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No sign of his inner freshman: Norm Abram '72
NTERING THE "SET" OF The New Yankee Workshop, the nationally aired PBS program produced in an unadvertised location somewhere in the suburbs of Boston, you encounter an array of spades, shovels, and gardening forks, hung on pegs and neatly sorted by genus and size.
You expect to see tools, of course, but what are these horticultural implements doing in the domain of Norm Abram '72, master carpenter and woodworker extraordinaire? The answer lies in the raised garden beds just outside the door: beds covered, on the bright winter's day we visited, in shimmering snow, like banquet tables draped in brilliant damask. The dormant beds are the primary subject of another WGBH-produced program, The Victory Garden; they're also part of someone's (not Norm's) backyard. The foyer of the workshop serves as the Victory Garden utility shed.
Welcome to the world of public television. Rest assured that your pledge dollars are not squandered on frippery.
Without the sterilizing filter of the TV camera and in the absence of a bustling production crew, the headquarters of The New Yankee Workshop looks like any other well-used home shop. The hand tools are hastily tossed in wooden boxes on the workbench; the concrete floor is stained by spills. Even the signs from old-time garages, smithies, and pubs are the kind of thing you might find hanging in your neighbor's garage.
There are power tools, of course, but not to excess. The principal clues that this is no ordinary workshop are the variety and number of clamps dozens of them, in every imaginable size, stacked against the wall, with still more hanging from shelves and the half-dozen spotlights bolted high up on the ceiling. And perhaps few home woodworkers would have a prototype rolltop desk the practice piece for a current Workshop project parked in the hallway, or an identical desk of unfinished, fragrant oak, a gleaming key in its lock, elegantly occupying the center of their work space.
Norm Abram himself, while often imitated, is a never-duplicated kind of guy. The co-host, with fellow workboots-wearer Steve Thomas, of This Old House, a nineteen-year- old WGBH show viewed by some ten million people weekly, this son of a Milford carpenter and product of UMass is instantly recognizable in his familiar plaid shirt, hisbearded, thick-browed countenance clearly the one featured in the logo of his own NewYankee Workshop (at left). Seated upstairs in his office, this day, he's absorbed in a discussion with publicist Kim Cotter `88 of his latest project book, The New Yankee Workshop Kids' Stuff an apt subject for a guy who counts among his fans a number of little boys in plaid shirts and pint-sized tool-belts.
Abram and Cotter have a lot of projects to keep up with, a multitude of details to track. The twenty-six yearly episodes of This Old House require their attention and attendance in summer and fall for New England house projects, in winter through spring for the "remote" winter jobs. (This year's was in San Francisco.) The thirteen episodes of The New Yankee Workshop each one featuring a different hand-built piece of furniture, such as a Morris chair or mesquite bookcase or rolltop desk add to Abram's workload, as do his regular contributions to This Old House Magazine, which is published ten times a year. And don't forget the seven books from Little, Brown and Company; he dictated most of Measure Twice, Cut Once while driving to the workshop.
Although this many-angled career keeps Abram shuttling between locations and the requirements of writing, photography, schematic sketches, and TV production, there is nothing frantic about Norm. As his trademark brow knits in concentration over book-production details, he is very much the logical, problem-solving engineer he enrolled at UMass to become. Absent is any sign of the frightened freshman. His arrival on campus in the fall of 1967 with Gorman-roommate-to-be Lou Colabello `71, a friend from St. Mary's Catholic High School in Milford, was mildly traumatic says Abram when diverted from the project books. "I remember being dropped off by our parents, and sitting on our beds across from each other and going, `What are we doing here? It's scary. Let's just keep the door closed and not let anybody in here.'"
UMass had drawn Abram with its fine reputation for engineering studies, winning out over Georgia Tech and MIT by being both close to home and affordable. Abram had a predilection for engineering rooted, he says, in a boy's fascination with building things, with cars, with jet engines, and with science fiction stories especially the Tom Swift series. And he quickly got over his initial, overwhelmed reaction to the campus: "Everybody was in the same boat," he says. "If you're a freshman, you're a freshman."
TILL, HE NEVER QUITE ADJUSTED to the engineering curriculum; he was good at science and math, but the theoretical courses put him off. "I've always been a hands-on person, and I wanted to be doing things," he says. In the first semester of his junior year struggling with his studies and wondering whether there would be a job waiting for him when he graduated he debated dropping out.
"Those were confusing times," says Abram, and he means that generally, not just for himself. The Vietnam War was at its height and young men didn't know what to expect. When the draft lottery was held, "We sat in a room, listening to the radio to find out what our numbers would be." Abram's number was borderline; he wondered whether he should volunteer. By then he'd joined a fraternity, and some Pi Lambda Phi brothers counseled him to change majors; he enrolled in the business school, and found it more to his liking: "A lot of the courses were so logical just a logical approach to things." Still, facing an uncertain future and a fifth year of college after switching majors, Abram remained unsure of his direction, poised for another change in the direction of the hands-on.
Change offered itself in the form of a flyer on a campus bulletin board: "Laborers and Carpenters wanted. Vermont. New Hampshire. Make good money." The Boston-based construction company that Abram went to work for, when he left UMass just short of a degree, paid him less than he'd earned working for his father's boss during summer vacations. But with the skills he'd already learned from his dad, he was promoted to foreman in only a few months. Soon he was supervising other foremen, and within a few years the firm attempted to kick him upstairs. His UMass business background made him a candidate for a management job, but that wasn't the career path this hands-on guy wanted, so he started his own company.
His new firm's first project was a general store on Nantucket, a success that led to referrals and to building a barn for Russell Morash, the Emmy Award-winning creator, director, and executive producer of The Victory Garden, This Old House, and Julia Child's four cooking series. When Abram finished the barn in 1979, Morash invited him to be the carpenter for a new "how-to" show: the nascent
This Old House. Having had a taste of being his own boss, Abram was reluctant to return to being one of many tradesmen on a job site, even a televised job site; he acquiesced, he says, only because 1979 was a down year in the construction industry. Also, it was only a thirteen-week commitment, and he thought it would be a laugh his friends might see him carrying a ladder through a scene on TV.
But Morash hung a microphone on him and asked him to explain what he was doing . . . and the rest is history. Today, Abram is more a host than a carpenter on This Old House, taking on special projects a "media room," what used to be called a "TV den," in one recent series, for example rather than serving as the main hammerer. On The New Yankee Workshop, though, he builds every prototype and every finished product himself. "I could have other people do it for me, but it wouldn't be the same," he says. "I've got to figure out how to do it." For Abram, "Yankee" stands for quality craftsmanship, for doing things right, he says; "New" denotes his desire to demonstrate new methods, new materials, new applications.
That heavy brow knits once more as Abram talks about future projects for The New Yankee Workshop; you can see that his logical powers are fully engaged. It's not merely a matter of deciding what to build and how to build it, it's a matter of finding projects that will inspire his audience, of showing them something they'd like to build and demonstrating a state-of-the-art method for doing it. "This show is not project-driven, it's technique-driven," he says. "We want woodworkers to be challenged, to build better skills."
"If my success will help save an historic building, I'm going to do that": Abram at Old Chapel
HALLENGE" IS THE OPERATIVE WORD for Abram. He could be forgiven for thinking he has enough commitments in his life; last fall, though, he accepted another, throwing his support behind the preservation of UMass's Old Chapel by agreeing to be photographed for a campaign ad featured in the winter issue of this magazine.
"It would be hard to deny that my experience at UMass got me where I am today," says Abram of the campus where he experienced his youthful uncertainties, and for which he expresses warm affection. "So if that's true, then if you can give back part of where you came from, I think you should do it.
"You can procrastinate forever and say, `I'm too busy,'" he adds. "But the older you get, the more you realize that you can't always use that excuse. If my success and notoriety will help save an historic building, then I'm going to do that." It is a series of "if/then" statements, of premises succeeded by logical conclusions, an inevitable result of the man's life and craft.
HE WEEKEND WE CATCH UP WITH KIMBERLY COTTER , she's shopping for lamps for her home. She likes some with "crinkly shades," but wonders how they'd go with her Shaker table. She loves objects from the forties, but also furniture by the likes of Charles and Ray Eames, and isn't sure if it all adds up.
In other words, when it comes to making decorating decisions, the national publicist for the WGBH-produced PBS programs This Old House, The New Yankee Workshop, and The Victory Garden; gets as nervous as the rest of us. It took her a year to pick out a couch. The one she chose won't fit in the door of her Concord fixer-upper. Her husband, Ted Selig '88, is talking about removing a bay window to get it in, but Cotter seems dubious. Maybe it's a case of This Old House getting a little too close to home.
Kim Cotter's professional responsibilities at WGBH, where she's worked for the last six-and-a-half years, include producing press kits, directing photo shoots, setting up interviews, handling the media, and "acting as gatekeeper for eight people, mainly Norm and Steve." She's also on the road quite a bit, accompanying the crew of This Old House to Tucson, San Francisco, and other warmer climes where they film during the winter. Cotter says her student internships as a UMass communications major gave her practical knowledge she's found invaluable in what she does now. And courses such as Professor Dean Albertson's Contemporary American History "taught me to think, and how to interpret and express clearly what I think." (The immediate relevance of that particular course was bolstered the day she emerged from a class discussion of the Chicago Seven into a demonstration with Abbie Hoffman as featured speaker.)
Two other happy outcomes of her college days were meeting Selig and being introduced to This Old House by their Chadbourne dormmates. With a slightly embarrassed giggle, and without admitting to participation, Cotter describes a drinking game played during the show: Contestants took a swig every time then-host Bob Villa said, "Well, Norm . . . "
Cotter's attachment to public television dates back to her formative years in her hometown of Wellesley. She and all her friends were "ZOOM fanatics" devotees of an early WGBH show which is, she notes with satisfaction, "being revived with all new episodes this year." Many of Cotter's media contacts, it turns out, are also former ZOOM-ers. "I called `Letterman' the other day, and when I gave my address, the person I was calling started singing the zip code, she says, breaking into song herself "0-2-1-3-4" part of the theme music to the seventies children's show.
Cotter's ready sense of humor makes her fun to talk to a golden asset in her field. She also knows her stuff; she's smart and earnest on the subject of public television, "a national treasure," she says. Besides finding the work intellectually satisfying, she says that "without sounding really hokey, I'm proud of the shows I promote they're informative, they don't fall victim to media trends. These people are truly experts, not just talking heads."
All well and good, but what people really want to know, when they learn what she does for a living, is, "What is Norm, what is Steve really like?" Her answer: "What you see is what you get."