My Tribute to Ralph
Stan Marek / May 2020
Ralph S. Marek, one of the founders of the Marek contracting companies in Texas, Georgia and Tennessee, died April 25, 2020. Marek’s CEO, Stan Marek, offers this homage to his late father.
An era has come to an end. The last living member of the original Marek brothers has passed. Ralph, my dad, and the youngest of the three, has followed John and Bill. Having attained the age of 95, Ralph broke all records of longevity for Marek males.
The history of the Marek brothers has been well documented. Our chronicler of many years, Larry Williams, made sure the significant events in the formation of Marek are recorded for future generations. But I would like to close the chapter with a story of my own.
Through the years, I was fortunate to spend a lot of “business” time with Dad. And believe me, business was a huge part of his life. He always said God first and family second, but that’s not the way it always played out. Regardless, Dad was a great mentor not just to me but to several within our company and well beyond. Everyone has a Ralph story, and they’ve enriched us all.
The story I’d like to tell is my version of how this company started and how we gravitated into a relatively new industry and prospered to such an extent as seen today.
It all starts on the farm. The story has been told many times, but the work ethic of that generation and the trials and tribulations of growing up during the Depression had a profound effect on the three brothers. They didn’t have time to fight like brothers sometimes do; they were fighting for survival.
When John L. came to Houston in 1938, the best paying job he could find was hanging a relatively new product called Sheetrock. It was hard work because the sheets were heavy, and he had to hang a bunch of them to make a decent wage, which was based on how many he put up. Daylight to dark were the hours, but that didn’t bother John who was used to the long days working as a farmer.
John soon had Bill and Ralph join him in 1941. Ralph was only 16 and had to lie about his age to work on some of the union jobs, and a dispute with a zealous business agent taught him a lesson that he never forgot. But the three boys hanging Sheetrock were making more money than they could imagine, especially compared to a black dirt farm back in Yoakum.
Fast forward to WWII. John joined the Seabees and headed to the South Pacific to build roads and airstrips. Bill was right behind him, heading that way too as an aircraft mechanic.
Ralph turned 18 in April 1943 and joined the Navy. And this is where the story of our company begins to take shape.
Ralph’s basic training consisted of a lot of marching on the tarmac at the Naval Air Station in Corpus Christi. It was the policy of the government to never send all the members of a family into a war zone. One day as Ralph marched with his rifle, he heard an announcement asking if anyone knew anything about hanging Sheetrock. Dad felt that anything would be better than what he was doing so he raised his hand and stepped forward. The chief, a non-commissioned officer, said he had a large building that needed Sheetrock to be installed and asked Dad if he could do it. “For sure,” he said, and was asked to pick a few sailors out of the brig where they were being held for some minor offense. He made quick work of the job and totally impressed the chief, and then asked if he could become the manager. The chief was taken aback by the 18-year-old sailor who had little education and no experience. But he took a chance based on Ralph’s ability to run a crew.
Ralph said this experience made the difference in the success that Marek has to this day. He had to learn accounting to be sure more money was coming in than going out. He had to put in security measures to be sure product wasn’t leaving without being paid for. He had to develop a group of workers who understood the need for teamwork, setting goals and making them happen. His vendors appreciated his straight talk and the way they were treated. And he had to please the customers who were the non-commissioned officers who came there for their meals and perks that the enlisted men did not get to enjoy. It was hard work and long hours, but Ralph thrived as he learned about business without the benefit of college or business school.
As the WWII came to an end, all the pilots and naval officers in the South Pacific were being mustered out at the Naval Air Station in Corpus. And Ralph’s two-year enlistment was coming to an end as well. One day he received a call from the commandant of the base. The commandant asked if Ralph would stay on as a civilian and manage the officer’s club, which was a huge operation with over 200 employees. Ralph had done such a great job with the chief’s club, his reputation as a good businessman was well known. Ralph took the job and often commented to me, it was the most exciting job of his life. He basically was given a budget, and his job was to make sure that every officer and their families were treated with great service, the best food, and anything they wanted as a thank-you for their service in the war theater.
Ralph was able to buy a large supply of slot machines that turned into real money makers for the club. Ralph then used that money and naval transportation to fly some of the biggest bands into Corpus to play at the club. He had heard of a seaman who had a unique hobby of carving ice sculptures, and Ralph made sure every buffet was graced with this novel offering.
When Ralph was 90, he told me he’d like to go back and see the base. I called Senator John Cornyn’s office here in Houston and he was nice enough to arrange a guided tour. Reinnette (my wife), Dad and I, along with a good friend from Corpus, Jack Rohde, spent an incredible half day with Dad reliving the memories of those days in the Navy. I recall some of the highlights. As we entered the base, he said, “Stop!” And I did so. He pointed to a bench at the entrance to the base and said, “That’s where I met your mom.” She was waiting on a bus to go into town, and Dad had a car provided by the Navy to buy supplies, so he just stopped and asked her and her two friends to join him. He said a had a sore neck for a week just turning around and talking to her! As we drove through the large base, it was a trip down memory lane. We went to where the chief’s club used to be, but it had been demolished after the war.
We then drove to the officer’s club and met our guide. He gave us the cook’s tour. They were in the process of building a newer club, but the old one was still in operation. Dad went to his old 8’x8’ office and started talking about his time running the club. I could see so many similarities to what he did then and what he brought to Marek to build the company we know today.
Ralph did comment there was not a day that went by when he wasn’t thinking of his two brothers. And there are stories about them that are part of our bigger family. But Ralph said many times that the things that John and Bill learned in the Navy certainly added to their ability to be the founding fathers of Marek.
Eventually Ralph joined his brothers in 1948, and the growth of the company begin in earnest with the post-war boom and the need for housing for the returning soldiers. The Mareks reached out to their kinfolk knowing that the farm boys were going to be excellent construction workers, and they were. They were used to hard work and picked up the trade quickly.
But back to what got us here. Sheetrock was invented in 1894 by August Sackett and Fred Kane, both graduates of the prestigious Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. But as far back as 3700 BC, gypsum was burned to make plaster. The ancient Egyptians used gypsum and plaster in the pyramids. They would install woven straw and then cover it with a combination of gypsum blocks and plaster.
In 1917 United States Gypsum patented the product and applied for the trademark “Sheetrock.” The product did not catch on at first. Builders were using plaster and brick and felt that Sheetrock was “cheap.” The product was showcased in the World’s Fair of 1934, and even though it generated a lot of interest, it was not until after WWII that its use exploded. With all the housing needed, a product that was easier to install and faster at a lower price really took off.
The three brothers were really pioneers. Initially the homebuilders would buy and stock the Sheetrock and then get someone to install it by the sheet. That was the original independent subcontractor. With the labor shortage after the war, homebuilders were having difficulty finding workers who had the skill to install and finish Sheetrock, or drywall as folks were starting to call it. The brothers solved the problem by getting labor from the farms and providing an hourly wage with benefits to attract and retain workers. It worked then and it works today, even though there are a few more challenges!
A fond memory for the three brothers was a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the company in 1988, Ralph Joins and George Murphy, the top two officers of the United States Gypsum Company in Chicago, joined us for a dinner and celebration. Ralph and Pete shared their stories about how they had met these two men when they were young salesmen years before calling on Marek. Dad had remarked to Pete that he thought Joins would one day be president of USG. And he made it!
So, to bring this to a close, Sheetrock or gypsum board has been in the DNA of Marek since the beginning.
What would have happened if John L. had not found a job hanging Sheetrock?
What would have happened if Ralph had not stepped forward to volunteer to hang Sheetrock in the Navy?
What would have happened if Ralph had not had the opportunity to learn about business by running the chief’s club and officer’s club?
And where would we be without the skills that John and Bill learned about the working man picked up while serving in the South Pacific?
And where we would we be without the services of all the cousins, friends, etc. who joined us off the farms of central Texas?
The good Lord had a plan. And the brothers and those who joined them made it happen.
Ralph told me on several occasions how important this singular product was to our success. It gave literally thousands of men and women an opportunity to learn a trade and make a good living. Raising families that were able to see their kids become the first in their line to attend college. Many through the years left jobs that were not fulfilling to learn a trade and embrace construction as a career. And how many became homeowners for the first time because of a job that a provided stability?
To honor Ralph’s wishes, I placed a piece of 5/8 Firecode USG Sheetrock in his casket. I think he wanted all to know how one product has changed lives for so many of us throughout the years.
Many of you know of Ralph’s devotion and partnership with the Holy Spirit. In honor of that, the piece of Sheetrock in his casket was cut into a triangle to represent the Holy Trinity (see photo).
His faith was very important to him. I can visualize his calling on the Holy Spirit in time of need. And there were many—an example for us all.
Dad was very proud of the thousands of projects Marek’s skilled workers built all over the USA. From massive skyscrapers, to hospitals, hotels, churches, and the list goes on. Also, houses and apartments that number in the hundreds of thousands. But more important to Ralph were you, “his” team that built them. Each of you held a special place in his heart. He used to pride himself on knowing every employee. The number got too large, but he never stopped trying.
Ralph is gone from this mortal world, but he and his brothers watch us from above. The heritage and values that they have given us must weather the ravages of time. It’s up to all of us to continue as they did. Never forgetting the Golden Rule, treat others as you would like to be treated. Ralph was peaceful in passing. He is confident in our ability to carry the legacy he and his brothers built for us all.