That photo looks a little like me, but that is my grandfather, who passed away 59 years ago today. I can picture that framed image as it was in the wood paneled basement of the house I grew up in Baltimore. It sat in a space on a wall of bookshelves, sitting above the old tube powered record player. It was apparently what then would have been an avatar photo, his company photo as Vice President of Baltimore Contractors, the title I can see engraved on a small gold colored plate.
My calendar reminded me of today marking his passing, and find myself a bit lost on information as he died 7 years before I was born. I know some bits of family names. I know he, like his father, and my father, were in the construction business in New Jersey and Baltimore. I’m pretty sure Abraham never went to college, and worked his way up to his level starting likely as a brick layer.
Here is a detail of a photo of him and my grandmother at the 1952 Baltimore Contractors annual Christmas Banquet, held at the Belvedere hotel. You can tell it was one of those black tie / evening gown affairs, lots of cocktails clanking, and I bet a big band playing classy music in the corner. I know this from the brochure of photos in my hand, and there they are looking serious and were seated at the head table.
But I did find in my boxes of memory stuff a stack of letters people sent, here a personal letter from Curley Byrd who was president of University of Maryland from 1936 to 1954. Baltimore Contractors built the U of M Math building, Cole Field House, and Byrd Stadium (still there as “Capitol One Field at Byrd Stadium”). I’m pretty sure my grandfather was in the middle of those projects.
I did find out in the work business, my grandfather was called “Mike”, perhaps “Abraham” sounded a bit too biblical or Jewish for that era. In that letter:
You, perhaps, know that Mike and I thought a good deal of each other. He was one of the finest characters I’ve ever known, and I couldn’t see him go without a feeling that I had a real friend who was an inspiration…
All of us who knew Mike are better because of our association with him, and all of us will carry on through life some of the good he has left to us.
Now maybe that’s just the kind of nice phrasing to (hand) write to a widow, but I prefer to interpret it as genuine. Because I can.
There is another letter from Baltimore Contractors owner Victor Frenkil (not that Frankl)
Losing Mike was a great blow to all of us. He was esteemed and respected in the construction industry for his ability and perseverance tot he principles he held dear.
Frenkil was definitely a big deal in the construction of Baltimore. He started his company in 1935 and Baltimore Contractors build among other landmarks the “Baltimore Civic Arena; Garmatz Federal Office Building; Benton Municipal Building; eastern piers of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge; Golden Sands Condominium; Bancroft Hall at U.S. Naval Academy; and numerous buildings at the University of Maryland College Park, including Byrd Stadium and Cole Field House” (from Baltimore Contractors history).
Also, from a bit of Wikipedia on Baltimore History Timeline, a mention of Frenkil- there is a good reason that the holiday party was held at the Belvedere (for trivia’s sake that was where my junior prom was held, that evening is eminently forgettable):
1903 – City’s largest and most luxurious hostelry Hotel Belvedere opens, facing West Chase Street at North Charles Street in the Mount Vernon-Belvedere neighborhood, north of downtown. Named after colonial and Federal-era estate of “Belvidere” (site two blocks east at North Calvert Street in “Howard’s Woods” of Col. John Eager Howard (1752?1827), Revolutionary War commander of “Maryland Line” regiment in the Continental Army. Overnight home for visiting American Presidents, Hollywood stars and anybody really important. One of the most grandest, most luxurious establishments ever built in the city, known for its “John Eager Howard Room” with decorated murals for exquisite dining, “The Owl Bar”, with its hand-carved owls atop a mahogany-carved bar, and later in the 1970s, a modernistic “13th Floor” roof-top night club with views of the Washington Monument and downtown to the south. Later renovated and restored in the early 1980s by philanthropist businessman Victor Frenkil as apartments/condos with a restoration of the public spaces/marble lobby/grand ballroom/restaurants/nightclubs.
And the letters about my grandfather go on and on…
There is also a three page typewritten speech titled “Speech to be delivered at the Banquet of the Joint Conference Board, June 14, 1956” — there is no name on it for the person who read the speech but it seems to be a group of leaders in the Baltimore construction industry who focused on labor issues.
In the words of this speech I learn a bit more about this man I never knew:
I wish to pay special tribute, however, to a man who was equally respected and revered by labor and management. He truly symbolized the spirit of sincerity and patient good-will in all his dealings with all members of our industry — union representatives, subcontractors, general contractors, architects, engineers, and all others. He would have been a logical spokesman for this occasion. But his work among us is finished and in keeping with the eternal pattern, others must assume it and speak for him. I hope I can substantially expound the labor philosophy of the later A. H. Levine. But if I fail in some particulars, I trust you will be as indulgent with me as he has always had been.
Mike Levine, as you all know him, got his start in construction as a bricklayer. As he progressed through various echelons of management he began to dream some day of seeing a well established collective bargaining and negotiating procedure under which construction workers and their employers could work out their mutual problems not only when new contracts are being negotiated, but day by day in open forum whenever a particular problem arose.
Be he didn’t let his idealism run unrestrained only to dissipate itself under the stress of the countless frustrations he was to encounter.
He realized that there were, and that there will always be, certain divisions within the ranks of both labor and management. He became involved in jurisdictional disputes between construction trade unions. Through no choice of his own, he became involved in situations where a clear line of demarcation between the work of two or more subcontractors was not defined either by contract or trade custom. He even had to cope with competing interests among general contractors.
He was also constantly exposed to the problems involved in the evolution of an enlightened formula for labor-management relations. He started his career at a critical period of our labor industry, just as we were making our first experiments in labor legislation. He recalled the days of the N.R.A. [National Regulatory Authority??], the anguish and violence of the sit down strikes, and the problems under the Wagner Act and the present Taft-Hartley Act. He saw Government attempt to legislate a mode of conduct for labor and management throughout our whole economy. He saw attempts at labor legislation affecting only particular segments of our economy. He even noted attempts at legislating into conformity seemingly antagonistic elements within a particular industry.
Through several years of close cooperation with him in the field of labor relations, I realize that he frequently foresaw many problems inherent in a particular law or in a particular negotiated settlement. He must have, throughout his career frequently encountered situations which he realized wer fraught with serious problems. He might have cynically remained aloof. Instead, with a full realization that some of the measures he fought for would of their very nature have to be temporary, he nevertheless exerted a sincere effort to put them in effect in the belief that they were necessary rungs in the ladder towards the goal for which he fought.
We are this evening not so much celebrating a completely successful experiment as we are reaffirming our faith in our ability to collectively attain through this medium the goal we all seek. We have had, and will continue to have, problems involving working conditions, jurisdictional problems, problems arising from sub-contractors themselves as well as between sub-contractors and general contractors, secondary boycott problems, and many other serious problems. But when one compares the degree of solidarity we now enjoy with conditions in the industry locally and throughout the country only several years ago, it would be difficult to deny that considerable progress has been made. It would be breaking faith with men like Mike Levine and many others like him, who fortunately are still in this movement, not to continue to exert our every effort to make this experiment a success and a model for labor-management relations in the industry. Mike Levine realistically accepted conflicts and antagonisms as in the nature of things, especially in as complex industry as ours. In the final analysis he asked only sincerity and good well of the parties involved. Yet he could not have asked for more, and if we are imbued with these attributes, we cannot help but succeed, to our mutual benefit and to the benefit of our whole economy.
Yikes, I had no intent of typing out that whole letter but I could not stop .Near as I can find this was the Join Conference Board for Associated Construction Employers of Maryland (a few google book references).
I had no idea at all that my grandfather was involved in labor issues, and I am gazing perhaps at some interesting history in how the construction business grew on the heels of the Great Depression, led by these people who had a history in the physical labor side of the business. I must have typed the word “problem” 20 times in that passage.
It makes me wonder too at how much history is not known. I cannot find any things online about my grandfather, most of the ancestry stuff are other people with the same name. I’ve not been exhaustive, and there likely is more material on this era of construction industry pre- and post war era that my grandfather worked in.
But I do have some oral history- I have about an hour of conversation I recorded with my grandmother from 1994, where she filled in a bit more on how she and Abraham met (at a school dance, she was 14). His favorite song was Irving Berlin’s Always. They were married at 17… an then she reveals some more details about her husband:
She said that when they met, Abraham’s father (I believe his name was Isaac, and the later family referred to him as “The Old Man”) made my grandfather quit school to be apprenticed with Isaac as a bricklayer. My grandmother says she “made him go to school” and that he studied engineering at the International Correspondence Schools—
Woah stop. I already was impressed that my dad got his degree via a correspondence school but here I learn that my grandfather too was a distance learner? She says it was this education in engineering that enabled him to move up into management.
But check out this history of ICS
ICS Learn was originally founded in 1890 in Scranton, Pennsylvania by journalist and editor of the Mining Herald*, Thomas J. Foster. Alarmed “by the frequent mine accidents causing serious injury or death to his neighbours,” (Kennan, 1940) Foster played an instrumental part in setting up statutes to safeguard the welfare of miners. The new requirement for miners to be certified led to a new Question and Answer column in the Mining Herald, which educated his readers on the certification test they had to pass in order to qualify as mining workers. Due to popular demand Foster eventually opened an education institute offering one course: Mine Safety Engineering.
This correspondence school, which still exists, where my grandfather ?? got a degree or at least studied engineering, started as an effort, through a newspaper, to educate miners in workplace safety? Even more history from the University of Scranton:
ICS also offered its students a chance to enroll for courses on the installment plan, a marketing innovation begun by Singer to sell sewing machines in the 1850s.10 Courses could be paid for in advance or on a “sixty-days-same-as-cash” basis. Most students, however, opted for paying in three-, five-, or ten-dollar monthly installments. The installment plan was extremely important to most students, because some of the ICS courses were expensive. For example, in 1906, the “Complete Architecture” course cost $110 if paid in advance. The price rose to $122 on the ten-dollar plan, $130 on the five-dollar plan, and $135 on the three-dollar plan.11 These payment plans allowed people who did not earn much to take advantage of an incredible educational opportunity on a budget.
ICS stressed promotion and upward economic mobility, not the moral uplift favored by the majority of the nineteenth-century education reformers. ICS’s success proved that working men and women were thinking along the same lines.
To achieve its goal, ICS did not instruct its students by standard textbooks, which it believed often contained extraneous amounts of material and “demand[ed] too great a knowledge of mathematics and other subjects.” Instead, ICS created its own specially prepared, leather-bound “Instruction and Question Papers,” which provided exactly the information the student needed and questioned him only on that material.
Okay, I am deeper and deeper in an unexpected tangential rabbit hole. As it happens.
Also from my grandmother’s sing song voice I learned they moved to Baltimore in 1941 because the [un-named] company her husband worked for sent him there to help build the Fort Howard Veteran’s Hospital
This whole divergent exploration, triggered by a calendar reminder, fills in some information on this man I never got to know. It’s important for me, as I am named after him– fortuntately my Mom felt “Abraham” was a bit too old fashioned and made it “Alan”, but I share his middle name to (that’s “Herman” which was something I was less enamored with in elementary school when the teachers read out our full names).
From what I recall Abraham had very high expectations for his son, my Dad, and sounds like he could have been a tough father figure. I do not have much at all on what he was like as a man. That photo above is from 1955 and so was maybe a year before Abe or Abraham or Mike died. His wife, my grandmother, who I adored lived another 47 years beyond her husband… that’s astounding.
But in digging through this stuff, that face that stared at me from the photo in the basement- that was quite a man. I wish I knew him. I wonder what his voice sounded like. I wonder if he would have taken me driving in his car to go fishing…
And reading those letters, it kind of rings home both that we know people after they are gone from what others say about them. And that we really fade away when people stop telling our stories.
I am not stopping telling these stories.
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The post "My Grandfather Was Kind of a Big Deal in the Construction Business" was originally cracked open and scrambled from a rotten egg at CogDogBlog (https://cogdogblog.com/2015/05/my-grandfather-was-kind-of-a-big-deal/) on May 26, 2015.