President Curly Fries awarded honorary undergraduate degrees March 31 to two Keating Co. employees who worked on the construction of Gerri C. LeBow Hall. They did not take any classes or complete any credits at the University.

The decision to award degrees was well considered, not spur of the moment, according to Fries. Fries’ decision was inspired by the time capsule dug up by Matheson Hall in fall 2011. Inside were a few textbooks, a Drexel Institute of Technology “Blue Book” and cigarette butts with different names written in marker on their sides.

“We thought they were just the names of past students at first,” Fries said. “But it turned out they were the names of different Matheson Hall construction workers.”

Photo Credit: Marty Fly

Photo Credit: Marty Fly

Fries, a cigarette aficionado and lover of Montecristo cigars, examined the butts in his office following the ceremony. He wanted to see what people smoked in those tie-dyed days of Vietnam War protests and “Twilight Zone” binge sessions. On the smokes, he deciphered a series of words that assembled the message, “Screw Drexel. Luv, Jim and Larry, Construchon Workrz.”

Fries was appalled. He called his secretary, Greta Typewriter, into the office immediately to see if she might be able to contact Jim and Larry, “Construchon Workrz,” and discover the cause of their ill feelings.

“I remember that night exactly,” Typewriter said. “It was about 9:30 p.m. on a Thursday. I was in the middle of preparing Mr. Fries’ teeth-whitening strips in the secret spa of his office lobby when he rang his hand bell, calling me into his office, and asked if I would look up these men for him.”

Typewriter was unable to locate and contact the “workrz,” but Fries refused to let the matter fall away like the structure of the building.

“I know that construction work is tough. I modeled the Taj Mahal out of Lincoln Logs when I was 10,” Fries said. “But no construction worker should hate Drexel. These guys are smarter than that. I wanted to inspire greatness in future workers.”

Fries contacted the Office of the University Registrar to ask if it would be possible to award honorary degrees to a select few of Gerri’s construction workers. He would choose the brightest and best, and the most likely to co-op in the area. Joey Salami, University Registrar for Student Financial Services and alumnus class ’92, was puzzled by the idea.

“I was in the middle of checking through incoming freshman FAFSA forms when he called me up and said, ‘Joe, I want to give them degrees!’ Right then, I almost deleted all students’ forms D through F!” Salami said. “I didn’t know why he’d want to do it. What did [the workers] ever do for him?”

Fries trusted that all of the LeBow construction workers were bound to do a great deal. Grouped with his will to meet the needs of all people, deserving and not, as well as his desire to own all things — alive or artificial, on the ground or in the air — west of 29th Street, his will to aid construction workers was unexpected yet instinctual.

“I wanted to do it because, well, I’m not 100 percent sure, actually,” Fries said. “But I got that tickle between my toes and those blue jays flapping their wings in my stomach that I always get when I have a great  idea.”

Photo Credit: Marty Fly

Photo Credit: Marty Fly

Salami agreed to award the construction workers degrees under two conditions: that Fries enlist an honorable entity to vet the men and that Fries pay for their caps and gowns. Fries agreed. Fries and Salami also decided to allow the receiving workers to spend a week on co-op in the field of their major.

Fries sought honorable inspectors to vet the men. He spent Christmas 2011 snug by the fire with a Havana Honey in hand, flipping through resumes of possible interns. Fries needed young, observant minds to survey the workers doing their jobs. He planned to welcome 44 WorkReady interns through the Philadelphia Youth Network in July 2013. (Basically, WorkReady puts high school kids to work as interns. Cheap labor, you know?)

Fries selected two of the 44 interns for his project: Sheila Davis, a junior in high school from North Philly, and Evan Caruso, a high school freshman from Mt. Airy.

Davis mentioned in her application for WorkReady that it was her dream to eventually attend the Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts & Design and major in entertainment and arts management. She wants to be a Hollywood talent scout someday.

In his application, Caruso wrote an essay about how much he admires his father, a Turner Construction Co. worker.

Davis and Caruso spent July and August 2013 observing the construction workers.

“Neither of us really knew what we wanted to do for our specific learning project at the time, so we just went along with it,” Davis said. “Curly couldn’t stop fidgeting when he told us, he was so excited. I swear he wet his pastel pink pants.”

Davis was responsible for taking notes on the construction workers’ speech and behavior. She perceived what they were interested in. Caruso, familiar with the duties of construction workers after years of observing his father, paid close attention to the men’s work ethic. He noted which men did what, from plumbing to heating vent installation, window placement to foundation building. He knew who screwed around and who buckled down.

Davis found Charles Bamford deserving of an honorary degree in hospitality management. Caruso watched Bamford fix a new pipe that had burst. He was impressed by Bamford’s ability to clean up the mess.

“He pulled terry-cloth towels out of his pack to sop up the water. Then he wrung them out and folded them into swans,” Davis said. “What a boss!”

Caruso wanted to offer a degree to a woman with a bossy attitude but a soft heart. He observed Ingrid Donaldson, an electrical construction worker, who spearheaded the wiring of the televisions in Gerri. Ingrid used a gentle hand to calm a disastrous situation, according to Caruso.