Respect earned from veteran paving crew

Published 6:00 am Wednesday, August 9, 2023

By Steve Stricker

After morning Mass St. John’s Catholic Church last Thursday, a blast of heat hit me exiting the church and I had a flashback to paving work on University Avenue in front of St. John’s Aug. 9, 2016, and to southern Missouri where, in another life, I worked for an asphalt construction company for four years.

Ever since, at the first sign of heat, my body begins to stream sweat. A doctor told me it was from those four years, that heat, and “my thermostat, was stuck wide open.”

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Newly married with a young son and laid off from a job, I needed work and my father-in-law at the time had a close friend who owned an asphalt company. He agreed to hire me. I had my undergraduate and a master’s degree, but I never minded hard work and signed on.

It wasn’t the hard work that surprised me, but the reverse discrimination I felt from the other veteran, tough, grizzled workers – many of whom had only an elementary or high school degree. Here I was, with college degrees, living on the north end of town, no real experience with such a company, and they reckoned I couldn’t do anything.

They made me a “Loot Man,” the lowest, hardest position on the crew – pushing, smoothing hot asphalt with a rake called a loot.

Knowing they had no faith in my work ability, I worked circles around them, busted my tail, and after a year and half of proving myself, they gradually accepted me. Knowing I had above average motor skills, I watched everything they did, soaked it in, and one day the guy who ran our small tractor with front scoop and back blade didn’t show up.

Our foreman asked our crew if someone would drive the tractor. The others all looked at their shoes, and I said I would. I had practiced this over and over watching Bud and with a toy tractor.

The rest of them exchanged looks of laughter. I saw them, but got on the tractor and nailed it. After a few hours those looks turned to total respect and after work, foreman James told me “good job.” After that, it was the best experience of my life, and things changed rapidly.

Gene, one of the core leaders, taught me to run the grader, large front-end loader and large Caterpillar, which was easy as breathing to me.

James had me run the small roller to smooth the hot asphalt. Rapidly, James put me on the large asphalt roller and quickly I became the assistant roller man. It was easy to me, and I hauled that beast from site to site on a large truck and trailer.

When a position opened at my alma mater as academic adviser, career and personal counselor and teacher, I applied and got the job. The guys, now my brothers, hated to see me leave the crew, and it was difficult for me to leave them.

It was the best, hardest, hottest job of my life and the best guys to work with to this day. If now I would ask any of these tough guys for the shirts off their backs, they’d give it to me.

Steve is an Oxford resident, received his Ph.D. in Counseling from Ole Miss, and can be reached at