The Value of Mentorship

 · 
March 18, 2022
 · 
4 min read
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In 1984 I started working with my brother-in-law and his brothers framing houses. This was before the days of air gun nailers and petty bone lifts, so there was a lot of carrying wood and swinging a hammer. I learned that I had better be tough or I would get run off the crew, so hot, cold, rain, or snow, it didn't matter… we worked and worked hard. My brother-in-law Dave Keehn and his oldest brother Brian taught me the value of a hard day's work and to never give up, like ever. If you smashed your finger with a hammer, you better not show that it hurt and quickly wrap it in black electrical tape when no one was looking and get back to work.

I worked with them for four years, and when I was 18 I met the job superintendent who told me he was a civil engineer. AHA I thought, now this is what I want to do. I want to stay in construction, but I would like to stay clean, not carry wood, lay down my hammer and get to tell my old co-workers what to do! So, after a short attempt to flirt with one of the painters (female) on the job (that was unsuccessful, by the way), I learned that Drexel University was a great place to learn civil engineering. Off I went, determined to graduate and come back and start barking orders. Little did I know… that was not engineering! Drexel was tough, very tough, but I kept my head down and refused to give up, even after getting a few single-digit grades on exams.

After my freshman year, I went through the Yellow Pages (no internet then!) and started calling civil engineering firms asking and pleading for a job. Where did I land? Edward B. Walsh and Associates, Inc in Exton, PA. There I met the man that set everything in motion for me, and at the time, I had no idea how much of an influence he would have. Theodore "Ted" Gacomis, PE, was who I worked with for all 3 of my Drexel Co-ops and then full time after I graduated. Ted had a saying pinned to his bulletin board: "Tell me I forget, Show me and I remember, Involve me and I understand." Well, he involved me in everything.

Yeah, I made my share of blueprints. I had to as that was the "carrying wood" part of civil engineering. But I was eager to learn, and Ted was eager to teach. Every day was a new lesson in grading, stormwater, erosion control, etc. He tirelessly, and I do mean tirelessly, spent time teaching me, critiquing my work and helping me grow as an engineer. I would be in Ted's office asking questions every hour of every day for years. I knew he was busy and often hesitated even going to ask him a question, but he was always open for a lesson. He would be at his drafting table, I would knock and he would say, "what is it now, junior" and then he'd take off his glasses and say "come in, let's see what you've got," and we would be off into an engineering lesson.

I had no idea at the time, but Ted had me on the fast track, under his wing so to speak. We can never see what is right in front of us it seems, and at the time, I had no idea how lucky I was. Ted was my boss and he answered my questions… big deal, right? Wrong… HUGE DEAL… for if it were not for Ted, I would not be sitting here writing my newsletter for DL HOWELL, a company I could have only started and built with the knowledge and work ethic he gave me. And even more remarkable… Ted made work a fun place. He was a huge practical joker and loved to play pranks. So, in between his engineering lessons, he was playing jokes and laughing and, unbeknownst to me, teaching me how to work and have fun doing it. If you can go to work, do a good job and have fun, you have won, plain and simple. No one can beat you. I loved going to work, what I did, and the people I worked with. It was that way then and is that way now.

Ted passed away last July, and I have spent the last several months reflecting on our days working together, playing jokes (most of which I shouldn't put into print), and all that he taught me. Ted was not just an incredible engineer, but a great friend and mentor, and he is missed. A few of us have started to assemble a Scholarship in Ted's name to make sure all he gave to us and our profession is not forgotten and to hopefully inspire others to INVOLVE so that many can UNDERSTAND.

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