Making those dreams come true is why Hageman, a woodworking professor, packed his bags last summer and headed to Montana.
“I kept seeing ‘help wanted’ signs wherever I went,” Hageman recalled during a recent interview. But when he asked business owners about their vacancies, he was repeatedly told they could not find skilled workers.
What were businesses looking for? Was he preparing his students for “real jobs?” Hageman decided to find out.
Hageman, who holds numerous college degrees and educational certificates, and whose impressive career includes being an administrator in area school districts, writing a special education textbook and working as an oilfield engineer, downplayed his resume and called a man he had met while fishing earlier in Montana. He asked Ray Plante to give him a summer job as an entry level cabinetmaker.
Plante recalled during a telephone interview that Hageman told him he was a teacher in California and needed practical experience for a course he would be teaching.
When Hageman pushed his last student through his classroom door in mid-May, he pointed his pickup truck toward Montana, where his parents, Ed and Carol Hageman, are living in retirement. Plante, a 62-year-old Vietnam War veteran, put Hageman to work at Plante Custom Cabinets in Ennis, Mont.
“I became just Steve Hageman in Montana. No one knew me. I lived with my parents. I was a 54-year-old guy in an entry level job. It was a humbling experience,” Hageman said, recalling that “I almost got fired the first week.”
Hageman’s first assignment was to build face frames for cabinets. He was given no instructions. He was just pointed to his work area and left on his own.
As the days of the first week went by, Hageman said Plante seemed to grow more angry. He found no fault with Hageman’s work. Instead, he was angry that Hageman’s near perfect results were achieved in a “different” way; not Plante’s way.
“When he came up to me on Friday, he was red in the face and was sweating,” Hageman recalled. “He told me, ‘Steve, this is my business. It has taken me 30 years to get this far. You are very good at what you do, but I want you to do it my way.’”
Hageman asked Plante if he was going to fire him. He said the shop owner admitted he was thinking about it.
Plante now says Hageman wasn’t in danger of being fired. He contends he was just offering constructive criticism. “I was just showing him other ways to do things. He took it personal. But we got past that.”
“Creative people, like Ray, are sometimes tough people to work for. You can’t understand all the stress a person who owns a business can be under,” said Hageman.
The first week rolled into a second. During the day, Hageman built cabinets. At night in his parents’ home, he tapped out his observations on a laptop computer. The college professor was writing a manual for his students that included the procedures Plante so prized, as well as tips for satisfying a demanding boss.
Hageman wrote in his manual, “Ray states that one of the elements of his craft that gets him up in the morning and into his cabinet shop is the reward at the end of a long day to not only see a project come together, but to witness the smiles on the faces of his clients when the job has been completed.”
A friendship developed between the men. They took breaks to go fly fishing. They ate lunch with Plante’s wife, Bernice, who manages the shop’s office. And when work was finished on Friday afternoons, the two men would share a couple of cold beers and talk about the week.
Eight Fridays after he was hired, Hageman gave notice that he was quitting and told Plante he needed to show him something important. He gave him a copy of the manual he had been writing about his experience working for Plante. He asked the shop owner for permission to share it with his students.
“He was surprised, and then he got choked up and had to leave,” Hageman recalled. “When he returned a few minutes later, he hardly had words. But he managed to say that he would be honored.”
“I couldn’t believe the things that he wrote,” Plante recalled. “Some of it was so personal. I hope I showed him some things that helped.”
Plante said he would gladly hire Hageman back. He said he was sorry to see him leave because he was a big help. “He worked 110 percent.”
Hageman used his Plante Custom Cabinets manual in last year’s BC woodworking classes. And he plans to do so again this year.
“I know that Ray and his crew wish you well in your career pathway,” Hageman writes as he introduces his students to the more technical parts of the manual. “Take the knowledge that you gain and expand upon it. Demand the most of yourself and respect the craft. Remember that the tradition continues with you.”
This story written by Dianne Hardisty appeared first in The Bakersfield Californian on Sept. 7, 2010.