By Kate Barcellos
You’ve probably never seen him, but he’s been there: high above our line of sight, making sure we’re warm, dry and safe every day when we go to work and try to make a living.
And Bruce Adams is still up on the roof after 50 years, watching out for us.
“A lot of the roofs here that we work on, Bruce originally put them down,” said Vermont Roofing General Manager Shane Raymond. “He’s a big part of this company.”
Vermont Roofing was founded in 1957, and just 11 years after the company’s birth, Adams, then 24, arrived at a job site to start on a 1,500-square-foot roofing job in Bennington.
“Well, I was working in construction, anyway,” Adams said. “You just showed up back then. No interviews, just show up at 5 a.m.”
Every day except Sunday as part of an eight- or nine-person crew, Adams laid down rolled felt soaked with hot tar and finely-milled gravel on flat roofs on almost every store, bank and hospital in Rutland, and many others throughout Vermont.
“If it was still hot tar today, I’d be dead,” Adams said. “I’ve been on 90 percent of the commercial roofs in Rutland.”
But Adams wouldn’t be on the job a year after he started, when Uncle Sam came to call. In March 1969, Adams — then 25 — was drafted into the Army and sent to Alaska. Then, he shipped out to the central highlands of Vietnam in 1970 as a part of the 19th Combat Engineers.
“They said I needed a change of weather,” Adams said. “It’s just like Vermont over there. Mountains, and the weather is the same.”
There for just more than 21 months, Adams said the Vietnamese rarely bothered him and his group, who were building a road through a town.
“Sometimes, they’d mess with us,” Adams said. “They’d lob a few rounds into the camp at night. But if they didn’t have us, they didn’t have the road, so they didn’t give us much trouble.”
Coming home, Adams already knew he was getting back on the ladder, back on the roof, right where he belonged.
“I love being outdoors,” Adams said. “I’ve never wanted to do anything else.”
The hours were long, and the sun beat down, but the mostly commercial roofing jobs kept him busy — driving everywhere from Bennington to Burlington and beyond — and kept him interested, because every day brought the promise of a new and unexpected experience.
And he never needed to share that experience with anyone outside his crew.
“I’m a very anti-social person,” Adams said. “Most of the time, you can’t see us.”
A hidden treasure, Adams is a living testament to the evolution of his craft. Tar has been replaced by one-ply systems, rubber and vinyl, and construction teams have shrunk by half.
“It’s gotten easier, because things are more technical now,” Adams said. “They’re a lot more safety-conscious now than they’ve ever been. But back then, we had a bigger crew. Now, if a man goes down, you miss them.”
“Construction companies everywhere are suffering work shortages,” Raymond added.
Adams and his wife, Naomi, never left Rutland County, though they have traveled everywhere from Northern Europe to the Caribbean, and try to go on cruises twice a year.
“I’m not rich, and I don’t need a lot of money, but I have enough,” Adams said. “I go to work, and on Sundays my wife likes to go to church. I go fishing. We have a good life together.”
But every Monday, he’s up with the sun — 6 a.m., these days — ready to scale another rooftop and teach the younger generations the meaning of a good work ethic and dedication to a craft.
“I always tell them, “do as I say, and not as I do,” Adams said.
But for Raymond and Vermont Roofing, Adams is a living legend, someone who has watched technology change, and seen historical events take place.
Most of the time, he was on the roof.
“He works just as hard, if not harder, than anyone else,” Raymond said. “I tell them ‘Look at Bruce: He’s been here 50 years. Look at what he’s achieved.’”
His hands are wide and warm, roughened by the sun and calloused over and over again from working long days in the heat and the sun.
But he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“If I wasn’t working, I’d go crazy,” Adams said. “A lot of people look down on you if you’re a roofer,” he said. “They think we’re the bottom, but we’re just like everybody else.”
Adams turned to Raymond, a final request to a man decades his junior.
“You let me know when I’m not an asset to you,” Adams said to Raymond. “Just let me know.”