Interview: Jamie Calderwood, Habitat For Humanity Site Supervisor

Malcolm Slight

Jamie Calderwood realized something as a kid that still shapes his life at age 68: Building a fort with your friends is “the funnest thing there is,” he recalls with broad smile. “So now I’m building houses with friends.”
    
Jamie is a site supervisor for Solano-Napa Habitat for Humanity. The part-time job makes use of his construction skills and eased the move from teaching shop for 35 years at Benicia Middle School. “It was a huge transition when I retired. The middle school was part of me,” he says, his emotions close to the surface as he describes building BMS’ climbing wall and making benches for First Street and Benicia’s cemeteries.

He retired in 2009. When friends asked what he planned to do next,  he talked about doing projects at his historic home in downtown Benicia and rebuilding his beloved 1964 Oldsmobile Cutlass convertible from the frame up. “But I could see myself being stuck in the shop, isolated from everyone,” he says. “I missed having a group of equals, all working on the same thing.”
    
Jamie still spends time in his home shop, but his job for Habitat often extends beyond the weekly allotment of 25 hours.  He first volunteered with Habitat in 2001 on a project in Benicia and became an employee in 2010. He estimates he’s worked on 20 to 30 homes locally and elsewhere over the years, renovating some and building others from the ground up.
     
Kathy Hoffman, board member and development director for Solano-Napa Habitat, laughs as she describes Jamie on work sites. “We were working on houses in Fairfield two or three years ago, and Jamie and two of the other guys were giggling. Not laughing, but giggling. They just so thoroughly enjoy each other,” she says. “More and more, people will show up to work and say to Jamie, ‘You were my shop teacher however many years ago.’ ”
    
Jamie moved to Benicia in 1976. He and his wife, Marsha Stohr, raised their now-adult children in Benicia and became grandparents to Calliope this year.

What do you do as site supervisor for Habitat?  I run a crew, which means I figure out how to build this house, figure out what jobs need to be done that day.  

If we have 15 people coming, I have to be able to say, “You five do this, you three do that and you two work together on this other thing.” A huge part of this is me being able to clearly say what I’m asking you to do, then coming back 10 minutes later and checking to see that everything is going well. You don’t just assign someone a job and walk away. A lot of it is teaching myself what to say.

Did your years in the classroom help prepare you for your Habitat job? Running a job site is a lot like running a classroom. Kids are little people, but they’re still people. You want to provide clear feedback: Do it this way, don’t do it that way. If somebody builds it wrong, it’s my fault because I didn’t communicate the directions clearly. I should have said something a different way. That’s true at a job site and in a classroom.

When did you know you wanted to be a teacher? I was 8 years old and I was building a hamster cage, and my older brother John came in and said he had this class called woodshop. I couldn’t believe there was a class to build things. But he said the teacher was terrible and told me, “You should do that.”    I knew then that’s what I wanted to do.
    
I walked into high school as a freshman and told the counselor, “I want to teach shop.”

What have you learned from your work with Habitat? I’ve learned how to efficiently use large crews. If you have 15 people, you can’t be in 15 places at once so you have to be able to clearly direct people to work on different tasks so they make progress.

If someone comes in to volunteer and they don’t feel like they did anything, they won’t come back. I want them to picture what they did in the house that made a difference. It might be some finishing work that everyone will see for years, or it might be something inside the walls that isn’t seen but is still important. I want everyone to feel good about what they did, that their time was not wasted.

Why do you do this? It’s fun.  I would not be doing this if it wasn’t fun.
    
Well, it’s not always fun. There are times my alarm goes off at 5:30 and I have to be at Home Depot at 6:30 and I think, “Oh, man.”
    
A lot of times I’d like to be a volunteer—walking the top plate (the top board of a wall under construction) and talking trash instead of walking around with a clipboard.

How did you learn your construction skills?
    
It was on my first house here in Benicia, on Buena Vista. I did everything wrong. I used masking tape on the wallboard (laughing at the memory). I didn’t know any better. …
And by working with people like (contractor) Scott Deane. I learned there are people you can call for advice and they will help you.

How did you end up teaching in Benicia? There were almost no jobs in teaching in California in 1974. But there was an opening here and I applied.  It was my first interview for my first job, and I got it. It was in the stars. I was so lucky to get a job in Benicia. What a neat, fun job. What a neat place to work. Such an abundance of really dedicated teachers there. When you surround yourself with really good people, good things happen.

What stands out in your memories of BMS? We were always supported.  Ron Garcia (PE teacher) wanted to do a climbing wall in the gym. We had this big, beautiful new gym, and we convinced the Site Council to give us $2,700 for a climbing wall. They took this huge leap of faith to have students do the project, with all the permits, of course. So when you’re up 25 feet on the wall—with a rope, of course—there is this big hold just out of reach. You have to take a leap to reach it—it’s called the Site Council Leap of Faith.
    
I remember I wanted the kids to build scroll work benches.  Sue Hutchison (BMS principal at the time) gave us $500 seed money. In other situations, I’m not sure that would have happened. There are three of those benches at the bottom of First Street. They were sponsored by the Benicia Historical Society and all made by middle school kids and installed by middle school kids. All those welds are by middle school kids. There also are benches in all the cemeteries, a total of seven or eight around town.

What do you do to relax? I play in the garden. By play, I mean I sit a lot with a glass of wine. I play with my dog—I’m a real dog lover. I do play a little bit of guitar and a little bit of piano, but not very well. I do a little bit of reading, and we love to go antiquing. I also love yoga.

What’s next for you? I’m going to watch Calliope grow up, and there are a lot of neat train trips we’d like to take.

As far as Habitat goes, I hope to evolve back to being a volunteer and go back to building.

Oh—have you ever heard of a slackline? It’s like a tightrope, but it’s slack and it’s closer to the ground. It helps with your balance. You can get younger balance-wise as you get older physically. I put one in my shop. One of my goals this year is to learn to walk the slack line.

Categories: Community, Education, Home + Garden, Interview, People + Places

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