I watched the sea of red and black hats, some 400 of them, from the spectator seats at the recent University of New Mexico’s School of Engineering graduation convocation. Included in the graduates were 22 Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering and 9 Masters of Science in Civil Engineering.
I couldn’t help thinking of my Dad, who would have loved to have proudly received his diploma from a university.
However, that didn’t deter him. While he was a Licensed Civil Engineer for 36 years, his path to that career started through high school vocational classes, and continued through correspondence courses, diligent studying, and peer mentoring.
His introduction to work started when he was old enough to have a paper route. Initially, he worked with the foreman who drove a car with all of the papers in it. Dad stood on the running board and jumped off the moving car as they came to a subscriber – and then jumped back on again. This contributed to the back problems he experienced later in life.
“Self-made man is the term I think best describes Dad,” I told Chris as we were reminiscing about our parents. Chris agreed.
I wondered whether it was a family trait, and wrote to our cousin Millie to ask about her father (Uncle Bill), our Dad’s older brother. “My daddy was absolutely a self-man man!” she replied. “He probably learned his radio technician skills at Plant High School in Tampa.” He was able to use these skills to do radio repair initially from the family’s apartment when they moved to California in 1931 – and later in his own shop.
While we don’t know specifically what classes our Dad took while attending University High School in West Los Angeles, he undoubtedly availed himself of classes in mechanical drawing and graphic arts. In addition, he used his artistic talents in the drama department, designing posters and playbills.
We have been able to trace Dad’s career evolution following his graduation from high school in January, 1934 – the first one in his family to receive a high school diploma, through online business directories, a copy of an employment application and various resumes.
Like Uncle Bill, he appeared to have initially done his outdoor advertising work from the family’s apartment. Within a few months, Dad went into partnership with Andrew Smith, calling their business Brodie – Smith Sign Co.
On his application to the American Society of Civil Engineers, he described his responsibilities – ”prepared sketches, working drawings, full-size layouts and the erection details of structures.”
Sometime between 1936 and 1938, the Brodie Brothers shared business space in Santa Monica – only a couple of blocks from where our Mom opened her Accordion Studio in November, 1937.
The Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce put on a Trade Fair where businesses could rent a stall to advertise their business. Mom decided to take one so some of her students helped her set up the display and took turns playing music on their accordions. On of of the days of the fair, “a young man, a commercial artist who was doing signs for the fair, stopped to look at our display. He said he had an accordion and played a little.” He signed up for lessons and joined the band. According to our Mom’s humorous notes of their courtship, he received his lesson certificate in the late fall of 1938 – and there was no mention of his playing the accordion after that. In the rough draft of her life story, our mother mentions that our Dad told her later that “he had decided when he first got to know me that he wanted to marry me and so took every opportunity he could to get me to go places with him. Their courtship was in full swing by Christmas, 1938.
A letter written by Dad to Mom on April 20, 1939 while she was vacationing with friends on Catalina Island, states “last night I cleared away another obstacle, for which I feel greatly relieved. I spoke to Mr. Stage …and he was quite pleased that it was I who would ask for his daughter’s hand.”
According to a newspaper article, Mom announced her engagement at a meeting of the Junior Music Arts Society by passing candy with a scroll attached to each one. As was the custom at the time, the article went on to detail who presided at the meeting and who was in attendance.
Uncle Bill, already ahead of the times technologically, made a phonograph record at the rehearsal dinner the night before their August 31, 1939 wedding, with all of the toasts and well wishes from family members. Since 78 rpm records cannot easily be played anymore, it has been converted to a CD. We are grateful to be able to listen to the voices of our parents, grandparents and uncle.
By November Dad and Al Smith dissolved their business and our mother closed her music shop after getting married.
Uncle Bill returned to Florida. According to our cousin Millie, “it felt more like home.” He stayed with his cousin George Pittwood and wife Gladys. Before he settled down, he took the opportunity for some adventure and traveled throughout the Caribbean on a ‘banana boat.’
Through Gladys he met Elizabeth soon after his return. The Brodie men did not let any grass grow under their feet once they zeroed in on “the One.” After dating three months, Uncle Bill asked Elizabeth’s father for permission to marry her. They were married Nov 1940.
In 1940 Dad began studying civil engineering through the International Correspondence Schools (ICS).
Our Dad’s next experience on the path that would eventually lead him to be a Licensed and Certified Civil Engineer, was an almost two year stint with well-known Los Angeles architect, F.C. Barienbrock, for whom he did structural drafting and stress analysis of architectural works. It was probably at this point that he became an Associated Member of the American Society of Civil Engineers and started attending their meetings.
When the United States entered World War II, Dad was not allowed to join the military – his skills were deemed too important. Instead, he went to work for the Administration of Civil Aeronautics (ACA) in November 1941, where initially he was preparing drawings and performing calculations. A year later, they transferred him to the Airways Engineering Branch and had him on the road. His log book from that period details his visits to airports under construction in California, Nevada and Arizona where he did surveying, runway grade inspections, and other related duties.
It was enlightening to read the letters he sent almost daily to mom during this period – which she had saved for the rest of her life. There were numerous references to him using the time during the evening to study and complete assignments for ICS and how he continued to learn from his supervisor and job experience:
July 15, 1943 – Alturas, CA:
“Have learned a lot about construction (from Mr. Hahn co-worker – supervisor?), etc. When we get back he is going to try to get the office to put up about $7500 for a complete laboratory to do all testing. He thinks I can handle it.”
Sept. 14, 1943 – Fallon, NV:
“I asked one of the men if he was Mr. Lee. He said ‘yes.’ Turned out to be the same man who conducted the discussion on soils mechanics at the A.S.C.E. Convention I went to in L.A. I went around the job with him and had quite a good talk about the work and he seemed to be impressed with my understanding…”
Sept. 16, 1943:
“There isn’t much to do here at nite, so I sit in my room and read the specifications of the job or figure out new ways of keeping field records on soil testing.”
He remained with the ACA until the west coast airport construction was completed, and then was employed briefly for the Los Angeles County Regional Planning Commission as an Engineering Aide working on the design of airports for the County Airport Master Plan.
He continued to study at night, preparing to take the exam to become a Licensed Civil Engineer. When Mom and Dad built their house, they added an office to the garage. Every night after dinner, Dad would retire to his office to study. I remember going out to kiss him good night before going to bed. He took one of his course exams September 17, 1944.
“He told me the story about taking an exam the morning after I was born,” Chris relates. “He wrote in the margin of the exam paper that his wife had given birth the night before.”
When Chris was five months old, he felt he could leave the family and join the military, becoming a Carpenter’s Mate in the Navy Seabees (Naval Construction Force). On his application for enlistment, he wrote that he had completed 95% of the International Correspondence School’s course in Civil Engineering, as well as a 12-week course in Asphalt Paving Technology at University of California.
After basic training, he was sent to Okinawa. Writing about this time in history and our family’s connection was my first memoir story – July 16, 1945.
The Army also used Uncle Bill’s electronic expertise. He signed up, but when the Army found out he could repair and operate radio equipment, he was transferred to the civil service at Polk (Army Airfield) in Lafayette, LA. “This was a fortunate assignment,” related Cousin Millie. “That’s where Bill was born, and the only doctor in the world who repaired spinal meningiceles was a few miles away in New Orleans.”
His next assignment with the government was in New York City to teach about radio use and equipment at Bell labs – and was fortunate to be able to take his wife and son. When the war ended, they came to MacDill Airforce Base in Tampa where he worked as a civil servant for a couple years before starting a business with his brother-in-law, James.
“He loved teaching.” Cousin Millie reminisced. “He taught pilots about radios.”
In their frequent letters and phone conversations, Uncle Bill also taught our Dad about the latest in electronic technology. We owned a wire recorder when no one else had one. We had one of the first televisions in the neighborhood. He built a short-wave radio, as well as an am radio. Later Dad built a television, and much later built several computers as technology continued to improve. He was probably most proud of the organ he built for our Mom around 1958.
When Dad returned from Okinawa, he worked briefly for the architect again. By July 1946, he had been hired by the City of Santa Monica. By March 1948 he had successfully passed the exam to be a Registered Civil Engineer, and was appointed as Street Superintendent. Later he received a promotion to Assistant City Engineer.
Always looking for ways to advance, he was selected from a state-wide competition to be San Bernardino’s City Engineer and our family moved from Santa Monica to San Bernardino during the summer of 1952.
The position turned out to be very political. The City Council had asked him to “weed out waste, inefficiencies and dubious practice, e.g extending contracts to a favorable few at great expense to the taxpayers.” This evidently upset the status quo. As he was approaching the end of his six month probation, the Civil Service Commission gave notice that they would not certify his name for the city payroll. The City Council, pleased that he was doing what they had asked, passed a resolution of confidence on February 10, 1953. According to a newspaper article on February 27, when pay checks were handed out the prior day, “Engineer Brodie’s wasn’t among them.” After Dad filed suit, the Civil Service Board – on “the advice of its private counsel” reversed its stand, and Dad received his pay check. This must have been a difficult time for both our parents.
Dad, a very ethical person, always acted on his conscience – despite the consequences. This must have been a trait instilled by one or both of his parents. Cousin Millie made the following comment about her Dad “We were always proud of his accomplishments and the integrity and honesty of his professional & personal life.”
After sticking with the job at the City of San Bernardino for three years, he resigned and opened a consulting engineering office with two other engineers – Foulke, Crist and Brodie, where he was not only a partner, but manager.
Getting paid as a consultant was irregular, and in 1958 when I was a year from graduating from high school and with college costs on the horizon, Dad accepted a position with San Bernardino County as Assistant County Flood Control Engineer, and later as Assistant Road Commissioner. During this time, he applied for an engineering position in northern California. By this point in time, his lack of a college degree was held against him, even though he secured a formal Diploma from the International Correspondence Schools and had a successful career.
After both Chris and I had completed college, Dad once again opened his own consulting firm – Omer H. Brodie & Associates, locating his business in Redlands in a building he had built that had an apartment over the office. Mom became the office manager.
On a road trip through the Pacific Northwest and Idaho in 1975, Mom and Dad stopped to visit a friend who had relocated to Coeur d’ Alene. Dad fell in love with the small town on the edge of the lake and decided he wanted to retire there, even though Mom thought she had made the last move of her life. After moving, Dad got licensed in Idaho and continued to do consulting work out of his home office.
In 1981, three years before he died of a heart attack, Dad’s professional expertise was recognized when he had an article published in the Civil Engineering magazine.
Both in California and again in Idaho, Dad never charged a church of any kind for his engineering services. Uncle Bill also gave back to his church and community. According to Cousin Millie, her Dad “supported growth in Brandon by freely providing installation & service for radio equipment for the town in addition to all types of service for electronic equipment for our church and the high school.”
Millie summed up her Dad’s career: “He never graduated from high school and yet kept up-to-date on current electronics by taking many courses and attending top conferences. For more than 25 years he was the most successful mobile radio distributor and services business of General Electric in the southeastern US and was nationally recognized for this success. He sold the most and did all the servicing for his customers without any other employees.”
I look back on our Dad’s professional career with awe. He summed up his career on the cover of his professional prospectus when he opened his consulting practice in 1967: “It has been my creed to attempt to render honest and efficient service, giving due consideration to the client’s financial position, and to anticipate the client’s legal liabilities as a result of work constructed with plans prepared under my direction. If given the opportunity to serve you, I will attempt to perform a professional service beyond reproach.”
Not only did both our Dad and Uncle Bill achieve professional status through their hard work and determination, they did it with integrity.