1976 / 1985
Two weeks later was my first day onsite in Bismarck having come ahead of the family before September, hopefully with the house sold. There was a crew onsite and some footings had been poured. Steve Cox and Wally were at the site before noon with various items pertinent to getting me acquainted and the carpenter foreman, Jerry Priddy acquainted me with what he thought were problems that should be addressed.. Carlson’s crews would do all the excavation, miscellaneous concrete work, carpentry,. Plumbing, cleanup and support work needed to keep the subs working. Concrete flat work, masonry, electrical, structural steel erection, roofing and sheet metal and painting labor would be sub contracted on an hourly basis.
There was a section of foundation wall poured that afternoon and I able to see the current crew at work. The soil under the entire building was expansive shale which would, if allowed to get wet below the footing , physically lift the building structure. To preclude saturation of the bearing soil from rain or melting snow the foundation walls were poured into a trench excavated with a special back hoe bucket made especially for this job, with only the top 16” formed to provide a smooth, level foundation for the masonry work above. The most outstanding thing about the day was that after the concrete pour the crew found little to nothing to do until quitting time.
Evenings initially were spent locating a rentable house then a call back to Rochester and just getting familiar with Bismarck. Carlson Homes was developing South Bismarck and a few miscellaneous lots around town with a separate development in Dickinson where the company originated. The most outstanding thing, to my mind, was the absence of trees. There were trees in the older parts of town and along the river but in the newer areas, nothing but brown prairie.Mandanwas the poor relative on the other side of the river and the butt of all manner of put downs most laid at the feet of General Custer who, upon leaving for the Bighorn, gave orders that nothing was to be changed pending his return---and it hasn’t.
Back at the school site the first thing was to dispense with nothings that wasted time. First was an under standing with Jerry Priddy, who I found to be extremely well organized lacking only the self confidence to proceed beyond a question mark. Once reassured with a yes or no he did things orderly, efficiently always producing the highest quality work. He was to become a very dependable right hand.
A great deal of time was being wasted dismantling forms and removing rebar cages to clean the trench bottom of clods and debris inadvertently knocked into the trench in the normal course of the work. This waste was eliminated by simply over excavating the trench six inches and encasing any foreign matter in the additional concrete. Then with a concrete mix that was workable and poured before noon we were able to start stripping forms after lunch ultimately pouring concrete twice a day on alternate days. The first day that I announced that we would pour again in the afternoon there were several that thought I had lost my mind. But little, by little, I was able to move everybody to a time conscious mentality and the daily progress was visible to everyone.
Work had begun on the girl’s dormitory foundations, on the north side of the learning center, with a goal of having the three wings of this section enclosed for inside winter work. As things became more organized I could see no reason why the identical boys wings on the south side could not also be enclosed before winter and I made sure that the masonry and roofing subs were advised far enough in advance to plan their manpower needs and more of the local became convinced that I had something missing.
This attitude came to include the Architect whose manpower levels had to be increased. The boys dormitory wings were an opposite hand of the girls which posed no problems but when I told him we would go to the gymnasium, music and swimming pool complex foundations and walls through the winter so as to be ready for structural steel in the spring more were added to the list. This meant that I had to have drawings for Fargo Foundry to begin fabricating the iron and there was a lot of it.
But there were also personal items to take care of. The house in Rochester had sold and Frances arranged to get it closed before she left in addition to scheduling pick up of the furniture along with a scheduled delivery date to the Bismarck house. She was in Bismarck at the house waiting for the movers truck when I received a call advising that the furniture had been delayed and nothing but ambiguity relative to when delivery could be expected.
I suggested, in a tone of voice firm enough to send Jerry Priddy running from the office, that I would expect to find reservations or the entire family at the local Holiday Inn for the entire time the furniture was delayed. Before setting the phone aside I confirmed that the Holiday Inn billing would be directly to the movers. Then I got in touch with Frances who found everything at the motel ready and waiting by the time she arrived. This would our home for nearly a month. We would learn from the delivering driver that the furniture had been in a storage facility for the entire time.
Whatever, life as a family in Bismarck was, it began in the Holiday Inn from whence the young ones went to school and arrange their after hours activity. My vehicle had arrived and been delivered to Carlson soFranceshad the car and was not confined to the motel. It was different, to say the least and everybody was happy when we finally got to our own space. Happier but not warmer, as the wind went through the rented house almost unobstructed in a winter that served up many days of below normal temperatures. The only plus in all this was that we did not have to pay the heat bill. During this period I received a call from Milt Willman who explained he was bidding some work in Bismarckand wanted me to deliver the bid. What provoked this irritating presumption I will never know but the answer was a prompt negative, but I told him that Frances might do it for him. He worked things out with her, but was not in the running when the bids were opened.
At the school we geared up for winter in a big way. To provide temporary heat in the enclosed sections of the building and in the masonry enclosure we rented four oil drill rig heaters. Three were rated at one million BTUs per hour and the fourth at ½ million BTUs per hour. All of them used propane gas , but in liquid form from the bottom of the tank. In the deepest cold of the winter each of the large units would use a 1000 gallon tank of propane every three days or an average of 1000 gallons per day for the three large plus the consumption of the half sized unit. Two of the large units were connected directly to the heat system ductwork in the boys and girls dormitory wings and remained in one location all winter. With a minus 20 degree reading outside these units maintained a +70 degree inside temperature at the far end of each of the three wings of the two dormitories allowing steel stud and sheetrock work to continue through the winter.
This Project had the formal name of the Dakota Adventist Academy (DAA) a venture of the North andSouth Dakota Conferences of theSeventhDayAdventistChurchand I came to find these people unique in their laid back attitude of life. Daily expecting the return of Christ and the kingdom of eternity they just never became excited of disturbed by current human events locally , nationally or worldwide. This building would replace theSheyenneRiverAcademyand its aging facilities in Harvey ND. Originally intended to be built on a site near the Menoken Grove Interstate exit east of Bismarck it was, for reasons never learned by the writer, moved to the 2500 acre East River Road site shortly before actual construction began. Aside from the school building site the balance of the site was devoted to the grazing of a herd of very high grade of angus cattle which was a primary source of income for these people who were professed and practicing vegetarians. My reporting was to Wally Carlson directly and as the tempo of the project built up our relationship became almost one of two people of one mind particularly as regarded the quality of the work and my position rapidly became, understood, but unspoken, the final word on the design and construction scheduling, and the acceptability quality of the work rapidly leading to a project wide understanding that unacceptable work would be removed immediately, without discussion or appeal.
My contact with the Adventist community was primarily through Ed Sheresky. The Church Director of Development. He enjoyed the confidence of the church at large and our association was on a daily basis with the common understanding that authority least exercised was authority most respected.
Carlson office to site coordination was in the person of Steve Cox who had been hired from the Twin City Construction organization of Fargo when Carlson started the just completed Mandan Villa Nursing Home. Steve was always in a hurry to get things done that he had let go till the last minute and never understood that drawings not having the designer’s final approval did not belong at the site. Contact with Adrian Simon was less frequent and by phone save for infrequent visits to the site with Wally. Only one with failing sight could not see that the Carlson/ Simon vs. the Carlson/Cox personal relationship was entirely different.
Adrianwas aMinnesotanative raised in Blooming Prairie attending technical school in Minneapolis and being hired by Carlson when the office was in the basement of Carlson’s home inDickinsonND. It was a call to his home town that resulted in the call from John, also a Blooming Prairie boy that ultimately brought us to Bismarck. Adrian was easy going , with an accomplished sense of humor seemingly with only one ongoing syndrome that being Mrs. Carlson and her frequent suggestions which had apparently been ongoing since the earliest days with Carlson.
While the winter of 1976-77 was bitterly cold in Bismarck, there had been almost no rain the previous year and very little snow. The dormitories to the north and south, the Gymnasium, music and swimming complex to the east was well under way with the foundations complete and the masonry walls underway within heated temporary enclosures We ready to begin the heart of the school, the learning center that was three levels that fit between the work already in place.
Giving the Architect his lead time excavation was started along the west face between the dormitory structures. All of this work was one level in the ground. And it was initially feared that difficulties might be encountered with frost which proved unfounded as the dry soil had less than two feet of frost. Easily penetrated by the back hoe used.. All of the exterior walls of this lower level had been designed as reinforced concrete by the architect . They would have to be built by Carlson’s crew which had no expertise in this type of work and after reviewing my thoughts with Wally and Ed Sheresky I submitted a change to reinforced, grouted concrete block for the architects approval using 12” bond beam block with 5/8” rebar vertically and horizontally and grout pumped full of eight bag per cubic yard sand and cement grout.
In addition to allowing the on hand masonry crew to build the walls it eliminated the need for over excavating the perimeter to provide work space outside the wall line, as all of the block could be laid from the inside. The necessary concrete footing work followed the excavation as closely as possible so as to preclude damage from expansion of the shale material. By Spring masonry was being placed on the lower level footings and structural steel was being erected for the gym complex roof. It was obvious that the masonry crews would need to be expanded dramatically as soon as the heating season was behind us and it was soon apparent that this additionally needed manpower was not available locally. Nor were they to be found anywhere inNorth Dakota. By the time this crew was brought up to the needed level we had bricklayers from as far away as New York City and all were made to understand what was expected in the way of quality.
Spring was welcome everywhere. Joe would go on to Minot state and Frank to the University of Wyoming, Kevin was at Bismarck High School and Toni met up with that Falk kid. Frances was a volunteer at a local nursing home and brother Jim was in Bismarck having been with Lunn Construction for several years before we arrived. He traveled back to Lake Euniceweekly to check on Mother and Dad who were here year round in their own house since 1973. Dad had suffered two heart attacks and mother had Parkinson’s disease and had become a hypochondriac.
Thus following their 50th wedding anniversary celebration we moved them to Bismarck and the Lake Eunice home was rented. We had moved to a house that could be heated and their house was just across the street whereFrancesinherited the burden of checking on them each day. We had already caught the auction bug and as we left one Sunday Kevin told us to look for a camera. We bought a box of camera equipment and the course of Kevin‘s life was fixed.
But in March if one looked down on the construction site anticipating that this would be an operating school in September there would be to most observers would turn away feeling that this was nothing more than someone’s mad dream. Almost around the entire perimeter there was stockpiles of steel, masonry and roofing material, but far enough away to allow a working alley next to the building itself where human groups each with their own specialized equipment were transferring the stockpiles to an area of building component. There was no written schedule or overall integrating plan or picture for this activity, save but in my mind. Each of these groups relied on my direction and rationalization that what they were about was complimentary to all the other groups and would ultimately result in the building structure that everyone understood was the goal.
But this was only the needed activity to produce the main building and it was beginning to be accepted that if it was to ever to be functional the utilities common to all communities would have to be added. A water supply and system that would produce a constant supply at an acceptable operating pressure. To accomplish this four 10,000 gallon fiberglass water tanks had to be buried in the top of the butte across the swale to the east of the building along with fill piping and the return distribution pipe to the building.
A wastewater treatment system that could be approved by the ND regulatory authority and a lagoon for the discharge of the treated effluent. The building architect provided the design for the building enclosure and I designed the system and specified the equipment to be used. Small as it was it was the first plant in ND to have a flow equalization tank which took the peaks and valleys out of the treatment stream. Along with this was a lift station to bring the faculty housing waste to the plant.
For faculty housing the Carlson housing division built a neighborhood of eight three bedroom houses and finally a shop building that would provide manual training courses and two income producing industries. An asphalt road system was laid out with concrete curbs to connect the site in a coherent unit. Finally there was an engine generator added which required an installation access opening be maintained until delivery an then immediately closed.
All this was added to the frenetic activity ongoing at the main building site. Intruding upon all this was “good ideas” such as one believer that had “discovered” a method of hydrogen gas from water and was convincing enough to delay ordering the fuel oil boilers for two weeks. Then son Frank, who was doing my office work came in with a small weed between his fingers asking if I knew what he had. Plants of any kind without identifying fruit or some other help are weeds to me. He explained that what he had was marijuana and what he considered a very high grade. From where? There was a 12’ diameter planter built as part of the building structure and filled with black dirt before the building was closed in. Some enterprising user had planted this indoor garden with enough plants to provide smokes for a whole community . There was nothing to do but get in touch with the Burleigh county sheriff who sent two deputies out to harvest the entire crop watched by a group of the crew leaning on the temporary handrail around the planter. I thought the whole episode a rather humorous interlude.
To paint a word picture of the activities ongoing for this project eight months from beginning and five months prior to anticipated occupancy is beyond the ability of the author Indeed the scope of all that was critical to success could not have been captured on a single time lapse record if maintained round the clock.
Plans were still on the drawing board in Skokie, IL at the offices of Einstein and Associates, the Architect. Structural steel fabrication was ongoing at Fargo Foundry in Fargo ND. Review and approval of the Wastewater design was pending at the State level. Final purchasing of miscellaneous items was ongoing downtown at the Carlson offices and plan reviews were ongoing at the office of the Bismarck Building Inspectors office.
Even the on site activities could not have been captured on a single camera. Heating operations were being scaled back and temporary enclosures taken down for the last time and dismantled. Finish work by both carpenters and painters were underway in both girls and boys dormitories and lobbies. Structural steel erection and roofing were ongoing from the west face of the learning center through the auditorium to the gymnasium/music/aquatic center, with concrete floors, exterior glazing and finish carpentry ongoing as the steel was bolted up. In half of the music center a millwork shop was milling and staining custom finish millwork that would be needed in the corridors and classrooms of the learning center and library areas.
In all the projects this one was singular and exceptional with a complete absence of raised voices or off color, demanding, or reprimanding exclamations. This had nothing to do with the project being church related, while all of the owners people attended to all their responsibilities with an even tempered, calm and good humored efficiency. This is not to say any of them were strangers to the real world. All were farmers or businessmen who faced the real world of profit and loss with hard headed realism.
All of the supervisory personnel, without exception, were plan ahead, experienced men who wanted, expected and deserved no surprise direction along with an ongoing understanding of how their activities meshed with the other contractors and trades.
With many of the areas of the building still unfinished, but totally enclosed , we arrived at the first of September with some items considered necessary and critical still unfinished thus delaying staff and student occupancy till the 11th . Everything went forward on that date despite the first rainy weather in over a year that turned the unpaved roads to a mass of mud. Considering all that had gone by in the year past a few muddy shoes were of no consequence. School was in session and it was a different atmosphere with special considerations in play where the ongoing construction and student activity interfaced and each was required to respect the others space.
Further it became clear early on that there was no one on the owner’s side that comprehended the scope of operations inherent in operating and maintaining the new and expanded facilities. They would need help and I did my best to guide them through the initial months. I would come to learn that a true emergency was when a call for help came between sundown Friday and Saturday, their Sabbath. They took resting on the Sabbath very seriously, but not to the point of being ridicules.
There was a Maranatha group that came to install the sheet rock and sound deadener on the auditorium ceiling. This ceiling was a story and a half above the floor and the scaffolding for the work was as labor intensive as the work itself and was put in place by our crews prior to their arrival. Once they arrived no one could fault them on either a workmanship or efficiency stand point. With this ceiling in place and the scaffold removed the auditorium seating was installed and another segment of the building became available for ongoing use by the staff and student body. This was a multi function area for dramatic and musical presentations, Sabbath services and was equipped with a full sized movie screen as well as all necessary camera equipment.
Then the call from Adrian Simon suggesting, in his own tentative, way that we should consider closing down o the construction activities. This was not at all unexpected as the fund raising by the Church had been falling behind for some time. I had no direct knowledge of exactly how much but that past due payables were rumored to be in the neighborhood of $750,000.00 (They were actually closer to $1 million) His word were that “we should start thinking about closing down--” and My response was that if that was what was needed it could be done in four hours with the necessary checks to pay the people to be laid off.Adrianpromised to get back to me soon and I alerted Jerry Priddy and he began putting odds and ends in order.
Adrian’s return call was not long in coming and it was agreed that we would keep Priddy and five of the finish carpenters. For continuing work and building security tasks as required . The plumbing foreman worked with the housing Company and would be available on call. There was an electrician among the owner’s maintenance personnel who could attend to emergency work, if necessary I was agreed that all other people aside from Priddy and his five would be laid off the following day and that other than period visits I would work from the downtown office.
As far as the school building was concerned it was not a perfect situation, but you got to do what you got to do. At least from the office I could see what kind of cost numbers we had for the building as it stood at the present Adrianhad all the numbers and gave his total to date including the payables. The unit coats came out to $48.00 per square foot. With the work at St. Alexius Hospital and the new State Library being bid at $100.00+/- Our numbers included no profit beyond Carlson’s raw costs, which meant no profit on any of the materials and major equipment. The SDA people had gotten a bargain.
In addition to my regular visits there were visits at all hours of the night whenever someone didn’t think things were working right and on the evening trips Frances usually accompanied me and waited in a room next to the office for my return. On one occasion someone in the adjacent room was lecturing several girls who apparently had been to town for a night out and were late returning. From the sounds of things they were going to be sent home the next day. Both Frances and I always thought this was unfortunate. SDA kids are like those everywhere and we felt that the staff member, whoever it was , had probably conveniently overlooked their own past with their judgment of these kids.
On another call, which happened to be on a Saturday, a fuel pump to the boilers supposedly had failed and the building was without heat on a fairly cold night. One of the staff had taken it upon himself to order a new pump which was to be air freighted ASAP. I had no problem but could not understand what could have failed internally on the pump since it was still running. A few minutes checking more obvious items told me that the pump was probably still functional as the fuel tank was dry. Once this was corrected the pump worked fine.
We were invited to the school for both thanksgiving and Christmas and found their veggie version of both turkey and ground beef dished were very tasty. All in all these people were very generous to us, even to the point of securing a surplus military river crossing craft that was converted to a fishing craft for use at Lake Sakakawea and the Missouri River between the dam and Bismarck.
One tour of the building I found the fire doors in the girl’s dormitory lobby chained and padlocked such that they could not be opened from either the inside or outside. Summoning the maintenance man I explained that these doors could not be rendered inoperable for any reason . Fire doors were installed to provide emergency egress and must be maintained operable from the inside at all times. Having finished my instructional lecture I inquired why this had been done in the first place and was told that it was the only method he could think of to keep the girls from admitting boys to their side of the building. Repeating my admonition that he would have to find another way I left with grinning on the inside. To listen to the official line all of the DAA students were teetotalers but the empty bottles and cans on the dormitory roof told quite a different story.
At this time another Carlson company, Friendship Villa Nursing Homes began an expansion an expansion program. The currently owned facilities had been built by Carlson Construction Company, but for a variety of reasons it had been decided to start buying existing homes . The company attorney in drafting the purchase agreement included an inspection and exception clause which, in effect, reopened purchase negotiations on all items found to be defective and I was assigned the inspection responsibilities.
My first inspection trip was to Denver, CO to do a report on a fifty bed unit. From this trip I was able to develop a worksheet that enabled me ultimately to attain a rate of 100 beds per day in my walk through followed by a hand drafted summary that was typed upon my return to the office. In the basement of this first unit there was substantial stock of wine, hard liquor and a lesser amount of beer. Returning to the Nurses Station I inquired regarding the liquor stocks and learned that there was a voluntary “happy hour” every evening. The nurses told me that since the inception of this evening night cap there had been a dramatic drop in meds.
Ultimately, through the next two years, there was need for inspection of sixteen units, the largest being 500 beds in northern Virginia, with other trips to Wisconsin, Illinois, West Virginia, Idaho, Minnesota, Iowa Pennsylvania, some states, especially Illinois several times. In addition to the initial inspection there was after purchase follow up trips to many units to supervise and contract for corrective and upgrade work.
Wally came down with a request for me to go to Council Bluffs, IAto inspect only the roof of a nursing Home that Carlson had built and that had been sold to a local company. The sales contract had a clause which guaranteed the building against “structural defects” and the buyer was suing for “structural defects” in the roof membrane that was the cause of leakage of water into the building and the current owner wanted a new roof free .It was Wally’s position that this was a maintenance problem and the owners responsibility Wally wanted me to look at the roof and give him an opinion as to the cause of the roof failure and I was on my way to Council Bluffs via Omaha the following morning.
Believe me, nothing much is more thrilling than eight to ten hours on an asphalt roof in Iowa’s August heat taking notes and getting Polaroid pictures where I could. Nearly all the areas of distress were along the edge abutting the metal roof flashing. I followed this up the next day with a walk through of the building to look at the areas of leakage from the inside. Again these were found to be near the exterior walls.
It was obvious that the failure was relative to the interface of the flashing and roofing membrane.. Reference to coefficient of expansion tables for the two materials told me what I was looking at as the difference in the expansion contraction movement over the anticipated 125 degrees in Iowa was more than enough to separate the two materials. Expansion joints would have minimized the this movement difference but none had been provided in the building design, thus maintenance on an annual basis was the only alternative to separation of the two materials with the resulting leakage I had my report typed and bound with the pictures and delivered a copy to Wally’s secretary.
Wally and I met with the Omaha attorney who was handling our defense who seemed pleased to have an understandable explanation for the issues which, up to this time had been the all inclusive negative of the reference to the word failure. He was at the same time disappointed to find that I was without engineering credentials which could be used to impress the jury and he launched into the importance of being able to impress the jury with a list of educational accomplishments. Ultimately it was decided to retain the Dean of the school of Construction Management from Iowa State College In Ames, IA at a cost of $1000.00 per day.
We were in Council Bluffs the following Spring for depositions and before going to the attorneys office I went to the building for another look at the roof and found that it had been completely replaced. What was also obvious , was that the new roof was moving in the same manner described in my report. With a half dozen additional photos we went on to the attorney’s office for depositions.
After being sworn and the warm up questions, which did not touch on my education the lady asking the questions got to the crunch. How could I be certain my report conclusions were correct? My response was simply that the new roof was confirmation enough. It is failing in the same manner. There was a moment of silence and I began to expand on my comment and I was stopped in mid sentence and excused.
Before the day ended there was agreement that the two sides would each swallow their legal costs to date and the litigation would end. Later at an airport lounge parting lunch it was learned that my $1000.00 per day colleague who had recommended that Wally settle out of court had never been on the roof. He had merely read the construction file and concluded that the roofer, who was non union had applied a faulty roof.
Having a $1 million payables account can be the source of all manner of phone calls and visits from creditors. Most would call and recite the dire consequences of not getting the books balanced but there were the minority who come, some with attorneys in tow with dire prefacing remarks and then ask to see the construction contract between Carlson and the SDA. When they found that there was no contract all manner of questions would ensue. This simply meant that their was no tie to the physical facilities or the land, but did not mean that Carlson was free of risk.
Wally called one Sunday afternoon and asked me to meet him at the building. In the conversation that ensued he suggested that we should try to get some of the subs back in the building. After all he said they are a gullible lot. Laugh. I bent double, but when I straightened up I had to tell him that there were rumors afoot of a move to put him in involuntary bankruptcy. My understanding was that the prime mover in this was the electrical sub contractor. Three creditors are needed for this type of filing and if unsuccessful the plaintiffs are liable for any resulting damages thus the reluctance of others to be a part of this move was grounded in ignorance of the actual financial condition of all the Carlson Enterprises,
Wally was oblivious of this activity and found it sobering. Thus He decided to get things straightened away and sold a nursing home to settle all the payables accumulated by the school construction. The sale was on a two payment basis and the payables were cleared up on the same basis.
While my activities continued for another two years I received at the end of the first school year a copy of the first DAA yearbook with a very kind notation inside the front cover by the school principal. While this is specifically from a Seventh Day Adventist Church affiliate it is a tangible reminder of my personal belief the in reality there should be no divisions among those who share the space of this earth. I did my job and they responded with every form of personal kindness.
After the school opened we backed away from the six day work week and Jim and I were able to do some grouse and pheasant hunting and Frances and I were able to get away by ourselves to Lake Eunice. These trips were all to Jims house as the folks house was occupied by renters. In the summer week ends were usually at Lake Sacagawea fishing and camping with a two week camping trip each spring when the only sign of life aside from ourselves was the park plane that passed overhead each day. Kevin graduated from Century High and was off to Winona State college in the fall leaving a family of three with only Toni.
Carlson Homes expanded to the Denver area, leaving the Nursing home and construction company in Bismarck. Then one day the attorney for the nursing home company was gone, exactly where no one seemed to know. I had worked very closely with this fellow in the nursing home inspections and relied on him for advice at the school when needed. Then came the word that he was not a member of the bar anywhere. The implications of this for the nursing home company was obvious.
The man who would have to straighten all this out came from the Motel Six Corporation and after being hired, he came to the Construction Company office to introduce himself to Adrian and I commenting that the interview process included everything but a colonoscopy. After the laughing subsided Adrian told me to tell him why he was here which did. He left without another word, but went on to do all that was needed to get things corrected.
Nursing home inspection brought an acquaintance with life outside the mainstream of normal day to day activities of the working world. The buildings were just buildings with the variations required to accommodate the requirements of day to day care of the residents. As with any building devoted to any purpose it is the people within that give life. Thus much was to be learned from general and polite questions directed at various staff. Staff questions and considerations were beyond the scope of my reports their comments told much about the building shortcomings.
The staff itself was almost invariably a cast system. Remote and approachable only for discussion of patient admission, low building census and past due payments was the Administrator’ who had the shortest work day of any person I have ever come in contact with. Seldom in the building before ten in the morning and gone before three it was a rare occasion when I came in contact with these people. Without exception there was a new face in this position when the building changed hands, but the new person continued the tradition of a short work day. Some of the buildings were built in recognition of this unique position. Kewaunee IL had a private restroom adjacent to the administrators office with a phone next to the throne.
Actual level of care and efficiency within the various homes was almost always determined by the senior duty nurse in the building who set the tone for staff discipline and attention to resident care. Indeed it was rare when the human atmosphere could not be traced directly to the duty nurses personality who , in my opinion, were given far less recognition than they deserved. As a group there was next in order the nurses aids which seemed to be all over the personality and attitude map reflecting everything from their lifestyle to the most recent encounter with those at home to a genuine concern for those in their care, in reality a group that was a cross section of life and circumstance.
Last on the totem pole, but most important to me, was the maintenance man who would be expected to be most acquainted with the physical facilities and their shortcomings. More often than not these people supplied their own tools and were familiar with but one of the building components such as the man who could solve any electrical problem but knew nothing about plumbing. This was the case found in the largest facility inspected. A 500 bed unit it had been built as a hospital but the owners, reputed to be Maurice Mandell, former governor of NJ, could not obtain the necessary certification and thus it became a nursing home .It was a beautiful concrete frame structure with brick veneer exterior, terrazzo floors and the latest in automatically controlled HVAC equipment. Four stories with a five bedroom penthouses apartment there was just nothing lacking. Care and maintenance of all this was the responsibility of a single man who supplied his own tools and was denied funds sufficient to maintain a single family home. In looking at one of the automatic control units I noted that over half the indicator lights were burned out and asked how he determined whether the controlled units were functioning. His response along with a demonstration was that he took a good light and went down the board inserting it in sockets containing non functioning bulbs to determine the status of controlled equipment leaving me with notes to add to a report and shaking my head in disbelief.
The sixteen reports developed resulted in an average price adjustment of building price of $22,000.00 or a total of $352,000.00 reduction for all sixteen units inspected, earning for myself, in the negations of one of the IL unit’s the title of “Mr. Negative”
Copies of these reports went to the Bond financing company from Atlanta GA. Who were especially happy with both the format and detail For me it was a personal learning experience that is with me yet. For as I walk past the commons areas of the nursing home I visit weekly there is a mental notation of any deficiency.
With the progression of Mother’s Parkinson’s Dad and Mother had moved to the apartment complex attached to St Vincent’s nursing home where they had their own quarters but had only to pull a cord to summon nursing help from the main building. They had recently returned early from a visit to Dennis and Vivian’s where everyone thought they would be until Spring. A surprise call from Dad saying they wanted to return as soon as possible sent Frances to MA to escort them home. As soon as Dad appeared in the door of the plane in Bismarck I knew he was in trouble . A victim of two heart attacks he had several prescription meds that were supposed to be a daily routine and had completely discontinued them during the time in MA with an alarming build up of fluid that left him looking fat.
Early return home, however, was unrelated to his condition. Mother was back on medicine that was unrelated to any medical condition and had exhausted her supply while away and wanted to come home to try to stock up again. This had been an ongoing problem, finding at one point that a Detroit Lakes pharmacy was renewing out dated prescriptions and shipping them from MN to ND on a regular basis we found it necessary to visit the pharmacy to get this stopped. Where the new supplies were coming from was unknown.
The two of them were shortly at our door with Dad almost demanding that they be allowed to move in so Frances could care for Mother. We were living in a three bedroom apartment with Toni still at home and the boys expected to return during the summer and what he was asking was physically impossible. Further Mother’s condition was beyond home care, but Dad was the only person unready to admit that this time had come. Mother needed to move to the nursing center full time and Frances imposed upon the friendships developed there to get her accepted ahead of others on a waiting list. Jim was actually the guardian of record which in reality translated to handling financial affairs and balancing the checkbook They now were dependent on the person unwanted a quarter century ago and se never failed either of them.
Jim and I were at Dads apartment the evening Mother was admitted to the nursing center and one would have thought what had been done was criminal. By the light of his reasoning people always cared for their own. It was an evening of barely concealed frustration in that the convenience of indifference in his family that was translated to just another burden for Frances.
Busy at the office the following day I received a call that Dad had passed away from another heart attack in a bank in downtown Bismarck. I called Jim and the two of us went to the hospital and were admitted to see the body still in the emergency area. After being pronounced dead at the hospital there had obviously been a substantial effort to try to resuscitate him after reaching the hospital. With instructions regarding transfer to a mortuary we left. The body was flown back to MN and I was with the West Kjos hearse to receive it at the Fargo airport.
Just prior to closing the casket brother Bill escorted Mother for a final look where she said “He was always good to me but he had a lot of crazy ideas”. To the Dad that I knew these “crazy ideas” would have been his dreams which might have meant dancing in the rain to achieve, but mother was always content to wait for the fair weather after the storm had passed.
We finally bought a house on the east edge of Bismarck just as the runaway interest rates began to do bad things. Few things are more interest hesitative than home sales and Carlson Homes was heavily invested in home development in Dickinson ND, Bismarck ND and now, Denver Co. in an impossible financial atmosphere. To try to salvage the housing side of the business the nursing home division was sold to a California company resulting in both divisions going down the drain.
All this didn’t happen in a day but the progression was such that anyone with eyes could see that continued financial support of the school an impossibility and the nursing home division gone Carlson Construction Co. was a company without a purpose. It was not and was never intended to be in the competitive bidding market. There was no need for me to wait for an embarrassed somebody to tell me that there was nothing to do. I had been approached from several directions about making a change and it now time to decide where to go.
Jo Coffel of Coffel Plumbing, Heating and Excavating was one of those who had talked to me so I called to see what he had in mind. His reply was about as broad as the world saying “come on over, there are a lot of things to do” and the salary he was talking about was nothing to be sneezed at. Thus all that remained was the separation details at Carlson which took a total of a month to finalize leaving me with two employers for the last two weeks at Carlson was also the first two weeks at Coffel.
The office staff at the new place was Jo, the founder and owner, eldest son Neal who ran the excavation operations which included snow removal, Jay the Plumbing and Heating manager and an office man. Jo had the excavation operations in mind when I was hired. They did a good volume of hourly work and had a very well maintained fleet of excavation equipment They had also been doing a few small sewer and water line projects, but there was no fixed estimating system that was useable across all the various types of projects that they wished to become involved with.
I found the family very easy to get along with once I became familiar with their personal idiosyncrasies. Neal saw to it that the Company Equipment was maintained to the highest standards and he was insistent that anything with the Coffel name on it look as near as possible to new. First on the agenda was the estimating system for sewer and water lines. These were all bid on forms that called for cost per lineal foot of pipe laid. The greatest cost was in the amount of dirt that had to be removed and replaced to put the pipe in the ground. This cost varied widely depending on the depth of the pipe.
The key was estimating accuracy in calculating yards of dirt removed and replaced. Once a system was developed we went after this market on a very active basis. Still there were those competitors that made educated guesses at the excavation involved and a bad guess usually gave them a job, but more often than not one with no profit Still with perseverance we began to get our share of this market. These projects became simple to estimate and it was not uncommon to have three or four underway concurrently. Nothing could be finalized before the last minute because the suppliers always had their last minute price cuts.
The first chance to get our hands on a substantial piece of General Contract excavation came with a new clinic being built downtown Ellerbe Architects of Minneapolis were both the Architects and Construction Managers for the project and were inviting bids for the various sections of the project. Our problem was that we had never been invited. No invitation, no plans. However Lunn construction, where Jim worked had been invited but were not going to bid, hence a set of loose plans which I could lay my hands on to at least see what the scope of the work was.
It was very substantial both from structure excavation to utility revisions and installations. In addition there was the building plumbing. After looking at the potential scope of work, Jo was almost watering at the mouth. Our first hurdle was to get Ellerbe to agree to accept a bid from us. In this regard Jo was his own best public relations man and he didn’t hesitate to get in touch with Ellerbe’s man on site. Jo worked his magic and we got our invitation to bid. It didn’t take long for word to get around. In less than two days I had a visitor from Northern Improvement’s Bismarck who walked into my work space unannounced and out of sorts about Ellerbe having told them there would only be one set of plans out for excavation bids . I made no response but was certain that a statement like that to Northern would result in sky high bid numbers and I was right. Their numbers were higher by half than those I developed and ours had more fat than Jo had ever dreamed possible and it opened the door for us to get the plumbing also.
From here it was a series of projects that put sewer and water lines in various developments around town with one significant project for the Indian Health Service just above the Oahe Reservoir in SD > It was less than a mile long, as I remember, going from an existing water system to a Episcopal community called St. Elizabeth’s Mission . About as straightforward as could be except for a crossing at Oak Creek. With the reservoir at near record low levels the creek bed was without water but the bed was a black slime that almost defied excavation. There was no chance of making the crossing with the limited reach of the back hoe and I had to scour the area for a dragline with 50’ of boom. By the time we had reached the required 6’ depth below the river bed the top width of the trench was 25’+ wide, but the pipe got laid and tested and the balance was a piece of cake.
Most interesting about this project was the insight into the relations one to another of the Indian Tribes. We were working on a Sioux Reservation, but the project inspector was a Cherokee, I believe from the upper Midwest who made no effort to conceal his disdain for the Sioux which he commonly referred to as “filthy dirty” and “lazy”. There was just nothing good about the Sioux who , for their part seemed indifferent to our whole operation.
This was an entirely different work style for me. The manpower requirements seldom changed and most of the employees had been with Coffel for years and knew their jobs well, thus work became a routine of estimating with some field supervision in the summers and routing snow removal equipment in the winter.
Week day evenings almost without exception were at St. Vincent’s nursing home to visit Mother. Most disappointing about this was all the people who never had visitors. Seldom was there four people in the whole building who had visitors on a daily basis.
On weekends we were usually at Lake Sacagawea from Friday night to Sunday afternoon save for those times when we started down the Missouri by boat and spent Friday and Saturday night on an island in the river arriving at Bismarck about mid afternoon on Sunday About the only other weekend activity was coming to Lake Eunice where we spent the weekend at Jims house .
It was during one of these trips that Frances thought she recognized an ad in a local realty publication as describing the ground across the road from the lake properties. A call to the advertising realtor confirmed that she was right and we almost immediately decided to make an offer on the 300’ directly across from the 280’ We had on the lake side. That was not accepted because it left one lot by itself to the south. A second offer for 500’ feet was accepted and the sellers family was in a panic. There were three fish houses on the property which legally were included and we soon had family members at the door, each with a sad story about losing their fish house. Happiness abounded when they were told to take their funhouses as soon as possible or they would be burned We had bought the fifth 100’ lot at the request of our neighbor to the north who had been trying without any success to buy it from the owner for several years. The two of them went to the same church but had a disagreement of some sort which had left them not talking to each other. When it became known that the fifth lot was to go to the neighbor our seller tried to back out of the sale. The realtor was content to abandon their responsibilities in favor of a local friendship so it was necessary to have an attorney get their attention and the sale was closed just three months prior to the sellers demise, which would have left us dealing with the heirs and there were a lot of them.
Frances and I were able to get to Lake Eunice for a weekend to ourselves in the dead of winter with the temperature well below Zero. Waking in the middle of the night to find the boiler had failed and the water lines in the house beginning to freeze and not a thing we could do till a plumber could be summoned come morning. The only thing we could do is add blankets to the bed and by summoning all the human survival instinct we were able to make it through the night, got a plumber by 8:30 AM and had the boiler going and the broken pipes repaired by noon.
Aunt Julia, mothers youngest sister , now retired asked to come live with us in Bismarck and since the family, save for Toni, was gone and we had bought a four bedroom house and Frances voiced no objection I told her to come on out. I came home about a week after she had moved in to be told that She wanted her own apartment. There was no explanation as to why and it seemed obvious that no one wanted to enlighten me further and I carved out an apartment in the lower level, the only place where I could make utility connections for a kitchenette. This is the way it was for the better part of two years when she moved back to Leon IA to live with brother Ed who had bought a farm south of town. It would be twenty five years and after Frances’ passing before I had an explanation for this period of life.
Then came October 1984 and a day that I had spent in Wilton ND for some reason Returning home late and finding no one home, I placed a late call to the office to see if there were any messages only to learn that Mother had passed away in the afternoon. Going directly to the nursing home I found Frances and Jim who had gotten word in time to be with her when the end came. Whatever the past had been this is a moment of pause and sadness, but then there is the final arrangements that must be made
Notify the rest of the family; take her home to Minnesota and finally the funeral. Most interesting about this family gathering was the little note of the burden Frances had carried, almost alone, for the last ten years of Mothers life.
Now came the period when it seemed that it was time for us to return home also. It seems strange just to write about going “home”. Home for us had been everywhere and nowhere but each place we had been there were the most precious people in the world those who accepted us as their friends. It was not that Bismarck had not been good to us. On the contrary the friends here, both personal and business were fast friends in every sense of the word, but there was the urge, a continued whispered calling, if you will to return to that which was yours.
So it was, the following year that an ad appeared in the Detroit Lakes paper for an general construction estimator and I took time to talk to them on one of our weekends at the lake. It wasn’t the most exciting sounding thing, but the house was empty and unheated, the property needed more care than it was getting . Thus we made the decision to come home. Jo Coffel understood where we were coming from when we told him of our plans and gave us a going away party on my last day.