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Life Here: A Graceful Leader of a Summer Work Crew

  • Don Colby (back right, in the orange cap) with the Hartford schools summer painting crew in 2006. Colby died April 24 at age 85. (Photograph courtesy of Paul Keane) Courtesy Paul Keane (above)Courtesy Linda Gilbert (right)

  • A poster-sized version of this photograph of Don Colby has been on display in the Hartford School District's building and grounds workshop. A pot of paint fell off a ladder, and Colby bore it with his customary good humor. (Courtesy Byron Baribeau)

  • An undated photograph of Don Colby, a former Hartford High School teacher who led the school district's summer painting crew for decades. (Courtesy Linda Gilbert) —Courtesy Linda Gilbert

For the Valley News
Published: 5/18/2018 10:00:04 PM
Modified: 5/18/2018 10:05:15 PM

If you or your family have ever walked into one of Hartford’s six public schools in the last five decades, then you’ve seen the work of Don Colby. You just didn’t know it.

Colby, of Wilder, died April 24 at age 85 after nearly 50 years as head of Hartford’s summer paint crew, a group of teachers and college students who painted classrooms, hallways, offices, gyms, locker rooms, cafeterias, bathrooms, basketball courts (floors, lines and insignia), football ticket booths and vocational school workshops all summer long, every summer, year after year.

Taxpayers, parents and students might not have been aware it was happening because the schools never got out of shape. They were “kept up,” as the old-timers say. And that was because of Colby’s skill as a motivator. He knew how to get things done without seeming to push his workers.

In all that time, there was never a dingy room or flaking wall that didn’t get the Don Colby treatment: Scrape it, cut in with primer, roll with primer. Then cut in with the first coat, roll the first coat and, sometimes, a second coat if the first didn’t live up to his standards.

The reputation of the paint crew, he would remind us, rested on the way we left the job when we were finished. He was sensitive about that.

Colby had taught math in the Hartford School District for 39 years before retiring 20 years ago. But he remained head of the paint crew for those 20 years. He recently cut back to half days, but he still supervised the crew and still wielded a paintbrush himself, stenciling letters and numbers on classroom doors from a stepladder.

Well into his 70s, Don could be seen on a scaffold two stories up painting the exterior walls of the high school courtyard. He limited himself to stepladders in recent years — a sign of his wisdom and his graceful bow to reality as the birthdays piled up.

Colby had a wonderful quality as a boss. If he heard another crew leader giving orders with a prickly tone of voice or rubbing workers the wrong way, he’d say, “People don’t know how to talk to each another.”

But he did. I know because, as a teacher, I painted on his crew for 20 summers.

When he would hand out the day’s assignments just before 7 a.m., he never said, “You go here and do this.” He would always turn it into a question: “Paul, would you take your brush and go down to room 208 and cut in the walls?”

It was an order, of course, but he phrased it as a question so you wouldn’t feel like you were being told what to do. He did this with everyone who worked on the paint crew, regardless of age, gender or race. Once, when he asked me if I would take my tools and scrape an exterior cinder block wall on the gymnasium, I dared to say, “I would prefer not to work in the sun because I get skin cancer.”

Without skipping a beat or showing frustration of any kind, he simply asked someone else if they would do it, and asked me to paint an interior room. He never again asked me to work in the sun, nor did he mention it.

He also never criticized your work. He wouldn’t say, “You are holding that brush incorrectly.” He would say instead, “Why don’t you try holding the brush this way. It might work better for you.” If you painted a crooked bead across a ceiling line, the next day he would say simply, “Paul, would you take your brush and see if you can straighten out the ceiling line on that back wall before you roll today?”

The gentleness of Don’s guidance made everyone who worked for him want to do their best.

He also had a very clever way of making you work harder: He would set up with his brush or roller near you and work twice as hard as you were. You would soon realize you were being outstripped by the boss and, to save face, you’d increase your own effort.

Clever motivator, that Don Colby.

In 20 years of working for him, I never heard him criticize anyone, or anyone’s work. He corrected and motivated; he didn’t tear down.

I retired from teaching six years ago, at age 67, and gave up the paint crew at the same time. But I would still see Colby around town. Last year, I asked him for advice on why the stain on my deck was peeling. He came over, took one look and diagnosed the problem: There was no primer under the color-tinted stain.

I said I didn’t think you could put primer under stain, but Colby was a great advocate of primer. He once had to repaint the work a contractor did on a new addition to the middle school because the contractor had failed to use primer and the whole job had peeled.

The remedy for my deck: Scrape it once, slap on a coat of primer and then roll it with the tinted stain. It worked like a charm.

I saw my old paint crew boss standing in line at the credit union about six months ago. He asked how I was, and I said, “I guess I’m getting old. I’m 73 now.”

His reply was classic Colby: “Age is just a number.”

At 85, he was planning on another summer with Hartford’s paint crew.

I’d like to think of his death as just climbing another ladder. Somewhere, right now, I can see him with paintbrush in hand. He is drawing the straightest bead you ever saw — across a star.

Paul Keane lives in Hartford.

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