Let’s see now I had been discharged a few months in 1957 and upon arriving home needed a job. My uncle Ted was the city engineer for the City of Rockford and recommended I try and get on with a work crew that graded and laid out streets in new developments. He said they were always looking for help. I took his advice and soon found myself working as a day laborer for a local contractor.
It was at this time I met a man I’ll call Joe. Joe was an Italian and his family had immigrated to America while still in his teens. He spoke with an Italian accent and seemed like a really nice guy. In junior and senior high school I had many Italian friends and really enjoyed their company and their families. So I found it difficult to understand why my fellow workers disliked Joe so much. I worked with him daily and soon began to notice something different about him.
He was a hard worker and although quiet seemed to cause problems with the other workers. I heard them talking about him all the time with great resentment. I couldn’t understand this as he never spoke ill of anyone or in any way offended anyone. He was the first to work in the morning. He took only the 15-minute breaks the union contract outlined. He only took ½ hour breaks for lunch, and didn’t stop work until the foreman said to. I would guess his age to be about 45. I had worked on the crew for just a few weeks and was puzzled with the other union workers on the job and there dislike for Joe.
I searched for an answer in conversations with some of the guys and there comments were: “He’s just a ‘brown nose;” or “You know these ‘Dagos’ they aren’t too smart;” or He’s a religious nut a ‘mackerel snapper’ (a rude euphemism for a Roman Catholic). I even received some of their wrath as I would work and eat with Joe and I also came under suspicion. The workers also said Joe was bad for the union.
That I only later understood is that he set such a high standard of work ethic and faithfulness, other union workers looked slothful in his presence. Some of the union stewards didn’t like Joe because he would refuse to “slow down” a job to prolong it. He also never complained about working conditions, or even wages. He was always cheerful, helpful and willingly would take some of the “dirtier” jobs without a blink of the eye. Always on time and with a smile he did a days work for a days pay. He had a family whom he dearly loved and was a “daily communicant” at St. Anthony’s church in Rockford.
I had only worked on this job for several weeks when my uncle called and told me to apply for a city job that would pay more. I applied got some training and became a “city inspector.” The job consisted of making sure that the “specifications” of the contract let by the city were met. These contracts were in new sub-divisions for roads and sewer drainage. Underground sewer pipe was laid as well as manholes were constructed. These were at intersections so that later if there were problems not only with sewer lines but also telephone and some electric lines. Access could be had. These manholes were of course completely underground.
I soon was out in the sub-divisions again only this time as a “city inspector” and not as a daily laborer. It wasn’t long before I ran into Joe and the crew I had worked with. They greeted me with tolerance but also with some disdain. Joe however was genuinely happy to see me and we shared lunch together that same day. I noticed afresh the way the other workers treated him and once again was concerned and wondered why he was so vilified. Mind you, the foreman loved Joe and seemed to protect his job. This also caused problems, as the foreman was management not union.
Well, days passed and I went from job to job and occasionally would see Joe who always greeted me with the same sweetness and joy. I saw many other crews and soon found there was quite a difference in the quality of work, especially in the building of manholes. I noticed that when manholes were to be built on Joe’s crew the foreman always asked him to do it. This infuriated the other workers but Joe would build them and whistle and sometimes sing in Italian as he did. This seemed to really irritate of the other workers. Joe seemed unfazed and went about building the most beautiful manholes. (Now, remember, manholes are underground and never would be seen by anyone.) Joe, however, would check the grades from each direction coming into the manhole; and then carefully lay the bricks as though it were the outside of a beautiful brick home. He would carefully lay each brick and clean the mortar off and check the level so that when he was done you they were clean inside and wouldn’t be filled with debris or water if one had to descend into them and work.
Other manholes I saw were slopped together, with mortar all over the place, the grades had to be checked and re-checked as it seemed they tried to get away with the sloppiest job they could. There was a mad rush to get these manholes covered up as quickly as possible. Often I would have to tell them to redo the job, and their anger sometimes was frightening. I never had a single problem with Joe’s manholes. He would finish and call the foreman over who would then call me to inspect it. They looked like the outside of a new brick house. Then, and only then, would Joe cover up the manhole and move on to the next job. I wondered why Joe did such excellent work but it wasn’t until a month or so later I was to find out.
My dad worked for Illinois Bell Telephone Company and as an engineer had laid out many sub-divisions for underground cable and telephone boxes. He also knew many of the linemen from the telephone and electric companies, as well as city employees who would have to work in manholes. This would especially be important when they had to work in cold, rainy, or flood conditions. To try and work with electric or phone lines in manholes that were improperly graded or poorly constructed meant that the water could be a foot deep in them. On cold winter days with outages or other problems one would really appreciate a nice dry manhole. My dad was to tell me that many linemen after completing an unusually hard cold day would often come back to the garage and ask each other if anyone had worked in one of Joe’s manholes. The many who did would tell with great joy if they had. In fact all throughout the city, linemen from the telephone, electric and gas, as well as city and county workers would extol the “manholes of Joe.” I was later to meet some of those linemen and every last one of them knew of Joe and loved him. They would heap praise upon him and each seemed to have a “bad weather” story to tell about how grateful they had been to have had a manhole built by Joe.
Soon after this I had an opportunity to see Joe again. I told him some of what I had heard about his manholes. He seemed almost to blush as he thanked me for telling him. It was then that I asked him why he worked the way he did. He looked around and then very softly said, “Joe doesn’t work for the contractors or the city. Joe builds manholes for Jesus. Jesus must approve every manhole, and I am happy when He does.” I wish I could write this in a broken English-Italian accent so the sweetness could reach you.
So, dear friends, long before I was to become a Christian I was to be the recipient of a testimony of a man who dearly loved Jesus and wanted his work ethic to show that. As a result, underneath many sub-divisions in the city of Rockford, Illinois, is a beautiful buried testimony hidden from man but known to God.