My Dad, Part Two

For two summers when I was in college, I worked as a materials inspector for the Kansas Department of Transportation. It was one of the few summer jobs around at that time and a place where I could do some science. I got to be honest, my dad got me the job. He was the Field Engineer Administrator for the Kansas City KDOT office. Basically, he was the big cheese.

What I’d did as a materials inspector was going to concrete plants and test the sand and gravel they were using that day for state highway jobs. I’d also have to sit in the concrete plant as long as the contractor was pouring concrete that day and check the calculations of materials the batchman used for each load of concrete. If the numbers looked good, a signed ticket was filled out and given to the driver to take to the job site.

Whenever I went to a new concrete plant, I was treated as an outcast. The inspector. Nobody really likes having an inspector hanging about their business. On top of that, I was a college student, a double whammy in the construction world. College boy. This was the greeting I walked into on a regular basis. I’d enter a plant being the enemy until they saw my last name. Hays.

“Are you Joe Hays’ boy?” always followed a few thoughtful seconds after giving my name. In the first post, I talked about how different my dad and I were physically. These workers in the plants had no clue who I was until I answered that I was, indeed, Joe Hays’s boy. 

Everything changed with that piece of information was revealed about me. I went from being the inspector to having serious credibility. All because I was Joe Hays’ boy. That’s the kind of man my dad was.

You can’t talk about my dad without talking about him as a civil engineer. He went to tiny Findlay Engineering College in Kansas City, Mo. My dad is a testament to the philosophy that it’s not where you get a degree, it’s what you do after you get your degree. He was a bridge-builder in more ways than one. He was meticulous. He knew his stuff. He was a good co-worker and a great supervisor. He distrusted computers because he saw young engineers use them as a crutch instead of as a tool. He was respected throughout his profession. Even though I’m a molecular microbiologist, I’ve tried to emulate his example in everything I do. Often, I’ll look back and try to figure out how dad did it. I think I’m starting to figure it out.

When I first started at K-State, dad would come to Manhattan every year for a civil engineering conference. Before he moved to Texas, my oldest brother, Pat, also a civil engineer, would come to the conference. I’d find an hour or so during the workday to walk across campus for a quick visit. I was always amazed to see the admiration, the camaraderie, and the way the throng of civil engineers would treat dad. He was respected. It was almost like he was ten-foot-tall when I’d seek him out in the crowded Union during a break. As we’d walk together, people would stop and say hello or ask him questions. It was pretty damn cool being his son.

What did I figure out about dad’s secret? I’m still working on that one but I think it has to do with being trustworthy and being consistent. More important, that trust and that consistency have to be built on a foundation of ethics. A moral compass and rock-solid ethics. This is what dad stood for. 

  • Do the right thing at the right time and do it every, single day.

  • Be the rock everyone can rely on.

Early in my microbiology career, I was struggling trying to find a foothold to stay in my career of choice in my place of choice with a young family at home. Dad was never a man of many words, especially with us kids, but he gave me something I still hang in a plastic cover in my lab today. It was a simple photocopied cartoon of a stork swallowing a frog while the frog reaches out from the beak with a stranglehold around the stork’s neck. “Never Give Up” is the caption.

A silly, somewhat stupid cartoon that was poorly photocopied made a difference. It was my dad’s way of telling me to quit whining and get back to work. Things would be okay. Things would work out. Do the right thing at the right time and do it every day. Never give up.

Growing up, I guess I never realized or even thought about Dad as a professional. He was just my dad. It wasn’t until I got to see from a first-hand viewpoint just how great he was at what he did. In life and in death, his legacy endures. He touched so many lives in a positive way. Many of these people came from near and far to tell us this fact at his funeral. Dad was a rock to many people through good times and bad times. We were lucky kids.

(NOTE: I’m writing a few memorial pieces about my Dad to celebrate his life. Part One is here. With each piece, I’ll try to post a picture that helps tell the story of who he was. Most of the time, the actual monetary value of these things is nothing. The memory value, however, is priceless.) 

The T-square. Years ago, Dad gave me his old t-square and his drafting board. These, along with his drafting tools in a purple-velvet-lined-case, are marvels from his early engineer days. He kept these things at the house, stored in his closet. Every once in awhile, he’d get them out for us to see. They were magnificent tools. We kids felt like giants whenever we got to use them.

I don’t really know why or how it came to be me who is in possession of the drafting board and the T-square but I am. He might have thought they’d come in handy for my drawing work. I just know one day, they were with a box of my memorabilia stuff he sent back west with us when we left KC. Dad never was a big arts kind of guy. He used to draw some cartoon stuff with us and was able to hermetically seal a Christ The King School textbook in a brown paper sack cover that they are probably still trying to unseal forty years later, but that was about it.

He was all about the function. Drawing for the sake of drawing was not in his DNA. It was in mine, though, and he helped me in my youth to get started creating. He was always there to help with school projects and the like. From using coffee cans as a circle template to draw planets to using the T-square and drafting board to lay out a grid to plan a drawing, he’d always get me started down the right path. Creative work is creative work and not often thought about from an engineer’s perspective. Dad taught me a lesson early on for both writing and drawing. He taught me to look at the project not only from an artist perspective from also as an engineer. Design the framework and build a creative idea around it. Simple but beautiful. 

Here’s the T-square. It hangs over my work desk. I still use it to frame up drawings and templates. It comes in handy more than one would think. Plus, it still looks pretty magnificent—even in its old age. Thanks, Dad!

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