Our Houston AGC Chapter and the entire construction industry stands today in sacred silence, saluting the accomplished life of Ralph Marek. This remarkable man died Saturday morning, April 25, 2020; he was 95. His presence in our industry made us all stand taller in this community. His presence in our lives inspired us to be better people.
Ralph Marek was a true gift.
His comprehensive obituary gives specific details of his amazing life story. A few of those facts, however, provide deeper insights into the man, particularly those of his early years. He was the descendant of Czech immigrants who grew up on a farm in Yoakum, Texas, graduated from high school at 15, then joined his older brothers John L and Bill in Houston. They began hanging drywall in 1938. His formative years were in the depth of the depression, which ravaged the Marek family, ultimately costing them their farm. These traumatic years deeply scarred Ralph, but also drove him to his lifelong legacy of helping those less fortunate.
About 5 years ago, I asked him about the experience of being so poor. His response was immediate, intense, and visceral. His face contorted with anguish, his jaw and fists clenched, and he made a boxer’s motion of punching the air, bolting up in his chair as he stated with energy and emphasis. “We were dirt poor; at the bottom of the barrel.” Ralph responded to this painful time not as a victim, but as victor, not as somebody owed by society but rather as somebody obligated to help others.
The group he chose to help were those most rejected, the people Fr. Greg Boyle of Home Boy Ministries, calls “the discarded and detested, the detritus of life.” He committed his life to serving the homeless, addicted women, many with children, and several with AIDS. He built for them a 200-bed transitional housing complex, Bonita House of Hope, now part of the Santa Maria Hostel System. He had many other charitable outlets, particularly the Carmelite Nuns to whom he has given houses, including his last residence, in which he had built a full chapel, especially with the goal of leaving it to them.
My colleague, Jerry Nevlud, had another insightful story. Jerry, a proud alumnus of Marek, where many of his family worked, was in a project review meeting where Ralph was present. A major and costly mistake had been made and the middle manager indicated he would fire the man. Ralph stopped him, saying, “We’re in the hiring business, not the firing business.” The reverence with which Jerry recounts that moment telegraphs the profound impact of Ralph’s philosophy toward his people. Everyone has value. Good faith mistakes can be corrected. In an interview, Ralph shared his belief that a good and reliable job along with homeownership gives the working man a sense of dignity. No one knows how many homes he financed for employees. When I asked him about that he said, “I wanted to help get them off the renter rolls. Homeownership makes a man proud.”
There is no one who has been more successful in the construction business. The company he and his brothers started had such a deep, value-based foundation, that under their successor leaders, his son Stan, his nephews, Bruce and Paul and the highly-respected Mike Holland, it has grown to be one of the towering skyscrapers in the industry – regionally dominant, nationally respected. While he was proud of that to be certain, he is more pleased that these men too remain committed to help, “the least of My brethren.”
With all the success, he remained extraordinarily humble. He was a working man, his bent back, stooped shoulders and muscled hands that held hammers, projected that. So did the way he spoke of himself.
When the American Leadership Forum honored him and Archbishop Joseph Fiorenza a few years ago, he simply stated, “thank you, this is a high honor for this old sheet rocker.” His life legacy is a high honor for all of us.