“Never work for friends, family, your alma mater, and for the love of God… don’t ever work for your congregation.”

These are the words of advice given to me by my first boss at an architecture firm – the late Don Gunnerson, President of JBA Architects in Newark, Ohio. Don was a well-respected designer and icon in Central Ohio architectural circles. He’s known as one of Ohio’s most prominent institutional architects of the 1960’s and 1970’s (back when Governor James Rhodes was pouring billions of dollars into public infrastructure in our State). Don’s imprint lives on in most communities in Ohio – especially in Ohio’s Appalachian region – a beautiful place in the Southeast region of our great State.

I am forever grateful to Don for giving me my first architecture internship. It was the summer of ’93. America was in a recession and jobs were scarce. There was little interest in hiring a local Columbus area kid attending Ball State University who had yet to work for an actual firm. Getting a job as a professional “outsider” was challenging in a city where most firms hire students and graduates from either OSU or Miami (the Ohio version).

Throughout that summer and into the fall, much of my time was spent driving Don around the Midwest in his 1986 Jaguar XJ-6 that always seemed to be in the shop. I drove it to the shop quite often upon Don’s request. Together we visited job sites, attended client presentations, and spent an inordinate amount of time at whatever Bob Evans Restaurant we found along our journey. Don was a classic modernist who attended the University of Illinois in the late 40’s and loved all the finer things of mid-century design and interiors but when it came to his diet, he could not deny his love of the humble “down on the farm” restaurant founded by the blue-suited man from Rio Grande, Ohio, Bob Evans himself. As we shared our meals (always eggs and sausage, regardless of the time of day), Don would provide all sorts of wisdom, insights, and advice in our conversations. These were wide and varied but focused on design, the business of architecture, and how it had changed since he started working in 1951 for Joseph Baker (the founder of the firm).

On one of my last days at JBA, Don gave me a little bit of advice (or maybe a warning – who knows?) while we were pulling into the parking lot of his congregation – the First United Methodist Church of Newark. We had a building committee meeting that night on the design of a renovation to the historic edifice. At the time, I thought this statement was born out of some frustration with his friends (and family) on the Committee. They would express their passionate opinions on whatever detail we were exploring that week – from the finish on the new metal handrails meant to keep people falling out of the Victorian era balcony, to the open disagreement amongst the committee about the color of the new pew cushions. As I recall these experiences, I now take his words into the context of my own career and have a “seasoned” perspective on his advice.

I am pleased to report that after three decades of architectural practice, I have broken every single one of these rules, which has resulted in an amazing and rewarding life.

A career in Architecture demands a decades-long commitment to learning the “craft” and building a progressive portfolio of work that should lead to more opportunities. This can be tedious, often testing young architects’ patience in their earliest years and requiring an immense focus comparable to those in law and medicine. You begin to recognize late in your first decade or so of practice that most work comes in two to thre year “project cycles’. These are the timelines that larger projects take from initial conceptualization through construction. As I now wrap up the eighth or ninth “project cycle” of my own career, I’ve had the opportunity to further reflect on Don’s sage advice and recognize that one of the best things about this profession isn’t shaping and impacting the built environment – it’s about the people you meet along the journey.

Before I even graduated, JBA contributed to my first “breaking of the rules”. I was the draftsman on the permit drawings for my parents’ second restaurant in Mt. Vernon, Ohio. This restaurant was named “O Healey’s” after my fathers’ Irish grandmother Mary Healy (who fled the turmoil of the Irish Civil War for a life in Massachusetts in 1920). While not a “sexy commission”, the intensity of designing the layout of the new bar and restaurant was of special importance when I realized that every hour I spent on the drafting board was being billed to my parents. The final product was a success and enjoyed a long run as one of the favorite downtown Mt. Vernon restaurants.

I’m reminded of my first project when I started at MSA in 1999. I was the Project Architect for Barnesville Schools. This was our CEO/Founder (and my now partner) Mike Schuster’s High School Alma Mater (home of the Shamrocks!) and involved a renovation and addition to the early 1970’s high school designed by – you guessed it – Don Gunnerson. I saw firsthand the importance Mike placed on doing a good job for his hometown and had the chance to meet and work with many of his oldest friends. This began to form my deep-held opinion that all of us living in Ohio are only “two degrees of separation” from each other in all aspects of life.

Later in my career, while taking a “four-year Colorado sabbatical” at a Denver based architectural firm, I partnered with MSA to work in the Highland Local School District in Morrow County where I spent my K-12 years. This multi-phase project involved many of my greatest mentors and friends at MSA, along with my colleagues in Denver. It was a joy going back and helping to shape the next 50 years of educational environments in my hometown, while also reconnecting and working with many of my former teachers, mentors, classmates, and friends. This reconnection was a blessing to me. During the latter phases of the project, I had an intense battle with Stage 4 Cancer and had to take a pause from the project for treatment. Because of our connection with my small hometown of Fighting Scots, I began to receive an outpouring of goodwill, letters, gifts, and well-wishes from people I had known throughout my life. This included a box of hats from my graduating class for my (then) bald head and a heartfelt letter from the “stern” junior high study hall monitor who had heard about my plight in the Sunday morning congregational prayer requests at one of the local Methodist Churches. This outpouring of support led to my wife Amanda and I returning to the Midwest. Fast forward two years post-remission and I am attending the dedication of the new Highland High School. It was an emotional day. I was able to be a part of the festivities surrounded by my hometown community, my friends from MSA, and experience my family walking through the building that our amazing team had created. It was a special moment that further affirmed my decision to become an architect.

As for Don’s advice about working for your church, almost every firm and architect I’ve worked with has violated this rule, including myself. Whether it was early volunteer work to upgrade the basement of our congregation in North Carolina, watching my talented MSA colleagues lead a congregational master plan to reclaim and repurpose an aging 1920’s collegiate gothic Methodist cathedral in Cincinnati, or witnessing my MSA colleague Nestor Melnyk lead a façade restoration on the Mid-Century masterpiece that is St. Johns Unitarian Church in Cincinnati (where he and his wife Cassandra were married), my career is filled with examples of Architects rolling up their sleeves to help their congregations.

My own “Architect’s congregation” stories are many and unique, including being trapped in our five story bell tower when the carillons pealed with a building committee chair who is a good friend (I almost went deaf), becoming great friends with Catholic nuns who give their lives to ministry, to a priceless moment I experienced in 1998 during a building committee meeting with Jim Stephens, a North Carolina man with a big smile who saw firsthand and within inches of the horrors of war that came with being a Marine landing craft pilot at Iowo Jima and Guadalcanal in WW2. These rich life experiences are because I broke Don’s rules and leaned into the relationships that come from being an Architect. Did I experience some inevitable tension or awkward moments during those times? Absolutely. But it was worth every stressful moment to be able to help make a difference in places mean so much to me.

Most of my good friends and colleagues know I am a huge sports fan, especially of “the beautiful game”. In the hit TV series Ted Lasso, there is an iconic scene from the Christmas episode in Season two where one of the key executives of the club (Higgins) invites the players of AFC Richmond who can’t go home for Christmas over for dinner. At the end of the show, he offers a toast to everyone that resonates with me. “To the family we’re born with, and the family we make along the way…”

I’ve come to realize that Architecture and Design are not only incredible and rewarding ways to shape the built environment, but they are also unique professional ways to grow your own family, genetic or collected.

As I reflect on my own experiences in client relationships, I’ll be sure to take the foundation of Don Gunnerson’s statement, with modification, when given the chance to offer advice to young architects:

“ALWAYS work for friends, family, your alma mater, and for the love of God… YOU MUST work for your congregation. Your life and career will be all the richer.”

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