Monday, May 09, 2005

Retired carpenter returns to school

PUBLICATION: The Ottawa Citizen
DATE: 2005.05.09
BYLINE: Peter Dudley
SOURCE: The Ottawa Citizen
ILLUSTRATION: Colour Photo: Chris Mikula, The Ottawa Citizen / If I had aHammer ...Nick Deveau, left, is one of 12 Grade 10 and 11 South Carleton High School students learning the building trade under carpenter John Martel.


Retired carpenter returns to school: Thirty-eight years in the construction business didn't prepare John Martel for his retirement project: teaching high school students how to build a house, Peter Dudley reports.


It has been a long time since John Martel has been nervous about walking on to a construction site.

After 38 years working in construction, Mr. Martel, 61, was enjoying his retirement when his former boss -- Richard Sachs, president of Urbandale Construction -- called him.

"I was a little nervous when he asked me if I would teach a group of high-school kids how to build a house," said Mr. Martel. "I had never done any teaching before. It was my first experience."

The project came about when South Carleton High School principal Barrie Hammond received an Ontario Youth Apprenticeship Program (OYAP) grant from the Ministry of Education.

"My job was to find a builder and a teacher," said Mr. Hammond. "We worked with the Ottawa Home Builders' Association."

When Urbandale Construction was asked to get involved, Mr. Sachs immediately thought of Mr. Martel.

"John was one of Urbandale's longest-serving employees," said Mr. Sachs. "He has pride in everything he does and he passes that on. I knew he would be an excellent choice."

Urbandale poured the foundation for the single-family home on Dunn Street in the Village Green project in Kanata.

When Mr. Martel showed up the first day, he did not know what to expect. Facing 11 boys and one girl in Grades 10 and 11, many of whom had never swung a hammer, Mr. Martel knew he had his work cut out for him.

"For the first three or four weeks, it was difficult. They needed to adjust. They weren't in school. There were no walls, no roof. You have to respect yourself and your co-workers," said Mr. Martel.

"I had to teach them how to read a blueprint, even how to use the tools. Some of them were afraid of using the power tools."

The students are building the house from the foundation up. Licenced tradespeople will install the plumbing and electrical components. The 1,800-square-foot house, which will sell for $291,900, will be finished by the end of June.

Standing to the side of the unfinished living room, Mr. Martel, dressed in the standard construction worker's uniform of jeans, checkered jacket and steel-toed boots, watches his proteges as they pound the house into shape.

"I am very proud of them," said Mr. Martel with a grin.

"For me it was a real experience. I was a rookie like them. They are good workers."

Mr. Martel applauds the OYAP program because he can see the changes in the students: "They have gone from school kids to adults."

Marg Loughead, a South Carleton High School teacher and the co-ordinator of the apprenticeship program, calls the program "phenomenal."

"It has been a real Godsend. It has raised the confidence level of the students immensely. Parents call me up and tell me their child is a different kid because of it."

One of the students who took advantage of the co-op program is Nick Deveau, a 17-year-old Grade 11 student at South Carleton High School.

"I enrolled in it because I want to get into construction," said Mr. Deveau. "I hope to get an apprenticeship (with a construction company) this summer and then go to college next year to study construction and accounting," said Mr. Deveau.

Like his fellow students, he credits Mr. Martel with helping him understand the business.

"He's good. He has taught me how to measure the walls and get the measurements for most of the house."

Scott Cruickshank, 16, who has made decks before, likes being on a construction site.

"It's pretty much straightforward. It's like putting the bits and pieces of a puzzle together.

After he graduates from high school, he will go to Algonquin College to study masonry.

"He knows a lot," Scott said of Mr. Martel.

"He shows us little things along the way. He taught us a whole lot more than I thought I knew," Scott says with a laugh.

Both students are optimistic about their job prospects.

"There is a still lot of work in the construction business," said Mr. Martel. "We need people who can do more that drive a hammer. The students will learn more than that," Mr. Martel said.

Mr. Sachs said Mr. Martel had a knack for passing on his knowledge, citing both the high school students and Mr. Martel's son Patrick, who works for Urbandale.

After the house is built and put on the market, the students will move on, as will John Martel.

When asked if he would like to do it again, Mr. Martel smiles, takes off his hard hat and runs his hands through his grey hair.

"Oh, I don't know," he said. "I'm retired, you know. If I was younger, I would be very interested in doing it again."

Both South Carleton High School and Urbandale Construction would like to build another house -- with John Martel guiding the way.

"It has been wonderful to watch him grow as a person," said Mr. Hammond.

"He has a lot of skills he did not know he has. He is a real gentleman. The kids really respect and admire him. I cannot say enough good things about him," he added.

According to Wilma Davis, spokeswoman for the Ministry of Education, an estimated 19,000 students will have participated in OYAP this school year. In 1999, there were only 2,300 participants. The budget for the program is $7 million this year.


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