by Eric Wolfe
Austin Lea, who bestrode the IBEW 1245 print and supply room like a giant for 26 years, retired Oct. 29.
If you ever dared think that IBEW 1245 squanders money on supplies, you never met Austin. Many are the business reps, myself included, who have rushed into the print room for a box of pens. More often than not, our way was blocked by a glowering, bearded curmudgeon demanding to know if you really needed a full box. Wouldn’t a smaller number of pens be sufficient? Like, say, two?
Surrendering, you’d hold out your hand for the two pens. That’s when Austin heaves a big sigh—saddened by the fact that some people just never learn—and points to the stack of blank requisition forms. No one leaves the supply room with anything unless you’ve filled out the requisition form.
As you slink out of Austin’s print room fortress, happy to have come away with any pens at all, he usually calls you back, an impish smile spreading across his face. “Did you hear the one about…?”
The secret truth about IBEW 1245’s print room curmudgeon is that no one ever liked a joke better, or told them more often. Which isn’t to say they were always good jokes. But they were Austin’s way of making you feel a little better about the beating he’d just given you over the pen requisition.
For a quarter century, Austin routed mail, printed flyers and booklets, set up filing systems, and responded to any miscellaneous emergency that didn’t seem to be part of anybody else’s job description. You need a ladder? No problem—Austin will bring it to you.
But woe unto you if you don’t bring it back.
“He’s very efficient, he’s very organized,” said IBEW 1245 Bookkeeper Gail Varner, who worked with Austin that full quarter-century.
She said Austin is a person who’s “on top of everything.”
“One of the major things that bugged him is if you borrowed things and didn’t put it back.” If you transgressed one of his rules or fell short of one of his standards, Gail said, he’d let you know. “Subtly sometimes, not so subtly sometimes.”
One of the most familiar sights at the union hall was the great crossword puzzle project, undertaken by Gail and Austin each day at lunch time. You’d think they were trying to solve global warming or some international financial crisis, so fierce was their concentration.
“He’s good at it, and got better over time,” Gail noted.
Austin was a man of many interests. When I found out he liked hats, I challenged him to a hat competition. Each week we’d come to the office wearing a favorite hat and let our colleagues judge. There weren’t any rules. If I came in wearing a fancy fedora, he’d be wearing something fancier. On “weird hat” week I wore a cap that had wings stitched to the side. He came in with an entire animal on his head. That’s when I realized this was a competition I could never win.
Austin loved to golf, and vacations often found him out in the wild, hunting game with a bow and arrow. I can just picture him taking aim at some big buck and muttering, “Are you going to fill out that requisition form or not?”
But the Austin Era at IBEW 1245 came to a sudden end on Oct. 29 when a long-planned knee replacement operation suddenly got fast-tracked to later this week. The man is getting re-equipped so he can continue chasing golf balls and wild animals during a well-earned retirement.
He sent out a short e-mail just before closing time on Oct. 29, announcing, “It has been great working with all of you and I want to thank you for the privilege of working the last 26 years at IBEW.”
“It was kind of a shock to all of us,” said Gail. “He will be missed.”