2023 Hall of Fame Inductee: Dan Hiltebeitel

Words: Isa Stein

MASONRY Magazine: Tell me how you got started in the industry.

Dan Hiltebeitel: It's an interesting story. 1963, 14-year-old kid. I grew up working on a dairy farm had a 4-H Heifer Calf, and I got word through my parents that there was a builder in downtown Pennsylvania looking for a good kid for the summer, so I went to work for Leon Gable. He had two carpenters, and they usually built one or two houses a year, but they were nice homes. We were actually building a recreation center at Westtown Friends School in West Chester, Pennsylvania. We were nailing actual redwood siding on a diagonal. I'm 14 years old. Two nice carpenters say, "Whatever you do, don't miss the nail because you can't get the hammer marks out of the redwood siding." Well, the more I tried to hit the skinny little stainless-steel nails, the more I missed. The next day, they put me with the bricklayer, and it clicked. I've been there ever since. The faster and harder I worked, the better the guy liked me. It was mud and flannel shirts and tractors, and it just fit.

So, that was 1963, and that was my first exposure to construction. And in '64, again, this is summer time when school was out, I went to work for Harry & John Valentino, who did nothing but flat concrete work: concrete floors, sidewalks, porches, and that sort of thing. In 1964, I started drinking coffee because on the first break that Harry & John Valentino took, they said, "Do you want coffee?" and as a 15-year-old, I said no, I don't drink coffee, so I had to keep working while they were having a coffee break. Next day, I drank coffee. That was the beginning of my addiction to coffee, and that was the beginning of my career in the masonry industry. I had no relatives in the business. My parents were both professionals, and my dad, Director of Engineering at Pepperidge Farm; my mom was a third-grade school teacher, and they didn't have a clue about construction. The funny thing is one of those days, I got sent home because it was raining, and my mom wanted to know right away why they didn't like me. What was I doing wrong? Why did I get sent home? And I said, "Mom, its raining; you can't lay brick in the rain." And they had no clue what that meant, but that was those beginning years in 1963-1964.

I continued to work every summer. Next summer, I worked for a fella who did all kinds of masonry work – residential as well as commercial brick, block, stone, concrete. We even did a couple of tile jobs, everything. I was hooked then because the money was good. And I liked the sun tan and the physical aspects of working outside. I continued working on and off as a laborer, apprentice boy at times. As a matter of fact, I used to keep a trowel in my back pocket so that when I got caught up with the bricklayers, they had all the mortar, brick and block stocked, and I would get on a wall and attempt to lay a brick or a block with a trowel. My employer saw that. One of those summers, I don't know exactly what year it was, but he said, "Why don't you bring your tools? We got enough laborers; try to get on the wall." And I've been trying to get on the wall ever since, and I was thinking that was 50 years ago. That's hard to believe. I don't know how Joy got that old, but I didn't.

M.M.: What are some of the challenges that you’ve faced along the way?

D.H.: Well, the biggest thing is to make 40 hours a week. That was always my motivation is, how can I get more hours? That's the one of the things I think I continue to struggle with. Of course, my parents always worked 40-hour weeks; everybody had a full week. Whoever heard of being laid off? On a dairy farm, you work from dawn to dusk, but in the construction industry, you're pretty much dictated by the weather. So that was the number one challenge to get 40 hours, but I stayed diligent; that was the key. I was no quitter. I wanted to get 40 hours a week. I worked holidays. I worked weekends. I worked whenever I wasn't playing sports. In summertime, those kinds of things are when I worked, and I worked as a laborer. It was a non-union situation. I would labor a little bit, get on the wall, lay a little bit, try to finish concrete once in a while, and all the mistakes and things that come along with that process.

I wanted to be respected as a craftsman. The older bricklayers, the older concrete finishers I worked with commanded a certain amount of respect, and that appealed to me… that you had gained some knowledge. I can remember one day as a young fella, I may have been 16 or 17, I went into a hardware store, and the guy in the hardware store asked my opinion about a masonry project. And that really blew my head up - the ego - I guess is what it was, but to be respected enough to be asked by an older gentleman about the masonry industry really appealed to me. That's how I started in the masonry industry and some of the challenges, of course, to be able to share knowledge that I've learned.

I wasn't much of a reader in school. I was an average student, and then I got hooked on this masonry thing and thought, what is the right way to do things? I can remember working on a block job, and we were putting wiring reinforcement in the bed joints, and I asked the bricklayer, "Why do we put wire in the bed joints?" and he said, "Well, that's so when we knock the wall down, it all stays together," and I knew that couldn't possibly be the right answer. So, I started to investigate masonry; I had no formal education in the masonry industry. I learned on the job, which I think is probably the best way to learn, but when I got out of the Marine Corps, I joined the bricklayer's union for the first time in Orange County, California – Local 22. As I drove off Camp Pendleton, now I'm a little older, in my twenties, I drove off base, and they were building a post office in San Clemente, California. I drove on the job and said, "Hey, I'm a bricklayer; are you hiring?" and the foreman said, "Well, get on the wall for an hour and let me see what you can do." So, I got on the wall and, obviously, after being in the Marine Corps – it was during Vietnam, I lost what skills I had, or they needed refreshment. I did some side jobs, like pouring concrete for other Marines, but it wasn't like working as a bricklayer every day. He said, "Well, how are you as an improver?" which meant that I had to join the union for the first time in my life, and I would join as an apprentice halfway through the program. I thought that was pretty good. I had to go to Industry, California, to apprentice training school on Saturdays, and now my formal education in masonry began. I started to see I had no idea there were different types of mortar and what the wire reinforcement does in concrete block masonry. I started to learn the textbook aspect of masonry, and that happened in Orange County in Local 22 around 1974. I was a little bit older now, and I got married right when Vietnam was over, and we lived there in San Clemente, and I got hooked on masonry.

Then, I started running across written information, and I'm not sure how I discovered that, but there was a book that I read called Bricklayers' Century Of Craftsmanship, and it was actually put out by the national NCMA. It talked about a bricklayer from Philadelphia; the book was written by Harry Bates. Thomas Jefferson actually lived in the bricklayer's house when he wrote The Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia, and that just clicked with me. I mean the history of being from the Philadelphia area and to know that Jacob Graff was the bricklayer in Philadelphia. That was a real interesting and historic aspect of the trade that I've never even thought about before. The next book that really positively affected me was a book called Bricklaying System by Frank Bunker Gilbreth. And if you ever saw the movie Cheaper By The Dozen, this is basically what Frank Gilbreth wrote about, which is making the bricklayer more efficient. I have that book; I got a printed version. I don't have the original copy, but it's very interesting about bricklaying systems and their efficiency. Frank Gilbreth and his wife went all around the country speaking about making bricklayers more efficient, and I thought, wow, I wonder if I could ever do that? I wonder if I could be a shaker and mover in the industry. I ran into another book, and it's called From the Carriage Age… To the Space Age, and this is the book. It was written by NCMA about a bricklayer from Kensington, Pennsylvania, Francis J. Straub, and who was one of the early developers of the 1900s concrete block. They went away from a solid concrete block unit, which was primarily cement and sand, to a hollow unit, which was easier to handle and more transportable. He would go on speaking engagements; this was 1909-1910. Early development of the concrete block, and I thought, man, wouldn't that be something to go around the country and talk about masonry and convince people that masonry is the way to go?

The next thing that happened to me that was a huge challenge was in 1979. I applied for and was accepted as a masonry instructor for the central Chester County Vocational and Technical School in Coatesville, Pennsylvania, and it's a secondary school. In October of '79, the substitute teacher was there, and he gave me the keys, opened the door, and said, "There you go." 20 students in the morning session and 20 students in the afternoon session. I didn't have a clue how to teach bricklaying or masonry. You have to understand I was a Health & Phys Ed major at West Chester University, played football, and wrestled at Westchester; I was an Infantry Platoon Commander during Vietnam. I knew something about educating groups and talking to groups of people and objectives and setting a class schedule and that sort of thing, but I never had any formal education in masonry other than my exposure at the training center in Orange County, California. And there I was, with 20 high school hot-shots in the morning and 20 in the afternoon. That was a terrific challenge for me even though I had a Health & Phys Ed degree in education, the state of Pennsylvania said that you have to be certified in vocational education. So, in addition to learning how to teach bricklaying, now I have to go to Temple University in the evenings and get my vocational certification. It was another challenge; it's how do you balance that? We did video tapes in my shop of demos demonstrating how to cut a block, demonstrating how to spread mortar and all those things, and through that temple exposure, I started to understand better how to expose young people to masonry and masonry skills, but that was definitely a huge challenge to be thrusted into that situation.

The next big thing is I spent 20 years teaching masonry at Coatesville Vo/Tech. Got a little frustrated with public education, and I understood there was an opening at the Williamson Free School of Mechanical Trades, now called the Williamson College of the Trades, in Media, Pennsylvania. I heard about Williamson my whole career… about these outstanding young men who go through the Williamson program, and was I good enough to be the masonry instructor at such a fine institution as the Williamson College of the Trades? I was very apprehensive, but I applied for the job. It was a big pay cut, it was a longer day, it was an hour and a half drive as opposed to a twenty-minute drive to go to work, but that was the challenge that I wanted. I wanted to be the Williamson College of the Trades masonry instructor. I did that for 28 years. Williamson often brags, as I do, about being in this tremendous vocational school, and I thought: you can say it all you want, but you gotta prove it. I got involved with SkillsUSA in Pennsylvania. I heard about it at the Vo/Tech school when I was a high school teacher, and I had several competitors, and I liked competition. I liked that challenge; a bricklayer competes every day for his job, and you gotta be ready for competition. We did pretty well both at the high school level and at the post-secondary level. The Williamson College of the Trades, those students competed in post-secondary trade skills, and that's different than high school level trade skills. But those challenges, starting with basic getting 40 hours a week, to being good enough to build corners and lead. I started doing side jobs and bidding, estimating material, and making money. Doing it was another challenge. Next was how do I teach masonry, the curriculum, projects, and all that sort of thing? So, I've had several of those challenges that continued throughout my career.

M.M.: What are you most proud of?

D.H.: I’m a little humble, so I don’t want to be bragging about myself – it’s the students. All I did was bait the hook and that’s all I did. That’s all I wanted to do, was to give them enough information, teach a little bit of stonework, teach a little bit of concrete finishing. Basically, brick and block laying was my area of the trade. When we got involved in the masonry competition, that was a proud moment to see young people doing so well at that state and national level in the high school area. I had a young man from Parkesburg, Pennsylvania, who won third place in the nationals. I had another in 1993, Mark Bradley, who was third in nationals, probably the best bricklayer that I ever had; I have to be careful when I say that. I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, but that was in the high school. Very difficult at the high school level to win at the state contest because the host of the school always had the home court advantage with judges, and the kids knew their way around the shop, so when you come in as an outsider, it’s always a little bit apprehensive at the high school level.

When I got Williamson, I kind of turned a corner. They didn’t have an active SkillsUSA club at that time, so I started one my second year at Williamson, and I was the adviser for SkillsUSA. The thing I was most proud of was, in 2000, we won the national bricklaying contest; that was pretty good, too. First, you have to win at the district level, which was primarily our local Williamson masonry shop. Then, you go to the state contest in the spring and winning at Philadelphia State Skills, there were not a lot of post-secondary students, and we did that, and that qualified you to go to nationals. With Williamson masonry students, I was first in nationals in 2001, 2003, and 2007. We won the first in Philadelphia state masonry contest in 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 all the way up to 2017, and I retired in 2016. Those fellas who won at the state level moved on to the national level. I had three first-place winners at the national level in 2001, 2003, and 2007. Second place for three years: 2004, 20015, 2016. Third place, I had five: 2005, 2006, 2008, 2011, 2014. Fourth place, which is a non-medal place, but when you’re in the top four in the nation, I think that gives you bragging rights. We had fourth place in 2009, 2012, and 2013. I’m extremely proud of that record of being able to go to the national level and demonstrate that Williamson College of the Trades was a fine institution and there were fine young men who went through that program. I spent 20 years at the high school level teaching masonry and then another 18 years teaching post-secondary, which was at Williamson College of the Trades. So, that’s a total of 38 years of teaching masonry.

You talk about proudest moments, and I talk about the competition, but there’s another one that really hit home. Mark Bradley, who won 3rd place at the high school level, I actually had his son at Williamson, and his son is one of the finest young men, Jessie Bradley, that I ever had in masonry. He didn’t win in the competition; he got beat at our local contest, but one of the things that made me proud was when a father sent his son to me. That said something. I had an outstanding masonry contractor in the Philadelphia area, the Manero brothers. Manero Masonry is known around the Philadelphia area as being an outstanding masonry company. One of the Maneros sent their son to Williamson. I am extremely proud of that; that there’s a whole family of uncles, grandfathers, and fathers who were bricklayers and masons, and they sent their son to me at Williamson. I’m extremely proud of that.

Another thing I’m really proud of is that I’m still working. I’m 74 years old, and last week, I worked a day and a half. I know it’s only a day and a half, but I’m still working. If I were to say anything to any young person, it is to learn a trade; it doesn’t matter what trade it is. If you have a skill that you know and can mark it, then you have employment for your entire life. I just talked to a young man who was a project manager, and he was laid off during COVID in 2020, but because he was a bricklayer first, he went back to work. He was doing residential patios, sidewalks, and fireplaces. I’m proof of the pudding that at 74, you can still do it. 

M.M.: What do you think is the biggest challenge the industry is facing now?

D.H.: Obviously, the biggest challenge that we have today is getting aggressive, physically fit young people into the masonry industry. I know there’s a shortage, and everyone has a ‘help wanted’ sign out. There’s a big demand, but we need to do everything we can to attract young people to the masonry industry.

One thing I did in 1991 was I went to Germany. I had a German friend I worked with at the Vo/Tech school, and he owned a condominium in Germany. And he encouraged me to go to Europe and see that everything in Europe is masonry and that we, in the United States, are ‘so smart‘ and we stick build when the Europeans have lived for hundreds of years in the same buildings. They’re all masonry. So, in 1991, with a lot of apprehension, Joy and I took the kids out of school, and we went to Germany. I put my tools on the Lufthansa airplane and got me a job laying block and brick. It wasn’t brick, but it was a clay unit that looked almost like a flue lining. In southern Germany, they use that special unit because of the extreme cold in the wintertime. They heat with masonry stoves; they run heat in the masonry floor – it’s ceramic tile – it’s all masonry residential in Germany. And I’m coming back to the United States thinking to myself, what’d we miss with the smart Americans that know so much? We build out of 2x4s that warp and bend and burn and grow mold. Anyway, that was another big deal for me, and the big challenge is to convince people in the industry, to convince the builders, the architects, the inspectors, and the code writers that masonry is the way to go. Load-bearing masonry doesn’t burn. Look at Florida; they build concrete block houses, and they get flooded by a hurricane, and they hose ‘em out, and they rebuild. They don’t have to tear them down. They’re good enough the way they are. Maybe wash the mold out, but masonry is the way to go. So that’s our biggest challenge, and now facing the industry is to continue to attract good, mentally disciplined, physically young people because masonry is physical. It’s not for everybody, and it’s a unique bunch of people. What I said regularly when I did presentations to tour groups at Williamson was, “Masonry is not for everybody, but athletes make good bricklayers.” Athletes are used to the dirt; they kind of like playing in the dirt; they’re used to getting nicked up. And that’s the kind of mentality you need to have to be in the masonry industry, and the biggest challenge is attracting those young people into the trade.

M.M.: What is your legacy?

D.H.: I had to look up legacy. That’s something I hope that I inspired the young people in my course to do – look up the answer. Don’t take the guy next to you’s word that it’s right – look it up and see what the book says. A legacy is anything that’s handed down from the past or a gift of personal property. I hope that I’ve handed down to every young person, my son, my daughter, my grandchildren, my students – hard work. Hard work. It’s okay to sweat; it’s alright to get dirty. Hard work and save your money. If you don’t have money in the bank, don’t buy it. You’d be surprised on how little you can get by on. Avoid the evils of our society – drugs and alcohol… killing us; premarital sex… killing us. Stay on the straight and narrow. If you don’t have the money, don’t buy anything. Joy has been my right hand with that very economical lady, and we have what we have because of my wife. We’ve been married for 50 years, and we’d been together 10 years prior to that. Of course, I wasn’t going to get married during Vietnam. I didn’t want any young widows, and we stuck together. Thanks to Joy, my wife, we’ve been frugal, we’ve got money in the bank, we’ve got no debt – how many people can say that today? We’ve got no debt, and I’m still working. That’s the legacy that I want to leave to young people or anybody that I can sell that to or will hear. You learn to get by on limited income. When you work 20 hours a week as a bricklayer because it’s snowing in Pennsylvania and it’s 10 degrees, you learn to be frugal. And some of those basic things that Williamson talks about regularly. Their code of ethics and standards is what I hope is my legacy.

M.M.: What advice would you give to younger people looking to enter the industry?

D.H.: The five core values at Williamson: faith is number one, integrity, diligence, service, and excellence. I believe very strongly in those core values. If every young person, as they leave the house in the morning, look at those core values while they’re shaving or brushing their teeth every morning… It’s difficult; it’s not easy. We all make mistakes, but to recoup after those mistakes that’s the advice I would give to young people today entering the industry. Those five core values are more important than position and status, and things we get all tied up with… wind surfing and skateboarding and 4x4s and motorcycles, and that’s all junk that really we’re gonna end up throwing away… We gotta get away from the things that we have and get to those five core values. Integrity… is when you can tell someone to do something, you do it, come hook or crook. It’s not always easy; I was concerned about being here on time, and I think we did it, but when you say you’re gonna be there, be there. Service – I’m in the Lions Club at Honey Brook. I served in the Marine Corps. Those kinds of things I thank God every day for. What Joy and I have accumulated and that we have no debt, it’s time to give back and give to those in need. Service is huge. Diligence I mentioned as the fourth value and excellence; there’s nothing better than being on a multistory building and sighting down the corner at the three or four stories that you just built, and it’s dead plumb. When you can do that, I can’t tell you where that building is or how many of those I did, but I have that image in my mind’s eye, and to be able to do that and know you did that with a four-foot level and your trowel and brick hammer, that’s the excellence I’m talking about. To do what you do and do it well.

M.M.: What does it mean to be in the Masonry Hall of Fame?

D.H.: Well, I’m humbled. I don’t brag normally, but you asked me to do a little bit of that in this interview. To be recognized in the Hall of Fame with some of the other people in our industry who have made great strides in the industry, included in that group: Curtis Hoover is a member, and that guy has got more energy than I ever dreamed of having… to be included in that same hall of fame in a group with Doug Dry, and so many others I can’t possibly name, that is just humbling to me. To think I would be included with this group of people, it’s an honor, and it’s certainly a highlight of my masonry career. There are a couple of things that were said me personally prior to this that rank right up there to being in the Hall of Fame.

I was on a union job in the center of the City of Philadelphia, and the bricklayer next to me didn’t know I was the teacher at Williamson. He said to me, “You know, these kids coming out of Williamson, they’re a lot better than they’ve ever been.” Boom! That was huge. I did concrete with Andy in West Chester, Pennsylvania. Not too long ago, Andy is 54 or 55 years old, and I had him at Vo/Tech. He said, “You know what, Hilt? Anybody who’s any good in masonry had Dan Hiltebeitel.” And that’s humbling to hear that unsolicited and to have fruition of that to come back with this induction into the Masonry Hall of Fame. I’m just very overwhelmed by that.

M.M.: Is there anything else that you would like to add?

D.H.: The greatest thing that Joy and I do now is grandchildren. I have to tell you I have eight grandchildren. Dan, my son, has five: Brook Trent, Casey Trent, Carter Trent, Brinley Hiltebeitel, and Elise Hiltebeitel. And my daughter, Carrie-Anne Haag, has an outstanding husband. Dan has an outstanding wife. Carrie-Anne and RJ have Ricky, Katie, and Harry. So, Harry knows I’m involved in masonry competitions, and he’s five. And he knows I go judge masonry contests all over the place in Vegas and the Bricklayer 500, and he gets in the car seat after visiting with Joy and I, and he says to his mom, “Grandad does a lot of these bricklaying contests; you don’t want to get in a contest with me, mom, because ill smoke you” He’s five years old! He’s already talking about smoking his mother in a bricklaying contest! That’s the real joy and pleasure we have, and going to see them in their sports and all their activities: bands, plays, and chorus, and that’s really the future of the country are these young people. That’s why I’m so adamant on making good craftsmen. Yeah, I went to college for Health & Phys Ed, and I wouldn’t trade that, but I didn’t go in debt. I paid my way through working as an apprentice and as a laborer and didn’t go in debt. If you can’t afford it, learn a trade. If you can go to college debt free, then great, do it. It’s a valuable experience, and the same with joining the military. I recommended these things to my son and daughter, and they did the exact same thing. They went by the book, and my son served three tours in Iraq as an Infantry Platoon Leader. My daughter would’ve been a Marine, but her mother said she couldn’t lay brick, and she married an FBI Agent, and she’s right up in there serving our community as a reading specialist. How much more important of a job can you get than a reading specialist? So I’m very proud of both of my kids and their families and what they have done. And that’s where we as America have to focus our energy on the youth and keeping them on the straight and narrow.

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