Charles Sachs can do almost anything on a construction site, from hammering out a frame to scheduling subcontractors with deadline finesse. The only thing this old-school superintendent appears to have had trouble with in his full-bodied career was retirement.
Sachs is parking his steel-toed boots for the final time this month at MCL Construction. However, it isn’t the first time this 76-year-old has put down his hard hat.
In 2000, Sachs made his first attempt at retirement at the youthful age of 58. He lasted a mere two years before he returned to the field with MCL, starting a new career at a new company when most men his age where turning their attention to improving their golf handicap.
“I thought I wanted to retire. A lot of people my age had retired and they told me how great it was,” Sachs recently recalled. “But, in my second year, my wife told me, ‘you need to go back to work.’ ”
So, Sachs called his old friend, Gary Leapley and Don Gausden, both of whom were working at MCL and both of whom knew him from his years at Kiewit.
“There is more to life than traveling and fishing,” Sachs explained.
Sachs is officially re-retiring this month after 58 years in construction. His retirement party Thursday comes as MCL Construction enters the final stretch of a one-year celebration, marking 30 years in business.
It is with the help of people like Sachs – old-school artisans committed to their trade – that MCL Construction has become one of the region’s most prominent and most respected construction firms in the Omaha area, with a reputation for providing personal, quality care.
Like MCL Construction, Sachs is not a flashy guy. He is not the kind of guy who seeks to dominate a room, but he is the type of guy who you would trust with your multimillion dollar project.
“If you wanted something done, Charles was the guy who would get it done,” said Leapley, one of MCL’s co-owners. “He’s very tough, very hard-nosed, but he’s fair to everyone.”
“He never asks for more than what his workers could get done, but he expected a lot and he met the deadline,” Leapley added.
Sachs earned his work ethic the old-fashioned way on a small farm near Fremont. He was the oldest of five kids who was expected to milk 15 dairy cows by hand with his brothers before and after school. He started driving tractor before he drove a car, at what age he doesn’t remember, but he was young. He might have stayed on the farm if he didn’t have a relative in the house-building business.
Shortly after high school, Sachs picked up a hammer and went to work for his uncle as a carpenter. Three years later, he joined the union.
“I liked construction work. Back then, when you built a house, you built it from the ground up. Not like today, when people come in and specialize in something and then move on to another project.”
A few years later, Sachs landed a job at Kiewit Construction. It was here that he quickly rose through the ranks, becoming a foreman on smaller jobs, before he eventually became a superintendent.
Gausden said Sachs earned a reputation as a straight shooter, who expected a clean work site, and who was a master at keeping a project on schedule.
“He is very old school. He came up through the trades as a carpenter before becoming a superintendent,” said Gausden, who is now with Davis Erection Co. “He can build anything with his hands. It’s unbelievable.”
Gausden said Sachs might have been a tough manager, but he was still beloved by his workers.
His popularity was on display in the mid-1980s when Sachs’ house burned down to the retaining walls in Elkhorn, while he was on a job with Gausden. Immediately, Sachs began to rebuild, but he didn’t have to do it alone. His friends in the trade came to his side. In fact, too many wanted to help.
“When he started to put it back together and rebuild, so many people wanted to help that he had to turn them away,” Gausden recalled.
“I think he had that house rebuilt in six weeks. He had so much help, so many people respected and admired him, that they wanted to do whatever they could.”
Over the years, Sachs has had his hand in many of Omaha’s biggest construction projects. He helped build the First National Bank building on the north side of Dodge, and he has worked on both Immanuel and Midlands Hospitals.
He also worked on a warehouse in the coal fields of Wyoming and helped to build a jail in the Chicago area.
“I like building things. I like seeing buildings come up out of the ground, all the way to the finish,” said Sachs.
He also worked on the Methodist Women’s Hospital.
“That was a nice job, a very nice job,” Sachs recalled. “All the subs we had got along real good and the coordination flowed good too.”
His claim to fame – say his friends – was his ability to maintain a strict schedule. Owners loved him because when he said something would be done, it was done on time and it was done right, Gausden said.
“It’s almost unheard of in this business to gain time on a schedule, but Charles could do it. His main saying to people was, ‘Don’t go home until you get it done.’
“He knew in the beginning you have to go like hell so that you can go easy at the end,” Gausten said.
Of course, Sachs didn’t sacrifice either quality or safety to get the job done. He may have been a taskmaster, but the only time he allows himself to puff up with a little pride during a one-hour interview is when he talks about how he never lost a worker to a serious injury.
His first priority was to make sure that every person who clocked into his job site in the morning, went home at night to their families, with their lives and limbs intact.
“I never lost a guy and I never had anyone cut themselves with a saw,” said Sachs.
Gausden said it was simple: Sachs cared about his workers.
“If you worked hard for Charles, he’d take care of you. But if you didn’t, he’d go right over the top of you,” Gausden recalled with a chuckle.
Sachs worked for Kiewit for several decades before coming to MCL where he put in another 15 years on the job site.
After all that time, Sachs says he is going to give retirement another go. He wants to spend more time with his childhood sweetheart, Corrine Sue. The two have been married for 58 years and have four children together.
“I knew her when she was in 8th grade,” Sachs smiled. “We started dating in 10th grade.”
Sachs doesn’t know exactly what he is going to do in retirement, but it’s highly doubtful he will spend his days in a rocking chair.
His friends and co-workers say Sachs isn’t the sedentary type.
“He’ll find something to do, I guarantee it,” Gausden said.
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