ON THE JOB IN HOPEWELL VALLEY
Editor’s Note: This is the 13th in a series of portraits of people at work.
Asked what attracted him to the trade of masonry, Lou Beck flashed his characteristic smile, which somehow manages to look genial and taciturn at the same time, and replied: "I was just looking for a job."
Mr. Beck, a Hopewell Township resident who grew up on Franklin Avenue in Pennington with four sisters, took a job as a laborer right after graduating from Hopewell Valley Central High School 22 years ago.
"It was with the company of Hunt and Augustine, building homes," he said. "I had a great mentor during the two years I was with them – a mason named George Poole."
Asked what sort of a man Mr. Poole was, Mr. Beck, after smiling that certain way again, said: "Very courteous. Very clean. Very accurate."
Asked if these qualities made Mr. Poole a typical mason, Mr. Beck smiled yet again, and chuckled a little too, this time, then replied "No" and declined politely to elaborate on his answer.
After two years with Hunt and Augustine, Mr. Beck struck out on his own, and he’s been a self-employed mason ever since. Years ago, he tried hiring help. He does no longer, and doesn’t expect to again.
"When I work alone, I have complete control over everything," he explained. "I’ve had helpers, but this way works out better. This way, I get the credit and I get the blame. There’s nobody else to get them but me. If it’s blame, I take it, then fix what needs to be fixed. Then I get credit for fixing it."
Mr. Beck stays close to home while working, confining himself to the Hopewell Valley and nearby communities. "One thing I enjoy is being able to work right around here and not get involved with traffic," he said. "That way, I can get my work done efficiently and go home to spend time with my family."
Mr. Beck and his wife, Susie, have a daughter, Gillian, 11, and son Peter, 8. "And we have a baby on the way," he said happily.
As he spoke, the mason put the finishing touches on a large, very fine-looking flagstone patio behind a home on Eglantine Avenue in Pennington. Listening to him, one sees he approaches words the way he does the materials of his trade: with care and respect.
"I enjoy my work," he said. "I’m still learning. It’s very challenging. I’ve learned a lot by asking the old-timers, and from day-to-day experience. You take information you’ve acquired and try it, test it, prove it. It’s difficult work. Every aspect of it is challenging. You can be proud of what you’ve done, then all of a sudden be humbled by a crack that just appears.
"It has proven to be true that the elements make it hard. Rain and brutal heat have to be dealt with. They’re not comfortable, and they all affect the way the work sets."
The mason shook his head a bit, smiled that way again, shrugged and said, not complainingly, but matter-of-factly, "It’s very difficult work. That’s just the nature of it. So you have to adapt as you go along."
Mr. Beck does many kinds of masonry. He builds, or restores, porches, steps, walls, chimneys, fireplaces and the foundations of buildings. During the winter, he does custom tile work indoors. Asked what he likes to do when he’s not working, he said: "I don’t get that opportunity much. Whatever Pete likes to do."
Hearing his name, Peter Beck popped into view from the other side of his father’s truck. Peter, able to accompany Mr. Beck to work this day because schools were closed for the teacher’s convention, was dressed head to toe in ice hockey gear, including mask. Seeing this, his father teased him: "Hey, I thought you were going to help me work today!"
Mr. Beck said he’s never run advertisements offering his services, not even in the Yellow Pages. "Never needed to," he said. "Never ran out of work."
Working in the Hopewell Valley area has given him a chance to work on buildings hundreds of years old. This has kindled an interest in doing things they way they used to be done in the early days of our country.
"I’ve been working to achieve a very old style of stone work – 17th-century American," he said. "It goes with a lot of places around here. It’s about understanding the simplicity of how they did it. I’ve reused stones from very old barns, walls, foundations. It takes a lot of time, and that’s the secret.
"The challenge is to give it that authentically old look and get the work done efficiently at the same time. With any kind of job, the biggest reward is when people who have hired me are proud of what I’ve done. That means a lot."