A handy man: After 70 years of fix-it, a retired carpenter, contractor puts it in a book

May 12, 2018 9:58:49 PM

Jan Swoope - [email protected]


Frank Gilliam is one of those people everybody wishes they had around -- someone who knows what he's doing. After a 70-year career in carpentry, home maintenance and painting, Gilliam has pretty much been there, done that. But now, at 84, he's put down the hammers and brushes (well, almost). His urge to help out others isn't as simple to set aside.  


By the time Frank was around 12 years old, he was learning the trade, helping out his dad who was a building contractor in west Alabama. Except for a stint in the Army, Frank kept at it until a fall from a ladder about four years ago left him with a broken hip and months of rehab.  


"I climbed ladders for those 70 years I worked, and then got 80 years old and fell off of one," the Columbus man said. "Some folks thought I'd die, but I fooled them. Many folks thought I'd never walk again, but I fooled them too." 


On the long road to recovery, Frank eventually realized that, even if he had to slow things down, his lifetime of knowledge could be useful to others. So he compiled some of his personal observations and recommendations in "Practical House Maintenance: 70 Years' Experience Handyman, Carpenter, Painting Contractor." 


The 70-plus page paper-bound book touches on topics from roofing, wallpaper and mailboxes, to plumbing, air filters and replacing holes in drywall.  


"I hope some of my ideas or methods will help somebody else with self-maintenance, or to know what to tell someone they hire about what you're wanting," he said. 




Frank and Edwina 


"We put this floor down ourselves when we were 78," Frank said, pointing out room after room of wood-grain vinyl flooring on a tour of the home he shares with his wife, Edwina. They knew each other as school kids in Kennedy, Alabama, but nothing much came of it then. 


"I only had a bicycle, and she started going around with somebody who had a car," Frank teased his wife.  


After school, they went their separate ways, each marrying and raising their own families. 


For Frank, an invitation from President Harry Truman to join the Army in the 1950s interrupted contracting work for a while.  


"He wanted to give me a world tour," Frank joked, "but his transportation was lousy." An 11-day voyage to Germany had the new soldier so seasick he lost 38 pounds. "Some people just can't take it, and I'm one of 'em. I'm sure glad I didn't get in the Navy," he added. 


Once out of the Army, Frank quickly resumed work again in and around Gordo, Reform, Fayette and surrounding Alabama towns. He practiced what his father had taught him from the beginning.  


"My dad was a stickler for making sure things were done the right way," he said. "One thing he told me is, 'Folks will get over the price, but they won't ever get over a mess!'"  


As the years advanced in Frank's and Edwina's respective lives, time took its tolls. 


"We both lost our mates to cancer," Edwina said. It would be a fateful class reunion that would bring the two together again after 35 years. They will soon celebrate their 25th anniversary.  


After a tour of the rooms Frank added onto their Columbus house, the Gilliams sat near each other in their living room and reminisced about Frank's long career. His "worst" job in all those years? Painting a two-tone louvered door. 


"The customer wanted it one color on one side and another color on the other; each slat had to be painted separately, and I painted each side two or three times. ... I won't do that again." 


His most fulfilling project?  


"One of them would be the steeple I did on a church a couple of miles out of Carrollton, Alabama, about 30 years ago," said Frank. The old one was wooden and rotting. "I did (the new one) out of something that would last a lifetime; it's made of vinyl, even the cross." He saw it not long ago, proud that it still looks good. 


Frank kept detailed records of the jobs he did for his customers. He'd tell them he wanted to come back in a year or two and take a look to be sure what he'd done was working out. He considers preparation key to any project.  


"I can tell you real quick-like what makes Frank the best painter I've ever seen: He spends more time in preparation to paint than he does painting," chuckled Charles Brown of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, a past client.  


"When he gets through with the preparation, he says, 'I'm almost done.' Whatever he did, he did such good work." 




Passing it on 


Edwina keeps watch to be sure Frank isn't climbing tall ladders any more, but he isn't sitting idle. He co-teaches a Sunday School class at First Baptist Church and recently finished a book about the disciples for family and church members. 


"And if anything tears up in the house, he will do his best to fix it," said Edwina. "He has certainly been a hard worker." 


Frank does admit to checking in on the home improvement shows on TV. It keeps him up on the trade. 


"I learn a lot there about new (products) ... but I could show them a few things, too," he grinned. 


He hopes that sharing some of his experience in book form will come in handy for homeowners. 


"I want to recommend the most practical methods and products for the money," he said. "I just want to help people." 


Editor's note: "Practical House Maintenance" is available at Ivie's Outlet Store, 116 Fifth St. S. in downtown Columbus, or at lulu.com. On the site, type "Frank Gilliam" in the search box. 




Tips around the house 


A sampling from Frank Gilliam 




■ "To get rid of grease in your sink traps, boil a pot of water and put it in your sink every 30 days." 


■ "Old nylon hose or one leg of panty hose makes the best paint strainer."  


■ "You can put a quarter box of ice cream salt in your commode every 60 days to prevent roots from growing in your line." 


■ "Every household should buy a water key used to turn off water (at the meter) and all adults in the house should learn how to use it for any water emergency. Turn off the water when you are going to be gone two days or more." 


■ "Put Clorox in all drains where hair might be every 60 days. (It will also keep bad odors out of the house.)" 


■ "Always wash your house before a new paint job, but wait three days before painting with a really good latex paint."

Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.