Archived from UMass Magazine Online|
Spring 1988 Issue
No sign of his inner freshman: Norm Abram
ENTERING THE "SET" OF The New Yankee
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,
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
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
STILL, 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
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
"If my success
will help save an historic building, I'm going to do that": Abram at Old
"CHALLENGE" 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.