Sunday, November 12, 2000

O'Rourke Wrecking operates on shared spirit of father, son

Contract to dismantle part of Cinergy linked to fascination with ballparks and love of game

By John Erardi
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Mike O'Rourke, president of Cincinnati's O'Rourke Wrecking, heads one of the 30 largest demolition companies in the country. He was recently hailed by the Cincinnati Reds as the man who allowed the team's dream to come true to have grass at Cinergy Field in 2001 and 2002.

        What is O'Rourke Wrecking? Who is Mike O'Rourke? And why did he bend over backwards to rearrange the company's work schedule to pull up the Cinergy Field AstroTurf now — instead of two years from now — just so the Reds could have grass?

        Lover of baseball, devout believer in what writer W.P. Kinsella has termed the “Thrill of the Grass,” curious visitor to ballparks old and new in whatever city his company is working:

[photo] Mike O'Rourke, who had been eyeing the Cinergy Field project for five years, got the contract — and brought the family firm full-circle.
(Brandi Stafford photos)
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        That is Mike O'Rourke.

        And this is the story of his company, of the inspiring relationship between a founding father and a carrying-on son, and of the circumstances that conspired to put him and his seven experienced job superintendents out front in the most unusual ballpark make-over and demolition in the history of U.S. sport.

Son knows he must move on

        On the day Mike O'Rourke's father died at age 52 — after a six-week stay in the hospital for a bone-marrow transplant that didn't work — Mike, who had been directing the family business, called the office for his messages.

        There was one to call a Western Hills store owner.

        Mike knew what the call regarded:

        It was a potential job for O'Rourke Wrecking, which his father, Patrick, had founded a quarter-century earlier.

        Mike knew if he didn't return the call, he wouldn't get the job.

        It was July 25, 1994.

        Only few months earlier, Mike hadn't bid a job because his father was sick.

        “That's the cardinal sin,” his father had told him, adding some adjectives to the description.

        And that was the polite part. Patrick, who had started the company, at age 20 on a bank loan he had to fib to get because he was underage, wasn't one for excuses.

        So Mike did what his father had taught him to do.

        He made the call.

        Mike knew what his responsibility was, and it wasn't to himself and to his grief. It was to the 75 employees of O'Rourke Wrecking.

        It is the way O'Rourke Wrecking has always operated. Get the work wherever it is — in town, if possible, so the employees don't have to spend five days at a time away from their families. If the work is out of town, the employees get Saturdays and Sundays off.

        Hadn't that been the way it was when O'Rourke Wrecking tore down the World Bank in Washington, D.C., in a 60-day deadline (120 work shifts, two crews a day) that nobody thought it could meet?

        Steve Bill, Patrick's right-hand man who is now Mike's right-hand man, remembers that job well. That's the job for which he drove nonstop to Washington, arriving at 5 p.m., going straight to the job site, and by 2:30 in the morning had assembled — in the middle of the nation's crowded capital — seven truckloads of parts into a huge boom crane that would take down the 12-story office tower.

    O'Rourke Wrecking has sold all of the 15,000 outfield seats it has removed from the “bite” being taken out of Cinergy Field to make room for the building of Great American Ball Park.
    It has sold some of the more than 100,000 square feet of AstroTurf it removed to make room for the planting of grass. O'Rourke is seeking a large-volume buyer for the remainder of the turf.
    For more information, see on the Internet.
        Sharon O'Rourke, Patrick's widow, had remembered that job. That is the one for which Patrick had left their vacation in Hilton Head to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary — their first nonworking vacation in the quarter-century they'd been married — for two days, because he had to see the crane go up, had to know that this critical job was going to get off to a good start.

        It was the same job for which Patrick had shed his CEO shoes on the weekend and taken his turn like any job superintendent, getting his hands dirty, directing the heavy equipment, doing what had to be done.

        Wasn't that the O'Rourke way?

        Could Mike handle it? Could he maintain the company's reputation for excellence, doing the tough jobs, making the deadlines, inspiring the workers, dealing with the banks?

        Could he run the show?

        He thought back to what he had been taught and what his father would have done. He thought back on the monumental history of O'Rourke Wrecking.

        He was 26 years old.

Crosley inspired dream

        Four-year-old Mike O'Rourke sat in his father's lap and watched the wrecking ball of the King Wrecking crane slam into the walls of Crosley Field in the West End. It was the spring of 1972.

        Tearing down Crosley Field, the Reds natural-grass home from 1912-1970, was a job that Patrick had desperately wanted.

        But he had been in the demolition business for only three years when the job had been bid, and he'd only been bonded (that is, insured by an underwriter) for a year. The first two years, he had shown up at bid sites with a certified check; the established companies regarded him derisively — he was insuring himself.

[photo] An 8,000-pound wrecking ball attached to the 180-foot long boom of O'Rourke's 100-ton crane slams into the former parking garage at Cinergy Field.
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        He had started O'Rourke Wrecking during the urban renewal fever that had come to the West End in the late 1960s.

        He had been trained as a builder, working first for his dad, William C. O'Rourke, and then, after his dad had gone out of business, as a job superintendent for Arcose Builders. His dad had been bankrupted by his dream to develop a large tract of expensive homes near Western Hills Country Club — a dream that was 15 years ahead of its time.

        Nothing hurt Patrick more than when the repossessor's tow trucks hauled away his dad's company's heavy equipment — especially the front-loader, on which Patrick had taught himself to drive after school when he was barely a teen-ager. Remember the day he drove the standard-transmission car because his mother couldn't? She held his cap like a beanie 4 inches above his head so passersby wouldn't wonder why the top of his head was barely above the dash. He was 14.

        On the day his father's heavy equipment was hauled away, Patrick vowed he would start his own business some day. And it would be so successful, he told those closest to him, no bank would ever repossess his heavy equipment.

        By 15, he had begun hauling to customers top soil from job sites. He had to hire drivers, because he was too young to get a license. By 16, he was driving the trucks. He dropped out of Elder High School to support his family. People said he'd never graduate; he went to Western Hills High at night and graduated on time.

        At 20, he started his own excavation business, fudging his age by a year so he could get the loan. He liked excavation, but noticed that the only companies that were working year-round — oblivious to the weather — were the demolition companies.

        Cincinnati was changing.

        In 1966, a National Football League franchise was awarded to Cincinnati, and the Reds and Bengals agreed to share a new stadium. By 1967, Crosley Field's fate was sealed when ground was broken for Riverfront Stadium. Patrick and Sharon had an extra mouth to feed: daughter Kimberley.

        Patrick began thinking about going into the demolition business.

        He was 26 years old.

Flash ahead: Cinergy Field

        Summer 2000.

        As soon as Mike walked through the opening in the center field fence at Cinergy Field and onto the AstroTurf and looked around, he knew.

        He wanted this job. He wanted O'Rourke Wrecking to take the “bite” out of Cinergy Field to make room for a new stadium.

        It would require the removal of 11,300 tons of structural steel; 160,000 cubic yards of concrete; and 15,000 red, green and blue seats.

        On this day, though, he wasn't scrutinizing the steel and concrete and cold plastic seats. He was looking at the playing field, the outfield fence, the right- and left-field corners.

        He pushed against the outfield wall, remembering that the padding had been added in 1992 after the Phillies' Lenny Dykstra had almost maimed himself crashing into the wall; he extended his arm skyward to note the 8-foot height of the wall that had been reduced by 4 feet in 1984 to make for more home runs and greater catches; he remembered the great Eric Davis.

        Mr. O'Rourke pushed his right foot against the AstroTurf; it wasn't as hard as he'd imagined. He looked at the spot in left-field where he thought Pete Rose's hit No. 4,192 might have landed.

        He hadn't been able to go to the game that night of 4,192 with his two buddies from Elder. He wasn't doing well in calculus at St. Xavier. He knew if he didn't study that night for a test the next day, he was going to flunk. “At St. X, they give tests you have to study for,” he told his Elder buddies.

        He looked at shortstop, where Ozzie Smith did a back-flip upon taking the field for the 1988 Major League All Star Game.

        He looked at first base where former Reds manager Lou Piniella had struggled mightily to unmoor the bag and then, still furious over an umpire's call, chucked the bag into short right field. He looked at the batter's box in which Mark McGwire stood and the red seat high in left-center field where Big Mac had hit the longest home run in Cinergy Field history.

        Mike had never heard a crack of the bat that loud. He looked at the spot beyond the outfield wall where the banner had hung that said “Hit it here, Johnny,” the night Bench broke Yogi Berra's record for most home runs hit by a catcher.

        He looked at the blue box seats in which he and his wife, Michelle, had sat one night. He had gone to get a beer, turning back when he was halfway up the aisle to tell her: “If you catch a foul ball it's mine.” He couldn't believe it when he got back and she held up the foul ball that people around her had seen her catch with one hand.

        He saw the various seats where he and his buddies had snuck after they'd taken the Metro bus downtown from Western Hills Plaza for 50 cents and then slid by the blue-level security guards when they were distracted.

        He saw the green seats just beyond the left-field foul pole where he'd sat that night when Montreal's Mike Fitzgerald ripped a line drive headed right at his girlfriend (later his wife) — they were there on her Straight A tickets — and she jumped out of the seat just before the ball slammed into it and Mike grabbed it.

        And now as Mike sat in the yellow seats in foul territory above the first-base line, after having taken it all in and not thinking it could get any better, he saw Ken Griffey Jr. and a handful of other Reds — among them Reds coach Ron Oester, the beloved Ronnie O., second baseman of the 1981 split-season non-champs of Mike O'Rourke's youth — walk onto the field.

        They began taking batting practice.

        Mr. O'Rourke turned to Michelle.

        “I have to get this job.”

        And one other thought kept popping into his head:

        Wouldn't it be cool to have natural grass in here instead of AstroTurf?

Buildings begin to crumble

        The demolition of Crosley Field was a job Patrick O'Rourke had desperately wanted.

        But he wasn't the low bidder.

        He'd just gotten bonded the previous year — 1971 — and could finally begin competing with the big boys on even footing. That same year, O'Rourke Wrecking got the job that put it on the map: a block-long demolition at Sixth and Main of the Gwynne Building, Richter & Phillips Jewelry Store and Southern Ohio Bank.

        Patrick was eating, sleeping and breathing demolition.

        He had taught himself the trade, spending nights and weekends eyeballing other company's jobs, following their trucks to see where they unloaded the steel and concrete from the buildings they were demolishing. Just as he'd done when he was a young superintendent for his uncle's home-building company and would climb among the roof trestles of the competitors to see how they constructed their roofs.

        The demolition jobs kept coming: Old St. Mary's Hospital, the Workhouse, the phone company on Fourth Street, the Gilbert Avenue and Sixth Street viaducts, the Carew Tower Parking Garage and big out-of-town jobs: the World Bank (Washington, D.C.), Corning Glass (N.Y.), the University of Michigan, the Commonwealth Bank Building (Louisville).

        O'Rourke Wrecking had come of age.

Sander Hall goes
        In December 1990, Mike O'Rourke graduated from the University of Cincinnati with a degree in business management. He'd been drawing a wage at O'Rourke Wrecking since he was 11 years old ($3 an hour) and by 14 was working full time with his dad in the summer.

        In the early summer of 1991 — when Mike was only six months out of UC — O'Rourke Wrecking landed its most prestigious contract to date: the demolition of 27-story Sander Hall at UC. It would be the tallest building ever imploded in North America.

        Patrick had T-shirts printed up that had a before-implosion photo of Sander Hall on the front; on the back was the after-implosion pile of rubble and the words: “It's just not there anymore — June 23, 1991.”

        Four months later, he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer of the bone marrow.

Always answering to Dad


        In late 1993, Mike went to Louisville with his dad to look at a job. Normally, Patrick would have driven, but he was tired and weak from the chemotherapy, and so Mike drove. They left at 5 a.m; there were two jobs to bid, both at the airport. The biggest was for the demolition of a block-long, three-story biscuit-making company.

        The bids were due in at 11 a.m.

        “Read me the estimate sheet,” Patrick told Mike.

        “He says it's a 30-day job,” Mike began.

        “Thirty days! I'd like to see him do it in 30 days!” Patrick had said. “Here, write down this down. ...”

        And, one by one, Patrick recited what would be needed.

        60-ton crane, 15 days.

        Two 245's (large-track excavators), 45 days each.

        Front-loader, 30 days.

        Four laborers, 45 days.

        Six trucks, 20 days.

        D-8 'dozer to grade the site, 15 days. ...

        And so on.

        It was a long, detailed list, and Mike, who knew the job specs cold and the dollar rates for the various pieces of equipment, punched in the numbers.

        They had only 15 minutes to get to the airport, where Mike was going to have to find the room where the bids were to be submitted. Patrick got behind the wheel and raced his white Cadillac through the airport grounds, while Mike punched up the numbers on the calculator.

        “Where ya' at?” Patrick asked.

        “Seven-hundred twenty-seven thousand,” Mike answered. Then, moments later, “"But I didn't include the $50,000 allowance (a contingency fund from the general contractor should unforeseen circumstance pop up). You want that in there?”

        A moment's hesitation from Patrick.

        “Put it in,” he said.

        The white Caddy squealed into the parking lot on two wheels.

        “Go!” said Patrick.

        Mike jumped out and sprinted for the front door. Inside, he pulled on a door handle. Locked. He looked at his watch: 10:59, and the second hand was ticking toward 11. If the the bid was even one second late, it would not be accepted. That's just the way it is on public jobs.

        He swung around the corner, reached for another door — open — and in one motion walked through and handled it to the clerk across the counter who swept it through the time clock: 10:59:50.

        The bids were then opened.

        When Mike got back to the parking lot, his dad was waiting.

        “We got the big one!” Mike announced.

        “How much?” Patrick asked.

        Mike held up three fingers. Patrick took that to mean O'Rourke had been the low bidder by $30,000. Not bad.

        Later, when they'd gone to McDonald's for breakfast, Mike went up to the counter as Patrick sat at the table looking at the paperwork on the biscuit-company demolition.

        “Hey I thought you meant $30,000,” Patrick said “I see now you meant $3,000.

        “Double-luck of the Irish,” Mike answered.

        Patrick smiled.

        To this day, whenever Mr. O'Rourke goes to look at a job, he prepares himself as though he's going to have to come back to the office and answer his father's questions.

        “And God only knows what questions he might ask,” Mr. O'Rourke says.

Sticking with the plan

        On a bitterly cold day in January 1994, Pat climbed the entire 28-story Commonwealth Building in Louisville — across the street from the Brown Hotel — to make certain it was properly prepped for implosion.

        Nobody outside the family knew how ill he was. He couldn't let it out. He was worried about the company's reputation. Would the insurance company want to keep bonding O'Rourke Wrecking if it knew the driving force behind the company was terminally ill?

        The last job Patrick visited came on the morning he entered Jewish Hospital on Burnet Avenue on June 17, 1994. It was the old stockyards at Kahn's on Spring Grove Avenue.

        He had to be in the hospital by 8:30 a.m., so he awoke at 4:30 a.m. He shook hands with superintendent Jack Meyer, then visited his company shop on Lunken Park Drive that he'd built in 1988. He shook hands with head mechanic Harry Ruskaup and the other employees who were there. He went into his office, looked around briefly, and told Sharon he was driving himself to the hospital.

        I'll do it.

        The doctors felt good about the prospects that one of his six siblings would be a bone-marrow donor. But they turned out not to be. His own marrow had to be harvested; he got two blood infections, the second of which proved fatal.

        While he was sick in the hospital, he counseled his son and wife and the company's vice president of operations to phase themselves out of the building-side of the business and concentrate on the company's best side, demolition.

        He even wanted them to downsize that, too.

        But they knew he wouldn't have downsized the demolition side. His final words to Sharon were telling:

        “Business as usual — keep the pedal down,” he said.

        Mike knew.

        He had seen it first-hand: On his father's lap at Crosley ... at the Ace Carton Co. in Reading, Pa., which Mike had “detonated” when he was 5 years old, watching in awe as the building crashed to earth in one massive, roaring, smoke-filled implosion ... on the Bobcat loader his dad had let him run on job sites as a first-grader.

        He had learned it at the World Bank in Washington, D.C., at Sander Hall on the UC campus, at the biscuit-company demolition bid at Louisville.

        Business as usual, pedal down.

        On July 25, 1994, Patrick died.

        Three days later, St. Williams' Church in Price Hill was filled to overflowing. Some people in church remembered the day grade-schooler Patrick O'Rourke had taken a shopping bag full of cicadas to St. Williams Elementary and let them out. The nun had called Patrick's dad. “Mr. O'Rourke, I'm too old for this!” Oh, how the family had howled at that at Sunday dinners.

        Some people in church hummed “Fields of Athenry,'' Patrick's favorite Irish ballad. His grandmother, Katherine Kennedy, an only child, had left County Galway at age 16 and settled in Cincinnati. On St. Patrick's Day, her grandson always wore a hard hat decorated with shamrocks. He loved to party. He had the wit.

        When they put him in the ground, the bagpipers played his final request.

        “I want to go down to "Amazing Grace,' ” he had said to his wife.

        And so Sharon — better half of the quintessential West Side pairing of Seton and Elder — had seen to it.

Coming full circle

        Four months ago, Mike called the company office on Lunken Park Drive across from the airport. He was reporting on that day's bidding for the Cinergy Field job.

        “You're talking to the low bidder,” he told his mother.

        She hadn't heard a CEO at O'Rourke Wrecking so happy since Patrick got Sander Hall.

        Cinergy Field was going to be refurbished and ultimately demolished. Mike and the employees had put O'Rourke Wrecking right where Patrick wanted it to be when Crosley Field came down.

        Top of the heap.

- O'Rourke Wrecking operates on shared spirit of father, son
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