Norm Abrahamson likes to fix things. And he's good with a hammer. All of which makes me think of the old Peter, Paul & Mary song, “If I Had A Hammer.” That iconic song from the 60s seems to fit Abrahamson to a T. I know because I bought his services last year at the auction to install floor moldings in my den.
Abrahamson grew up in Minnesota and earned a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Minnesota. He and his wife moved to Renton in 1958 to work at Boeing, and 31 years later, retired. It was then that a friend from church recruited him to help build the set for a production by the Valley Community Players.
“I remember that first set because the design was so detailed,” says Abrahamson. “I thought it had been designed by an architect.”
It had. And that's when the song lyrics - I'd hammer in the morning, I'd hammer in the evening, all over this land — came to life for Abrahamson. He enjoyed the experience working in the theater so much that he continued to build sets for the organization until it went out of business 10 years later.
“I don’t do finish work,” he laughs, “but our approach was that if you couldn’t see it from the front row, it didn’t matter.”
Over the years, Abrahamson extended his skills to include the . After all, the displays at a museum are similar to a stage set. Abrahamson helped with with repairs, as well as the construction of new displays illustrating Renton's rich history. He even helped to remodel the new museum building for .
But, Abrahamson has also taken his hammer on the road, doing extensive work for . He joined the “Over the Hill Gang” in 1990, a group comprised mostly of retired men who volunteered every Thursday. Never one to quit a good thing, Abrhamson has worked with Habitat for about 15 years. When asked how many houses he'd helped build, it was difficult to remember. He had to take a minute and use his fingers to finally land on the number: 28!
“The thing about Habitat for Humanity,” says Abrahamson, “is that you can’t carry a board by yourself. You can only carry half a board because someone is always there to carry the other half.”
Finally, Abrahamson took his skills internationally, making a difference in lives all over the world. Through the World Methodist Church he’s traveled to such places as Mutare, Zimbabwe to help build housing for a new university; Costa Rica to build a church; Ensenada to build a dining hall; and to Copper Canyon, Mexico to work on a church camp (just to name a few).
According to Abrahamson, “You volunteer because you want to do it. There’s no other reason.”
Frankly, as Abrahamson leans back in the chair reciting a long list of local and international work projects he's participated in, a faint glow above his head made me think he could probably hammer his way to volunteer sainthood. And yet he chooses to do more.
In 2001, he tells me, his friend, Merna Wheeler, recruited him to the , where he's served on the board for a decade. His wife, Carol, also volunteers there (and he's quick to tell me that she's the real volunteer in the family). They’ve both helped with food drives and fundraisers, and of course, Abrahamson has lent his skills to solving facility maintenance problems.
Once Abrahamson joined Rotary, Jim Baker recruited him to be the district representative for , a nonprofit that facilitates the transportation of surplus bulk foods to local food banks. Beside his board responsibilities, Abrahamson joyfully gathers other willing volunteers once a month to sort and repackage food at the warehouse.
“I love to volunteer,” Abrahamson says. “I get a sense of satisfaction from completing a job.”
Abrahamson has done so much for the local food banks that he was honored in 2008 with the Rotary First Harvest Mike Shanahan Award for his outstanding service toward hunger relief.
While lyricists, Lee Hays and Pete Seeger, weren’t talking about the building trade when they wrote, If I Had a Hammer, (in fact they were referring to the progressive movement in the country) they could have been talking about Abrahamson nonetheless. Especially when you add in the two last lines of the song — It's the song about love between my brothers and my sisters, all over this land.
According to David Bobanick, Executive Director of Rotary First Harvest, “Norm serves as an inspiration for everyone.”
I think that may be an understatement, especially for someone like me, who couldn’t hammer a nail straight to save my life.