School builder

Hugh “Hughie” McBride has been in construction ever since he graduated from the Salesianum School (Wilmington), back in 1962. McBride’s run crews on a project or two since then — locally, the Delmarva Power plant near Dagsboro and the new Indian River High School. He’s now acting as overseer for major renovations at Lord Baltimore Elementary School, in Ocean View.
Coastal Point • SAM HARVEY: Hughie McBride reflects on his career in his office at Lord Baltimore Elementary School.Coastal Point • SAM HARVEY:
Hughie McBride reflects on his career in his office at Lord Baltimore Elementary School.

“After high school, my father told me, ‘You can either go to college, or you can go into the trades,’” McBride recalled. Relieved at having finally escaped Salesianum’s coat and tie dress code, he said he’d leaned toward trades from the start.

His father, another Hugh, was a Chief Warrant Officer (W-4) with the Delaware National Guard, motor pool, and ran an auto repair shop, McBride recalled. He worked in the shop with his father.

His uncle (Dick O’Connell) was a carpenter, though — he seemed to be doing well enough for himself, and a teenage McBride noted the conspicuous absence of grease and grime about his uncle’s person. “I said, ‘let’s try this for a little bit,’” he recalled.

That was 42 years ago.

O’Connell worked as a superintendent for the DiSabatino Construction Company, or EDiS — one of Wilmington’s largest builders (founded in 1908 by Ernesto DiSabatino). He signed McBride into their four-year apprenticeship program, night classes twice a week and plenty of on-the-job training, with a starting wage of $1 an hour.

Things were different then, he reflected. To become a carpenter meant to learn every aspect of the construction trade — layout, trim carpentry, roof systems (rafters) and casework (cabinets), but also forms and concrete, windows and doors, locks and hardware.

“Now, people specialize in concrete, people specialize in cabinetry — although they’re mostly installers now — people specialize in drywall,” he pointed out. McBride remembered when much of the cabinetwork was built in place, and said drywall had only recently started taking over from plaster and lath when he started out.

Things have come full circle for McBride. His first job with the company was an elementary school in north Wilmington — he was 17 or 18 years old — and he’s working on an elementary school today. And other than some extra wiring for new technologies (every room at Lord Baltimore will have access to computer once renovations are complete), he said the basic designs hadn’t changed much over the years.

McBride eventually worked his way up to a “mechanic’s rate,” $7 or $8 an hour, and advanced from carpenter to foreman by 1966. Not long thereafter, he met his bride-to-be, Tina (then a student at Goldey-Beacom).

They’re still together today, after 37 years of marriage. McBride suggested his long career might have something to do with their success — “Keeps me out of her hair, I guess,” he grinned.

EDiS first tested him as a general foreman building a vocational high school in Belvedere. But his next project was much larger — north campus at the University of Delaware (Pencader Hall complex). “It was the biggest job I ever had, and I was about 23 years old,” he recalled. “It was scary — very scary. But, that’s how you learn.

“The DiSabatinos, that how they’d do it,” he explained. “They’d put you in a position and give you some faith and trust, and that’s how you learn. My entire career’s been a learning experience.”

The McBrides bought a piece of land west of Fenwick Island in 1969, and built a home not long thereafter. They vacationed at the coast, but McBride’s career pulled him back and forth, between New Castle and Sussex. He worked the Delmarva Power job in 1975 — a small city in concrete. “We didn’t build the stacks or coolant tower, but we did everything else,” McBride recalled.

Back in Wilmington, McBride unwittingly established the St. Patrick’s Day parade, in 1975. An offhand suggestion that they procure a few musical instruments, load up a few pickup trucks and caravan down to the local watering hole (the Logan House).

But 250 people showed up, and with such a crowd, McBride suspected someone would eventually fall out of a truck and injure themselves. They agreed to march on foot the next year, and so the parade was born. And the event led to the formation of the Irish Cultural Club, with more than 700 families joining the organization virtually as soon as it presented itself.

McBride remembered their efforts to build goodwill between the opposing Irish subcultures, especially during the most turbulent times of the Troubles. The club raised funds to bring Irish children to the United States, using American Irish communities to show them it was indeed possible for people to get along.

McBride recognized the EDiS leadership for always standing behind him in his outside ventures.

The company transitioned out of schools for a while, and he remembered with pleasure his opportunity to work on the Winterthur Museum renovations — construction on a grand scale, amid echoing halls and intricately scrolled woodwork. And EDiS handled periodic renovations at the General Motors plant — including the complete paint shop rebuild in 1985, when the plant changed over to robotics.

McBride started spending more time in Sussex as the years progressed, and in the early 1990s he and Tina started a little business on the side, selling painted nautical buoys. McBride had come up with idea out of distaste for the appearance of the plastic bottles many crabbers used for crabpot markers, and while that market never really latched onto the idea, they soon realized people were interested in the buoys as decorative art.

They opened Fenwick Float-ors in 1992, across from the Volunteer Fire Company substation on Route 54. With his son, Jason, McBride has built several additions over the years — the shop now features decorative art of all shapes and sizes, and everything from gourmet foods to kitchenware to clothing.

He returned to work in schools with Mariner Middle, in Milton, before taking the reins at the new Indian River High School. McBride expressed a certain pride in the finished project. He downplayed his own role, saying he was only as good as the workers who brought it all together, and recognized the same attitude among members of the high school staff — from Principal Mark Steele on down to the maintenance and custodial workers.

“Nobody builds a building by themselves,” he noted. “It takes a lot of people to make something happen.” And after 42 years in the business, McBride said he still found the job exciting.