Bob Turbidy waited patiently as our Literature of Social Responsibility class gathered in the kitchen of a half-done duplex early one Saturday – well, early by the standards of college students, if not by those of Bob.
I, meanwhile, waited for Bob.
Anxious to get my students moving, I nevertheless knew that this was not my classroom, but Bob’s. He’d taught many hundreds of construction novices, so he knew that when it came to rookies, haste truly made waste. To take it slow was to get it right.
In a few minutes, Bob quietly commenced class.
Today’s lesson: Window installation. He walked them through one, asking for one student to serve as volunteer. Maggie Hanley, then a first-year Assumption student, gamely raised her hand. Soon she was peering in at us from a ladder, caulking around the edges of the window frame. I noticed that some students homed in, while others seemed restless. Glancing at my watch, I wondered how we were going to reach our goal: Install all of the windows on the two-story duplex.
But in another quarter hour, Maggie was finished with her window, and Bob was spreading the students in pairs and trios around windows throughout the first floor. By noon a third of the windows were installed; by the end of the workday, we’d installed every one, upstairs and down. We left with a feeling of accomplishment, knowing we’d done something specific and concrete, thanks in large part to Bob giving us the room to do our jobs instead of taking over.
There is a true art to being a Habitat construction project supervisor, only half of which is the actual house. The other dimension is building within all of the constraints of guiding a complex mix of professionals, rookies, and everything in-between. The best – and Bob was one of them – not only had a carpenter’s level in his hand, but another in his mind, striking the balance between inclusiveness and efficiency.
While knowing his stuff through and through, Bob had the gift of working well with people of all ages, which he did with quiet guidance, encouraging them even as he corrected them. Without fanfare, he facilitated the kind of fulfilling experience that is at the heart of a successful Habitat affiliate – making people want to come back for more. Bob Turbidy mastered both the craft of carpentry and the craft of collaboration. There are a whole lot of people in the world who can’t do both. (I’m one of them.)
This weekend I’ve been reflecting a lot on the example of Bob “The Builder” Turbidy, who passed away on January 30th after a short illness. Saddened by his passing, I reviewed the obituary in The Worcester Telegram — as well as a profile of Bob by one of my students, Emily Johnson. The pieces combined to portray the rich life of a man who, after serving three years in the Navy, ran arts and crafts businesses from Cape Cod and Providence to Santa Cruz, CA. After marrying Ruth Ann Schnable, Bob abnd his wife built their own house in Quebec, where they started a construction business and raised their three children; upon coming back to Worcester in 1987, Bob created a temporary employment service called “Job Link of Worcester” until 2002 – when he signed on as Project Manager for Habitat. Meanwhile, he was active in cross-country skiing, running, and organic gardening, as well as local environmental efforts. As the obituary notes, he “was well liked by everyone he met and admired for his dedication, positive attitude, and unflappability.” Well-phrased; I never saw Bob lose his patience with a volunteer in all the many days I was around him, whether on a work site or in a meeting.
Then I began scanning both my photo folders and those of the official Habitat web site (http://www.habitatmwgw.org), and I found that my photo collection and Habitat’s had one thing in common when it came to photos of Bob Turbidy – there weren’t many of them.
My own pictures tended not to focus on Bob, but on the volunteers toward whom he was turned; he seemed far more intent when photographed unknowing, in action, than he does in any of the few shots in which he actually posed. Even in his obituary photo, I can see beams in the background.
Which seemed appropriate for a man who planned to work his entire life – with a lot of that work devoted to serving others.
This much was clear in the end of Emily Johnson’s profile of Bob, published in Finally Home: The First 20 Years of Greater Worcester Habitat for Humanity. (The piece can be read at http://www.assumption.edu/habitat.)
As Emily wrote:
Turbidy often pokes fun at his friends who have retired by now.
“I don’t envy them at all. I like to take vacations, it’s nice to get time off, but I like my work, and I like keeping involved.”
And, as long as “Bob the Builder” is around, houses for low-income families will be built. Turbidy states, “I don’t have any intention or interest in retiring. I like working, and I love working with Habitat. As far as I’m concerned, I would be happy to keep working until I can’t work anymore.”
Many Habitat families – and thousands of volunteers – are glad he did.
Even as now they – including me – very much miss him.