of that pizza is bigger. That’s on the supplier side and on the contractor side. I’ve been selling that for 30 years and I haven’t had too many arguments.

M.M.: What does it mean to be inducted into the Hall of Fame?

J.O.:  It is absolutely unbelievable. I’ve never guessed in my wildest dream, to be here. I wrote to get Mr. Lauber [Dick Lauber, HOF 2017] in, who I think is one of the finest mason contractors and men that I have ever known. So, he had to be inducted with all the things that he has done, and he did it on his own time. It is a huge honor and I’m almost can’t even take it because the HOF was supposed to be for people that donated their time and did so much for the industry. I got paid all on the way I’ve never missed a paycheck. These guys have taken wonderful care of me and my family so it almost feels undeserving, because it was my job to do what I’ve done, and I’m very proud of it. But what it means to me is a wonderful recognition which I can’t really put into words. When I found out I called my mom who knew what this would mean to my dad and we both actually teared up pretty good. So it is a huge honor, I thank my contractors, I thank the MCAA, and any of you who may have voted for me, I’ll send you a check because it has been amazing.

M.M.: Tell us about your family.

J.O:  My wife Mary Jo certainly deserves half of this, and because as everybody knows it’s in this business. If you have a golf outing, you’re probably getting home at two o’clock in the morning and you have to get yourself to work the next day. We have kids doing a bunch of things and I never had to worry because she always had it covered. She never got on me for coming home late or missing events because she knew where I was and what I was doing. There are some crazy hours we keep, tough schedules but we do it and I certainly have had a lot of fun. But she was so solid that I knew I could do whatever I needed to do and she had my back. My oldest daughter is in China, we miss her Carla. I wish she was here. However, my youngest daughter is going to be here tomorrow night. I was honored that she wanted to come so, Sarah O’Connor, thank you, honey. I’m so proud of you and so happy that you’re here. They both deserve some credit for helping to make it easy for me to make work a priority.

M.M.: Was there anything else you wanted to talk about?

J.O.: Just in case, if my dad, were to pass away, that his name would be on this award forever where it belongs.  My Dad, Jim O’Connor (Sr.)  will forever be in the Masonry Hall of Fame. 43 years at Beck Brick Co. 

Paul Odom 

MASONRY Magazine: How did you get started in the masonry industry?

Paul Odom: When I decided to become a bricklayer I was going to Tarleton State and Susie and I were going to get married. We decided I was going to become a bricklayer, so I packed all my stuff and put it in our vehicle, and drove home to Hamilton, TX. When I got home to my parents’ house, I drove up and my dad happened to be out in the yard. He asked me what I was doing and I told him I quit college and that I was becoming a bricklayer. 

My dad looked at me and told me I had just ruined my life, and I talked to him and said we come from a family of masons and things are a lot different now. I told him I was going to work with Gene Lee, and he told me that I was making a big mistake. So I went to work for Lee Masonry and it was nice to work with great people to work with. It took 20 years for my dad to come up to me put his arms on my back and say, “I made a mistake and you were right.” 

M.M.: How did you make your way through the industry to where you are now?

P.O.: I started as a laborer, and then I became an apprentice. Next, I learned to estimate, then Susie and I started P and S Masonry. I decided to start my own business in the 80s when things were going down and in Texas, it was a lot of hard work. Susie and I talked about it several times and we decided we were to going try and make the business happen. 

It took almost a year before we got our first job, and it was a job at Fort Hood and from then on we had worked at Fort Hood, the military base. We were really lucky we got it because there were a lot of people who didn’t want to work for the military because there were a lot of things you had to do to make it work. P and S Masonry has been successful for 35 years, after that, we joined with Brazos to form Legacy Masonry.

M.M.: What are some of the challenges you faced during your time within the trade?

P.O.: Workforce development and one of the mistakes I made, not learning Spanish and I should have. You should be able to communicate with your employees, so it’s a good idea to learn Spanish while you can. 

M.M.: What are some of your proudest moments?

P.O.: When P and S masonry finally got our first job, and when I see my employees happy. There are so many things we’ve done, it’s hard for me to pick out one piece. The people are really important, and we’ve done a lot of really nice stuff. We’ve been blessed to do really good jobs, one of them was a brick mural at Tarleton State University. The artists took brick and molded them before putting them in the kiln for the mural project. We did a lot of work at Fort Hood and about 60% of our work at that base. We’ve done a lot of work at the University of Texas. 

M.M.: What’s the one piece of advice you would give your younger self?

P.O.:  Work hard, things aren’t always going to be easy, and learn spanish. 

M.M.: What’s the biggest challenge you think the industry is facing now?

P.O.: Workforce and loss of market share. We just don’t have enough people to do the work, and in order to do that we have to get through to the young people and show them, there are opportunities out there for them. 

M.M.: What is your legacy?

P.O.: Our legacy is P and S Masonry, the company we started with, next we would have Legacy Masonry, and Spec Rents. I always think about our employees and making sure that we do right by them and then the good comes back to us. 

M.M.: What advice would you give to younger people entering the industry today?

P.O.: There’s no reason to go to the university, we have a place for you to work, because it’s a very profitable business that works well. But you have to get up and go to work. If you’re planning to go to work, you have to get up in the morning and be there on time. You have to make it happen for your life. Remember you have the opportunity to do that. It can be a very good ride. Work hard, always treat others with respect, and be proud of what you did. In today’s world, it’s hard to find hard workers, but if you work hard it’ll help you as you grow. Work hard to make you can’t depend on waking up and that going to work every day to work will be easy. 

M.M.: What does being inducted into the Masonry Hall of Fame mean to you?

P.O.: It means that I’ve done something right, I know that sounds funny and a lot of people think about it differently. But I must have done something right in order for me to be here today, and I’m very honored to be here.

Teddy Jenkins

MASONRY Magazine: How did you get started within the industry?

Teddy Jenkins: I went to Auburn University on football scholarships, I stayed a couple of years. While I was there, I decided to leave and come to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (UTC). When I was laboring on a job, waiting to get into the university, I saw bricklayers laying bricks. They laid a top-notch job of Flemish bond, and I said I think I want to do this. So I talked to the general contractor that was on the job, and he said, “We’ve got to get you in an apprentice program.” So I got into the apprentice program in 1962 when I got into the apprentice program and carried on from there. 

M.M.: How did you make your way through the industry to where you are now?

T.J.: Hard work, and I joined the bricklayers union in March of 1959. I worked as an apprentice for some local contractors, and I wanted to do some side jobs, so I did a few. As things went along with the side jobs, I decided I wanted to get into contracting. So, I started with small contracting jobs and worked in Chattanooga, and the local masonry association was made up of five or six mason contractors. I was there to help with the various offices in the masonry association. 

As time went on, they decided that they were going to go non-union. I’ll never forget one of the contractors who had said it didn’t make sense to me to work for $15 an hour when they could get $20. They proceeded to go non-union, and we stayed union, and are union to this day. The reason for that is so we can keep wages up and everybody else follows suit behind us. We negotiated our contract with the bricklayers national union every year, and we kept trying to keep the wages up. The non-union companies try to stay right behind us, but we know they’re paying top dollar in Chattanooga. I started from scratch, I’ve never borrowed any money, and I always pay my bills on time. We have just been fortunate.

M.M.: What are some of the challenges you faced during your time within the trade?

T.J.: Keeping quality masons, laborers, and contractors who would pay their bills and keep their money on the money. We’ve been very fortunate and have had very, very few bad debts.

M.M.: What are some of your proudest moments?

T.J.: My wife Marian, we’ve been married 62 years, and I have four kids. Our daughter Karen owns an interior design firm in Atlanta. She designs only for hotels, and her work is well known. My son Jeff is President of Jenkins Masonry; he took over for me. I have another son, Mark, a Physician’s Assistant (PA), who works out in Chattanooga, TN. He got his degree from Bowman Gray. Then we have Michael, who is Vice President and project manager at Jenkins Masonry, and he’s been with me ever since. 

Then I have my grandson Andrew who is a project manager, and Jeff’s son. The one thing about all of this is Jeff went to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (UTC) and graduated as a mechanical engineer. He went to one job interview, he came back and said, I think I will work with you. So I told him, let’s get out there and get a trowel and start learning how to lay bricks. So that’s how he got started, and now Jeff and Michael are running the company.

We’ve done multiple jobs in Chattanooga, TN, top-quality masonry, Baylor School, McCallie School, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, and the Convention and Trade Center downtown Chattanooga. We have numerous jobs around town that are quality masonry jobs that we’re proud of. 

M.M.: What’s the one piece of advice you would give your younger self?

T.J.: Work hard, raise your family in the church. Stay close to your family, children, and grandchildren, and treat all people as you want to be treated yourself. I had one little example like this. After this came out, this guy emailed me and asked if I remembered that we were working at this job in the mud and water. I said I would get some boots, and I got two pairs of boots and brought them back. He asked what the other pair were for. I told him one pair is for me, and the other is for you. I wouldn’t put you in the water if I weren’t going in myself.

M.M.: What’s the biggest challenge that our industry is facing now?

T.J.: Biggest challenges are the workforce, quality people, and keeping the good people on the job.

M.M.: What’s your legacy?

T.J..: Nothing comes easy except hard work to be a success. You have to train the younger people around the bricklayers to take pride in their work. If they don’t take pride in it, they’re not going to amount to anything. You have to have pride in your work, and you have to give back to others to get a blessing from everything you do.

M.M.: What does being inducted into the Masonry Hall of Fame mean to you?

T.J.: At 82 years old, it’s certainly an honor to be inducted into the Masonry Hall of Fame by this great organization. What else can I say, except thanks to you and the great members who do all the hard work?

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