Keith died on November 29, 2017. In celebration of him and of his service to St. Matthew's, we are re-publishing this profile of him from November 25, 2012.
You’ve noticed, I’m sure, the fine workmanship in the name tag holder and new trash and recycle bin near the kitchen door in the undercroft. They are the work of Keith Ringold, who has been a member of St. Matthew’s since 2006. Before he retired Keith was a journeyman carpenter and home builder. Carpentry is a craft that was practiced for a thousand years and more before its patron saint carried his chisels and augers over the cobble stone streets of Nazareth. (Yes you do. His name is familiar to the youngest Sunday school child.)
I asked Keith how he happened to choose carpentry as his life’s occupation.
“It all really began in high school” he said. “When I was a teen-ager there was nothing much but pig farms in Mounds View where I lived. There were no high schools so all of the kids my age were bused to Murray High School (now junior high) not far from St. Matthew’s church.” He took all the classes necessary to become college eligible. “We were known in school as ‘The Lake Johanna hog farmers.’ I never did any pig farming myself, but through a friend at school, I got a part time job working afternoons at a green house. And it was through a man I met at the greenhouse that I drifted onto the path of becoming a carpenter. He saw that I was a hard worker and that I could hit a nail without bending it over so a few years later, when his home building company needed help, he offered me a job.”
“In those days,” Keith said, “you couldn’t work for a house or commercial builder unless you were either a journeyman carpenter or accepted into the union apprenticeship program. And you weren’t accepted into program unless you were attending night carpentry classes at an accredited trade school and working days under the supervision of a journeyman carpenter.”
It sounded like the union had a monopoly on who could get into the trade, but Keith said everyone involved benefited. The union was able to maintain excellence in industry standards and negotiate good wages for its members, the builders got only highly skilled tradesmen, and the customers got well constructed homes.
Several years after graduating from high school,
Keith enrolled in the apprenticeship program and took four years of carpentry classes at a night vocational technical school while working days for Pemtom construction, one of the largest home construction companies in the Twin Cities. By the time he finished the program he and Iris were married and had four children.
At Pemtom he worked as an apprentice under the direction of Bob, the company’s best journeyman carpenter and project manager. Keith couldn’t say enough good things about his mentor. “Bob was not only an exceptional carpenter, he was a great teacher.” Though it wasn’t required by the apprenticeship program, Keith took an additional two years of advanced classes, learning blue print drafting, building cost estimating etc. He said there were only three carpenters on the first house he worked on for Pemtom—Bob, another experienced carpenter and himself. “The three of us built the complete house, from the ground up. Bob saw to it that by the time we got to the roof, I had worked on every kind of carpentry that goes into building a house.”
“I was an eager learner”, Keith said, “and for the four years of my apprenticeship, Bob made sure that he poured every bit of his carpentry experience and knowhow into me.”
Keith described him as a big strapping man who had gone through the invasion of North Africa and Sicily during World War Two. “Many years later,” Keith recalled, “when I was a journeyman carpenter and project manager myself, the boss confided in me that on my first day with the company when I was put on Bob’s crew, he had complained ‘what am I going to do with that skinny little sh--?’ He was a great teacher.”
“In 1965 I built a nice house for my family very near where I still live in Arden Hills”, Keith said. Before that, when he was starting out as a young carpenter, Keith and his family lived for a number of years in a “basement home”—a cement block walkout basement with no house on top. Whole neighborhoods of these underground homes with flat roofs that would one day become the floors of two bedroom cottages were built shortly after World War Two—when materials were still hard to get. They sprouted as visible evidence of a generation’s expectation of good things to come. Keith described working on five bedroom homes and returning in the evening tired but happy to have his basement house and family.
“When I was only 26”, Keith said, “I was put in charge of overseeing the complete job on a two story house. A tornado had torn the roof completely off and caused other extensive damage. The weather forecast was for more rain. We went out to the site and Bob said ‘There it is Keith, put it on.’ It was not only two stories up, it was a complicated roof with lots of hips and valleys. I said ‘This has to be done in a hurry. You’d better be in charge in case it starts to rain again.’ But he said this was my job assignment. He had so much faith in me that I gained faith in myself.”
As his responsibilities grew, Keith began working long hours. “I was going crazy with work” he said “and I began feeling really ill. I didn’t know what it was but I kept up the frantic pace on the job for nine more months. Finally I went in for a checkup. Abdominal scans showed I was full of poison. The doctors said they were ninety nine percent sure that if they operated, they would find I was full of cancer. They recommended against surgery for fear of spreading it. Iris was there. What went through my mind was ‘a wife and four kids.’ Then half an hour later, I got this calm feeling from above that everything was going to be alright. I said ‘Do the operation.’
What they found was that I had been living nine months with a burst appendix and I was full of the poison that had leaked from the rupture. For a year, I was in and out of the hospital. But just as that feeling that had come over me in the hospital had assured me, everything turned out alright.”
In 1966, when he was 31, Keith was promoted to construction supervisor at Pemtom Construction Company. He says that his first assignment was to supervise the construction of two private homes at the same time near Silver Lake Road and County Road E., across the street from the Apache Plaza shopping mall. “The job meant I’d be supervising ten carpenters who were a lot older than me and who had been with Pemtom for a long time. As you can imagine, that didn’t set too well with some of them at first.” It’s the supervisor’s job on a project to read the blueprints, and make sure that all of the work to be done for the day is lined up, assigned, and moving ahead on schedule. It didn’t take long for him to be accepted by them as a competent boss and a good man to work for. Only a year later he was put in charge of fifty carpenters and laborers on a project building two hundred fifty townhomes.
Keith stayed with Pemtom for about eighteen years.
“By then, a lot of contractors were underbidding jobs to make a go of it, so at that time Pemtom’s owner decided there had to be an easier way to make a living and he stopped building.”
After Pemtom folded, Keith went into business for himself as Ringold Construction Co. All four of his sons worked with him as carpenters at one time or another. They didn’t have to follow the formal apprenticeship program that Keith had, but he made sure they got the full range of experience they needed just as Bob had given him. Two of his sons are still in the business. “They knew the trade so they both took the journeyman exam and were able to test out of the program. They’re excellent carpenters. They have the same sense of pride in what they build as I did.”
Operating as Ringold Construction, Keith usually had a dozen or so carpenters working for him. He said, “I soon found out I was bidding against a bunch of guys who didn’t know what they were doing.” As a builder, he learned to “bid out” a job low enough to get the contract and high enough to make a profit.
“It takes years to learn how much it costs to build a certain number of square feet of framing and how long it takes to complete the work. It’s also a lot of educated guessing,” he said.
“One thing I learned by having my own business” he said “is although you have to have pride in what you build, you have to know when to say ‘that’s good enough.’ You can look at a job and see a few things that could be made better but you know there’s no one else who can do it even that good and you have to say to yourself ‘that’s it.’ and not spend any more time on it if you want to make any money.”
I asked Keith “What’s the toughest job you ever handled?”
“That was a house by Valentine Lake, I guess” he said. “It had a high atrium facing the lake and the thing was designed to have heavy window glass all the way up. I worried more about that job than any I have ever built.” I asked why. “I worried about somebody getting hurt. There were no floors for three stories up. We were putting these big heavy windows in and there was no way to get anything in place on the inside or outside to lift them. They were eight feet long and eight feet wide, so even though we had scaffolding, we had to just muscle them in. I was really worried about somebody getting seriously hurt.”
Keith found that as he got older, working outside didn’t have the appeal it once did and he began specializing in customized interior finishing.
“That’s learned over the years by making a lot of mistakes.” he said. He installed intricate ceiling paneling taken from homes in Italy, for example, special doors customers had shipped in from Mexico, exotic imported woods etc. When Keith was sixty-five he took a year off and then went back and worked until he was seventy. The last job he worked on was in Sartell Minnesota. He built twelve office buildings up there in the corn fields. He also contracted all the roadwork, sewers, street lighting--everything. “That was good. I enjoyed it”, he said.
And by that I don’t think he meant just his work in Sartell. Over the years Keith has been a member of three other Episcopal churches. As a child, the Rev. Philip Mc Nairy (later to become Bishop Mc Nairy) convinced Keith to join the junior choir at Christ Church in St. Paul. After hearing him sing, Mc Nairy suggested to his mother that perhaps he should consider becoming an acolyte. (Other than his parents, Keith described The Rev. Mc Nairy as being, the most influential person in his early life—but that’s a different story.)
Later, Keith was a vestryman at Christ Church for eight years, installed a new hardwood floor in the church chapel as well as doing other carpentry work at the rectory. When the church property was taken for the I-35E freeway, he put his carpentry skills to good use at the new location in Woodbury. He and Iris were members of St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church for a while when Henry Hover was rector there and they were members of Resurrection Episcopal Church in Spring Lake Park, where he became Sr. Warden. That little church got the benefit of his painting skills and he added a deck onto the rectory for Fr. John Rettger.
That was all good too. Thank you Keith.