Idamae Schack ~”I Just Did It”
by Ann Duecy Norman
In 1964 Idamae Schack became manager of a sand, gravel and concrete business. She also joined what was at that time an extremely rare breed—women in construction.Looking at Idamae, it is difficult to believe that for 20 years, she succeeded in a competitive, often rough and occasionally cut-throat business. Her white hair softly frames her face. She smiles often, listens carefully, and responds to questions with the quiet dignity and comforting manner of a beloved grandmother.
What made her decide to go into the construction business? Her analysis reflects her gift for making the solutions to complex problems seem quite simple. Her husband died suddenly. She had three young children to support. As she saw it, she had three choices. She could sell the business, she could let the bank run it, or she could manage it. In her mind, the answer was simple. “I felt I knew a lot about the business…I had helped develop it.”
Following two years in the Business School at the University of Denver, Idamae had married Walter Miles, a civil engineer, and in 1936, they moved to Tacoma. She was a traditional homemaker and mother. He worked for the large construction company that was building the Tacoma Narrows bridge. In 1943 he purchased a gravel pit in the Auburn area, and they moved into a small cabin next to it. “I had thought I was going to continue to be just a housewife,” she says, but in fact she quickly became involved in his new business.
“When your husband is out in the yard working on a machine, and he needs a part, and you know how to drive a car, what do you do?” she asks. Her answer was, you put the baby in the car, head for Seattle, and find the part. Since the new business was using an assemblage of old equipment and used trucks, Idamae made numerous trips. “After a while,” she says, “the suppliers all knew who I was.” One has to smile, imagining their response to the unusual sight of a woman in their shop with a child in her arms.
She not only survived and learned from her crash course in purchasing machine parts, but she also began keeping the books and doing the billing for their growing business. Her husband built her an office, a shack covered with tarpaper a few yards away from their house. “My daughter Pat claims I raised her by intercom. I’d bathe her, feed her and put her down. Then I’d walk over to work and turn on the intercom. I could hear her. She’d take her nap, and I’d do my work.”
What prepared her for her role? Perhaps it was fate. Or maybe it was her seventh grade teacher. In her Junior High School, the sewing room was on one side of the corridor and the business class was on the other. On the first day of the school year, Idamae went to the sewing room with the rest of the girls, but, after a couple of weeks, for reasons she still insists are unclear to her, the sewing teacher suggested she go across the hall and try the business department. It was a short walk, but the teacher’s decision turned out to be a big step in the right direction for Idamae.
Strangely enough, it seems never to have concerned her that she was the only girl the sewing teacher sent across the hall or that the class she went to was composed mostly of boys. “When I told my mother what had happened, she just laughed, so I never really cared.” Maybe another factor contributing to her independent attitude was that her father, a miner, had died when she was only eight years old, and her Mother, Anne Lawrence, had supported her three children by managing small hotels in the Denver area . Idamae’s childhood was itinerant and not easy; in fact she remembers having attended 13 different grade schools. “I think what’s important,” she says of those difficult times, “is I always knew, no matter what, Mom was behind me.”
Whatever the explanation, despite being one of the few girls in the business classes, Idamae thrived, and after she finished high school, although she was only 16 years old, it seemed natural to her to get a job and begin attending classes in business law and accounting at the University of Denver.
What other factors contributed to her success? As she tells it, it was not only her academic training and her mother’s support, but also her husband’s attitude. “He never said in words, ‘You can do this.’ But he had a heart condition, and we were aware of it. Then he died. Maybe it was just dumb, but I felt I could make it.” When questioned about other factors that contributed to her success, she lists loyal employees, helpful bankers, an established clientele, a supportive community, and her hardworking, responsible children. She brags that her son and her daughters all helped out by loading trucks and driving graders. “They all learned to be independent.”
Although she occasionally attended meetings of construction industry organizations like the Washington Aggregate Association, she also found it helpful to be part of a group of supportive women representing a wide range of business backgrounds. “I joined Soroptimist, a group of 18 business women. I enjoyed being part of it and learned from it.” She is now an emeritus member and her granddaughter, Lisa, has served as chapter President.
Sometime after Walter’s death, Idamae met John Schack, a widower who was in the concrete business, and they were married in 1966. “We had a lot of fun together.” They moved to Everett and she commuted to Auburn to work for nearly a decade. In 1985, she sold her business to her son Frank; at the time of this interview, he was retiring and her grandson Walter and granddaughter Lisa were about to take over its management.
When Idamae is asked about her accomplishments and legacy, she never mentions the substantial contributions of time and money that John and she have made to the Greater Everett Community Foundation, Everett Public Library, The Children’s Museum, Everett Symphony, Historic Everett Theater, and other community projects. Rather, she speaks with pride about her family.
As for her decision to run a sand and gravel company, her response is a masterpiece of understatement: “I just did it.” And, while it is clear she is happy that two of her grandchildren will continue to manage the company she and her husband established, what really brought a warm smile to her face was when she told me about her granddaughter Lisa and how—when she entered Business School at the University of Washington—she told her: “Grandma, I’m going to be just like you.”
Interview with Idamae Schack by Ann Duecy Norman and Robyn Johnson, June 2001
John Bellows Schack, Obituary, Herald, April 28, 2004
Brochure, The Everett Central Lions Club International Medal of Merit Award: John & Idamae Schack, November 10, 2000.
With appreciation to editors Robyn Johnson and Louise Lindgren and to Idamae’s daughter, Patty DeGroodt for suggestions and additions
© 2007 Ann Duecy Norman. All rights reserved; WLP Story #50
Editor’s note: Obituary: Ida Mae Schack died in January 2021