Archive | February, 2012

Turbidy Lived The Balance

26 Feb

Bob takes measure of things while Brian Daley observes.

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.

Maggie puts in first window frame.

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.)

Bob mounts siding with care.

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.

Turbidy takes to roof.

Then I began scanning both my photo folders and those of the official Habitat web site (, 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.

Bob advises AC's Marek Kulig and Brittany Ford at Stowell.

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

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.

A Different Katrina

18 Feb

2012 NOLA SEND crew with local canine rep

Even six-plus years after Hurricane Katrina left an official death toll of 1,464 people in Louisiana – with other estimates ranging as high as 4,000 – a mission trip to New Orleans was bound to make a powerful impression on Assumption College students who went there to do community service.

But for Katrina Mitchell, the expedition’s student leader, the January visit was just the latest chapter in a relationship that began in 2006, less than a year after the hurricane hit New Orleans on Aug. 29, 2005.

Katrina did her first mission trip to the Big Easy as a high school sophomore, thanks to a project sponsored by her church, Seekonk Congregational in Seekonk, Mass. “We were assigned to restore a donated building for volunteers to stay at while doing community service in New Orleans,” she wrote me.

Katrina at work on 2008 mural

Two years later, as a high school senior, she returned. “We worked with local neighborhoods on restoring their spirits.  Our first assignment was to create a mural for a pre-school in a run-down area.  Then, we did a walk with residents in this same area to advocate for safety in the neighborhoods and on surrounding streets by doing away with crime.” Then, in 2011, came a third New Orleans venture, through SEND (Students Exploring New Destinations). “We worked with Operation Helping Hands at three different houses that needed scraping, cocking, priming, and painting.  We also went to a local swamp to plant vegetation and a dog park to plant trees.”

These intense but short service encounters have their limitations. A critically intelligent writer whom I’ve been fortunate enough to teach in the English/Sociology course “Literature of Social Responsibility”, Mitchell certainly knows that neighborhood walks, in and of themselves, aren’t enough to dramatically change crime rates, just as she probably also knows that there are larger structural problems that can only be addressed on the governmental level. But now that I’ve seen firsthand the college groups who impact my hometown of Tuscaloosa, I see that each of those trips brings fresh energy and young bodies to the long, slow grind of recovery – as well as reminding the locals that people elsewhere haven’t forgotten.

Certainly, that’s the case for Katrina – who decided that even three visits to the Big Easy weren’t enough.  So she signed on as student leader of the January expedition. “The most interesting experience I had … was seeing the reactions of my friends.  Last year’s group of students was all seniors with the exception of myself.  Therefore, when I returned home it was hard to communicate my experience with my friends because they hadn’t had the opportunity of visiting Louisiana themselves.  So this year I was especially excited to share such an experience with people that I already enjoy spending time with.  It made me happy to see them doing the same work that I was so passionate about.”

2012 group rises to challenge

The work this time involved two structures. They did a lot of scraping, priming, and painting on the home of an elderly woman who had just lost her husband. Then, in an abandoned flood-damaged structure, the group tore away walls and floors and stripped away old paint. The group even helped remove Christmas decorations from a park after a community celebration.

When it comes to the educational component of mission, Katrina’s work in New Orleans has dealt with concerns ranging from housing and crime to ecology and children – and more. Meanwhile, what strikes her most, seemingly, is what she’s learned about the city of New Orleans.

“The spirit of the people is what keeps me going back to New Orleans,” Katrina told me. “Their resilience is amazing and inspiring.  The city has quickly come back to life since the hurricane and its devastating effects.  Yes, Rome wasn’t built in a day, but because of the thousands upon thousands of volunteers that have come to help, New Orleans grew back stronger than ever.  I am in love with the city and its people.”

2012 crew takes break

Her experience underscores the value of leaving one’s home region.

“As a person who has always lived in the Northeast, nothing is more refreshing than the true Southern hospitality that remains consistent between each and every individual that you run into from the area, whether it’s in the streets, on a trolley, at the French Quarter, or wondering along Bourbon Street.

“Everyone is all smiles all the time.  They may appreciate the work that volunteers do, but they do not realize how much we appreciate them for what they are able to show us through their warmth and compassion in accepting and welcoming us to their community.”

2012 group enjoys Bourbon Street

Immigrant Views

11 Feb

Artist Valkeria Pinheiro with her work

Even from hundreds of yards away, I could see throngs of strangers milling in the dusk, disembarking in the D’Alzon Library parking lot. I stopped long enough to watch the dark shapes, some tall and some small, find their way into the light of the library entrance, then vanish inside.

When I followed them into the exhibition space, I found myself surrounded by immigrants, people who had journeyed from far-flung continents to build lives in the United States. Some were hugging and laughing, some were talking earnestly – and some were simply quietly staring at the walls, covered in the photographs they themselves had taken, all part of Immigrant Perspectives of Life in Worcester.

Absorbing my surroundings both visually and emotionally, I knew then that my words in this blog weren’t going to do this occasion justice.

Julita Barbosa (left) and Valkeria Pinheiro both came here from Brazil.

What I didn’t know was that Esteban Loustaunau, whose Spanish 381 students had collaborated with Training Resources of America (TRA Inc.) to create this “literacy through photography” project, was facing a similar problem. Having worked tirelessly on every aspect from the original project and approaching the library to framing the photos and coordinating the effort to get the clients to campus, now he was the victim of his own success. People were coming at him from all angles, socially as well as spatially: College colleagues and students, TRA Inc. staff members and, of course, the photographers themselves. When he finally addressed the crowd, he would forget to use an anecdote from the last college that employed him.

But what he said, with his usual warmth, was plenty powerful.

“This is for you. This is your space. This is your home.”

Elena Medvedeva, originally from Turkmenistan, and daughter with exhibit organizer Esteban

People then spread out among the exhibits, which ran a wide range from the work place and family to the courthouse and landscapes. Taken with disposable cameras that Assumption had provided the TRA Inc. clients, the photos weren’t artfully cropped or digitally manipulated. They were simply what the immigrants saw when asked by their teachers to take one photo that symbolized their life in Worcester – and, in a way, their life in America. In their TRA Inc. courses, they then would give a short presentation in English, explaining their photo and why they shot it.

Some opted for strikingly picturesque landscapes or cityscapes, reminding again of how an artistic eye isn’t limited by language. Some, such as the person working a forklift, focused on work. Some took family pictures, either at home or around town, at their favorite places to visit. One took a photo of a Starbucks at night, expressing surprise at how much some Americans spend on coffee. (Guilty.)


Sadly, the conversations I attempted with the artists were short, limited by both my linguistic shortcomings and their own. Certainly, with most, there was no way to go into a jargon-steeped discourse on photographic composition. Finding your way through a still foreign world, trying to learn what you can in the little time you have between the demands of work and family, is a continuing journey.

But that made the exhibition, which is on display through April 13th, all the more extraordinary. Standing below a series of family photos, TRA Inc. administrator Cynthia Vlasaty told me that her biggest obstacle in explaining the exhibit was her clients’ plain and simple disbelief.

“They kept asking, ‘They are doing this for us? Why us?’ They couldn’t understand. Why would a big institution like a college want to show their work.”

Assumption's Victoria (left) has reunion with Val

Of course, educators can tick off any number of reasons, ranging from both the Catholic sense of mission and the secular version of civic engagement to the incalculable value of experiential education, especially when it comes off campus, in a world almost as foreign to college students as the college might seem to TRA Inc.’s clientele. Even as I talked with Cynthia, I could spy one of our most dedicated CSL minors, Victoria Flynn, carrying on intently with a female TRA Inc. client, who occasionally touched Victoria on the arm as they conversed, a reminder of the connection they’ve made.

But philosophizing aside, on this surreal and inspiring night, what I saw – both on the walls and between the walls – was justification enough.

As one TRA Inc. staff member told me, “This will go down in their history.”

And, of course, our own.

Roman Medvedev of Turkmenistan shot hillside park

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