April 2011: Making the Grade

Words: Dan Kamys Making the Grade Where Are They Now: John Grablewski Editor’s Note: “Where Are They Now?” stories focus on the progress and successes of individuals who were previously featured in “Making the Grade.”

John Grablewski worked masonry jobs from Pottstown to Philadelphia to Reno; Mississippi to Connecticut and back to Reno; on to Switzerland and back to Pottstown; and then to Switzerland again, off to Russia and back to Switzerland. Now, he’s back home in Pottstown, Pa., and he’s only 24 years old.

Grablewski has taken advantage of one of the real benefits of the masonry trade: mobility. In his short masonry career, he has moved from location to location, based on the work available and the work he wanted to do.?? Now, as owner/operator of French Creek Masonry Works, Grablewski is committed to building his business.

“Oh, I’ll continue to travel some, Grablewski says. “Most people do take vacations, but I’m committed to growing this business. I know that I’m happiest working for myself or with a small group.”

Following his graduation from high school, Grablewski had a decision to make.

“I was interested in the University of Delaware,” says Grablewski, “but I knew that I liked working outside. My uncle, Fred Minahan, is a 1980 graduate of Williamson (the Williamson Free School of Mechanical Trades, Media, Pa.).?? That’s what I chose.

“The first year was tough, he contines. “I had to make some adjustments and get used to working with the same people all day, every day. But it was great preparation for apprentice work. Most apprentices learn on the job, but Williamson graduates are producers right away.”

His masonry instructor, Dan Hiltebeitel, remember Grablewski as being full of energy. “He was extremely cooperative, would do anything I asked, and worked well in groups,” Hiltebeitel says. “And he was a talker?Ķjust inquisitive, I think. He always wanted to know ‘Why,’ but he did so while never slowing his activity.”

A SkillsUSA participant, Grablewski always competed with classmate Mike Wagner, who won the national masonry competition in 2007.

“The competition of the SkillsUSA shop competitions helped me to learn to work at a good pace,” says Grablewski. “I know I increased my production by preparing for and participating in those competitions.”

Grablewski may have been bitten by the travel bug during his days at Williamson. Hiltebeitel arranged for Grablewski and several other masonry students to accompany him on a Hurricane Katrina relief trip to Mississippi.?? For four weeks in December 2007 and January 2008, they lived in plywood shacks and ate under tents while re-building homes in Waveland and Bay St. Louis.

Following graduation, Grablewski took a job building custom and pre-fabricated masonry heaters for New England Hearth and Soapstone in Torrington, Conn.

“I sure learned a lot and enjoyed the experience, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” says Grablewski.

Travelin’ man Grablewski first worked on an internship Reno for nine months. Then, back in Pottstown, while working with his uncle, he became interested in dry stone work. He researched the topic on the internet and sent numerous emails. Dieter Schneider, a certified dry stone mason in Buckten, Switzerland, responded and offered to mentor Grablewski in an internship program. Grablewski was off to Switzerland for two months.

His next opportunity to work and travel was a trip to Russia to work with a friend in hardscape landscaping.

“This was the trip that had the greatest shock value,” says Grablewski. “I was shocked by the lack of work ethic. The jobs I was to work on weren’t ready. So, we did other work for a while – flat work and granite pavings, for example. Honestly, I got tired of it; and, on my way back to the States, I stopped in Switzerland for six weeks.

“Returning to Switzerland from Russia was a breath of fresh air,” Grablewski continues. “The scenery is beautiful, and I realized how challenged I feel standing in front of a pile of stone with a hammer in one hand and a chisel in the other. Then, it’s just so fulfilling to stand in front of the finished product.” He is now certified by the Dry Stone Conservancy.

In 2010, Grablewski established his company, French Creek Masonry Works, www.FrenchCreekMasonryWorks.com. As a small business owner/operator, he is pooling work with two other graduates from the Williamson masonry program. His travels, however, are far from over. He is currently organizing a 10-day missionary trip to South Africa with another Willamson graduate and SkillsUSA participant, Keith McEneaney.

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