`I’m a survivor," says Carol Sassman, a woman who never planned a
career in construction. She was pushed into her role as owner of
Sassman Masonry Construction Company, which is based in Lambertville,
after her husband, William R. Sassman Sr., died of a heart attack in
1999. She says that it was her husband, while he was sick, who made
sure to provide her with the skills she needed to be successful on her
His approach to training her was quite literally "hands on." The
company was doing work on a porch that was to be bricked in. "Go out
and measure that porch," he told her. She did and came back to him
with the numbers. But she wasn’t done. "No, you have to draw the porch
and write the numbers on the drawing," he then explained.
When she handed him the completed drawing, he said, "Now I want you to
figure out how long it will take and give me a price on it – here’s
the price list."
She estimated $3,200 as the appropriate price, and then he said,
"Okay, call them and tell them." She was unsure, but he encouraged
her. "If that’s what you think, call and tell them. If it’s wrong,
you’ll know for next time."
It was teaching moments like these, frightening though they were, that
taught Sassman to be independent and self-confident.
Sassman Masonry, which does custom residential work, including patios,
chimneys, fireplaces, and stone and brickwork, was founded in 1935
during the Depression by Sassman’s father-in-law, Horace Sassman Sr.
Doing masonry work for homes and fireplaces was his third job. He also
farmed at Gulick’s farm in Kingston and brought his vegetables to
market. He also sold and delivered milk from his several dairy cows.
Sassman’s husband grew up in the business, which was incorporated in
1975, working for his father through high school and eventually taking
over for him.
Carol Sassman was born in Brooklyn, but moved to South Brunswick at
age 12. When she was working at First National Bank in Princeton,
William Sassman was a customer. "We started talking," she recalls,
"and the next thing you know, boom, I’m married."
In 1992 she started taking classes at a community college, then got a
scholarship to Rutgers University, where she focused on psychology.
But in her last year of the program, her husband got sick, and she had
to drop out.
After her husband’s open heart surgery in November, 1997, everything
that could have gone wrong did. When he came home, he couldn’t walk or
talk, and Sassman had to set up the house like a physical therapy
center. Making his way through all kinds of therapies, he did get
better, says Sassman, "through sheer determination." She says that he
was a strong man, "larger than life."
But he was also realistic. "I think people know on some level if
they’re dying," observes Sassman. "I guess he knew that I would have
to take over."
So he brooked no weakness from his wife. One time he gave her a plan
for a job, and asked her to do a "take off" of what needed to be done.
The only guidance he gave her was a list of all the symbols on the
Sassman sat looking at the plan for a couple days, getting more and
more furious with her husband. "I don’t know why you’re making me do
this," she finally exploded at him. "I don’t know how, and I’m not
This man who never raised his voice, even with his children, slammed
his hand down and said to his wife in no uncertain terms: "You will do
this." And she did.
As he got sicker and she had to take his place at appointments with
prospective clients, he continued to teach her. "He’d have me go with
a microphone and write down every word they’d say," she recalls. That
was so they could discuss what had happened when she got home. She
says that through this method she learned something new every day.
While Sassman’s husband was ill, a son from a prior marriage died. To
pull himself out of the ensuing depression, he purchased an old house
in Lawrenceville – even though Sassman was happily ensconced in
Montgomery Township, where all her friends were. The day they moved,
August 30, he had men ripping out the kitchen, dining room, and
Then three months to the day, on November 30, her husband got up in
the morning, had a heart attack, and died within hours, leaving
Sassman feeling very vulnerable.
"I didn’t know anybody, had no kitchen, and was frightened to death,"
she remembers. "But I had to keep working. I knew if didn’t take care
of the business then, I wouldn’t have one." She is thankful that
during this time she had a big job that ran pretty much by itself. All
she had to do was start her guys in the morning on the job and do the
payroll every Friday.
Six months later she finished the kitchen and purchased a property in
Lambertville. She rented for a bit while her house was being built.
Then in March, 2002, she buried her mother on a Friday and found out
on the following Monday that she had breast cancer. She was undergoing
chemotherapy while her house was being built. But she was already
going out then with the man who became her second husband four years
ago. "Often I think that my husband must have sent him to me," she
says, referring to Richard Kraus, a consultant specializing in OSHA
compliance. "He was with me the whole time I had cancer."
Sassman Masonry still does foundations and chimneys, but the business
has changed over time. "People want fancier things now," she says. She
mentions, for example, outdoor fireplaces and fancy outdoor kitchens,
complete with a big grill, and possibly a granite or bluestone
Sassman works with just two or three contracts at a time, and does
only custom residential work. "We don’t work for developers," she
Sassman knows that her decisions are critical to her business’s
survival. To figure out what she should charge a customer, she has to
weigh how much supplies cost; what she pays for insurance, taxes, and
salaries; and how long it will take to do a job. "All that goes into
it," she says, "and I have to make sure I make enough money on every
job so that when a truck breaks down, I have the money to fix it, or
when it runs out of gas, I have the money to buy gas for it."
"The biggest thing about my business is that my father-in-law and my
husband set a precedent," says Sassman. "They did quality work, and
I’ve tried to carry on that tradition. My guys were trained by my
father-in-law and husband, who were excellent masons." Her foreman,
Michael Wolf, started at age 15 and is now in his 40s. Ralph Ciccone,
a mason, is another longtime employee.
Sassman handles every part of the business but the masonry itself. She
meets with customers, makes estimates, does the invoicing, answers
phone calls, and sets up appointments. She works at home and likes to
take time out for other activities. "I love my business," she says,
"but sometimes it’s not fulfilling enough." So she delivers Meals on
Wheels twice a month and does substitute teaching at the school across
Sassman may not be a mason, but she believes that she brings a special
touch to the business. "The difference I bring to the job is a softer,
gentler side, a feminine side," she says. "I worry about the flower
beds, the esthetics of job. People always say, `You guys always leave
a job so nice and neat.’ That’s what is important to me; it may sound
silly, but people notice and appreciate it."