Contractor Profile — Alvin Willmett
by Pat Gilman
In this continuing column, PaintPRO tips its cap to the Painter of the Month, a contractor whose dedication to quality and professionalism have helped move the trade ahead in the eyes of both clients and peers. Our premier issue Painter of the Month is Alvin Willmett, a Sacramento-based retired journeyman who picked up his first paint brush when he was just twelve years old.
His great-great-grandfather founded the town of Wilmette, IL by establishing a trading post in what is now a suburb of Chicago. Not yet a teenager, Al got into the paint trade the same way that many painters do: he knew someone who was doing it. The man he knew was his father, and Al’s first job with him was to paint wood-framed window screens.
“How I hated it,” he said, wrinkling his nose and laughing. “But that was dad’s vocation. My brother took up the trade, too, and we had our own painting business.”
In those days, being in the right place at the right time was often the only real kind of career track. In 1936, when Al began to lay the groundwork for his career, the family lived in Norman, OK, just south of Oklahoma City. The population was closing in on 3.5 million which translated into a lot of houses to paint. Al supplemented his growing knowledge of painting when he served a stint with a furniture manufacturer, where he learned to apply flat and lacquer finishes. That job, according to Al, was the genesis for his lifelong love of fine woods.
“Achieving a perfect finish was harder before urethane was invented,” he said, and added, “a good painter knows his wood.”
Like so many craftsmen of his generation, Al is self-taught, and commented, “I learned by watching — and by practice. I learned by doing, and I learned from books. If you can’t learn by experience, he added, “you’ll never have what it takes.”
From the onset of World War II in 1941, until 1956, Al worked at the University of Oklahoma in Norman. He joined the union, and, starting as an apprentice, worked steadily in the school’s maintenance department for fifteen years. In 1956, Al and his wife, Judy, moved to California with their family where Al worked for Skalisky Decorators. There he met Ron Franklin, the owner’s nephew, and a lifelong friendship began.
The job he is most proud of, said Al, was one that, at the onset, promised to be trouble. The home in question was set in a northern California Sierra mountain community, and, at first review, seemed to be “at least a two-week job.” In fact, Al pointed out, he and Ron worked steadily for six months. As Ron explained, the home’s owner was a perfectionist who frequently relied on light from a 300-watt bulb to inspect walls and woodwork for flaws, bumps, gnats, dust mites and holidays. But why six months?
“That house was six or seven thousand square feet,” chuckled Al. “And all windows.” Even worse, he added, the client was so particular that when shown examples of roller, spray and brush painting, the selective homeowner announced that he didn’t like any of them.
“That’s it,” Al said he recalled telling him, “choose one or forget it. Because the only one I know who’ll give you what you want is the man upstairs. And I don’t think He’d waste His time on this job.” The home’s owner chose a style.
When Al and Ron were finished, they had a showplace of which to be proud. That public portfolio, according to Al, is why he thinks it’s critical to always do the best possible work. Asked if he felt certain skills or values have been lost when today’s painter is compared to a generation of mid-century painters, he said, “No. Not if you accomplish something. If today’s painter — with less suffering and less work — can show a job well done, that’s what it’s all about.” Al’s philosophy is a simple one: “Good work is good work,” he said.
When Al began, the going pay rate was fifty cents an hour, $22 for a 44-hour week. “Good money.” But quality work required skill and a certain level of on-site creativity.
Al was loyal to one shop for the better part of his career. From 1956 until 1982, when he retired, Al worked for Ron’s uncle Ed. “Ed Skalisky had one of the largest shops in those days and was a great man to work for. He was always fair to his workers,” Al pointed out.
Al always gave the job 100 percent. “I always did it right, took the time,” he said, adding of his customers, “if they wanted a slapdash job, they had to get somebody else.”
Al contrasted the old methods with the changes effected by new products, technology and environmental considerations, and said, “It’s getting better and better; the profession will only advance.”
So, where does this veteran “up-through-the-ranks” professional think the next generation of painters will come from? Al offered these words of wisdom: “I think we still get them the old-fashioned way — they learn it at the knee of a friend or relative,” Al said, explaining, “a hands-on child should be encouraged. Emphasize academics, but also offer the trades. Recognize the gifts the child has. If he likes to work outside or with his hands he might have the knack. If he likes it and it suits him, then he should do it.”
Though he claimed to have hated painting wood-framed window screens when he was just boy, the truth is, Al has always loved his work. And while his creativity is most certainly an inherent talent, Al’s curiosity about the painting business and painting techniques underscored his ability to perfect his skill.
Calvin Coolidge said it best... “No person was ever honored for what he received. Honor has been the reward for what he gave.” And he could have said it about Al Willmett.