`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

own.

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

plan.

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

doing this."

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

bathroom.

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

counter.

Sassman works with just two or three contracts at a time, and does

only custom residential work. "We don’t work for developers," she

says.

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

the street.

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."

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