The office of Brian Gebhardt, a Masonry instructor at Red River College, is reminiscent of the classrooms adjacent to it: surrounded by projects and artwork made of bricks, with a layer of dust on every surface.
Gebhardt is everything one would expect from a mason — covered in the same dust that cakes his office, with calloused hands hardened from almost 45 years in the trade.
For 30 of those years, that dust has been a byproduct of his work at RRC, and this year he received the highest honour an apprenticeship instructor can achieve when he was named Instructor of the Year by Apprenticeship Manitoba.
Gebhardt doesn’t let a little dust bother him; after all, he’s been working with bricks since his first construction job right out of high school, where time spent watching and talking with masonry veterans sold him on the trade.
“They seemed to enjoy what they were doing, and wage-wise it was what I was looking for,” he says.
To get a foot in the door, Gebhardt cold-called as many masonry contractors as he could to ask for a job, which he eventually landed — through what he’s convinced was a real-life game of Telephone.
“I phoned them and said, ‘I want to be a bricklayer,’ and I think he thought I said, ‘I am a bricklayer.’ And he said, ‘Have your tools tomorrow at 1700 Taylor,’” Gebhardt recalls with a smile.
“I picked up some tools — I had none — and I showed up at the job.”
Gebhardt proved a quick study, and later attended RRC’s Masonry program to further hone his skills. Though he struggled at times throughout the program, he graduated on time, and eventually hung out his shingle as a freelance contractor.
He’d been working for 13 years when the instructor position at RRC became vacant. One of Gebhardt’s former instructors had retired, but he wasn’t planning to apply for the position until his mother reminded him of a promise he’d made back in his student days.
“(She) reminded me I said, ‘If I ever have the chance to be the bricklayer instructor at RRC, I would apply,’ and I said, ‘You’re right, I did.’”
Knowing he was up against industry veterans, Gebhardt says his expectations were low.
“When they offered me the job, I was a little taken aback,” he says.
The offer made Gebhardt the only masonry instructor in Manitoba. He wanted to make sure his students’ experiences differed from his, but didn’t want to completely change the tricks of a centuries-old trade.
“I dove into it with a lot of intent to improve on my experience as a student,” he says.
“There are some things I thought (my instructor) could have done differently, but some of his methods were tried and true.”
Gebhardt used this philosophy to shape and guide his teaching, which helped lead to his nomination for the Instructor of the Year award earlier this year.
“I was pretty proud of even being nominated,” he says. “It was pretty important to me.”
When looking at Gebhardt’s success as an instructor, his students are the best evidence around. They consistently score above the national average, and a number of his graduates — now working as contactors or forepersons — are happy to send their apprentice bricklayers back to RRC to learn from him.
Most impressive is his work with Skills Manitoba, and the efforts he’s made to bring his students to the top level at national bricklaying competitions.
He first sent a student to compete 22 years ago; that student came back with a gold medal. In the decades since, they’ve scored medals every year — including 11 golds. This year, one student, Antonio Neufeld, made it all the way to the WorldSkills Competition in Russia.
Neufeld (shown at right), who also earned a gold at the Skills Canada competition in Edmonton in 2018, was the one who nominated Gebhardt for the Instructor of the Year award.
“I can confidently say I would not have won first place in Edmonton without Brian’s leadership, nor would I have made it past the selection event for Russia in Halifax without his aid,” he wrote in his submission to the nomination committee.
Gebhardt says he’s proud of RRC’s Masonry program, and of the students he’s helped to support over the years. He’s also happy they’ve responded to his teaching philosophy — and that he’s helped to teach them an age-old skill.
“There’s nothing like dusting off your pants at the end of the day, looking up at what you’ve built and knowing it’ll stand for hundreds of years.”
Profile by Jake Maurice (Creative Communications, 2020)