The Professor

01.04.2024 Luke Marino

Jimmy Gaine, Local 157, Civil Service Carpenter, Adjunct Mathematics Professor at Lehman College (yes, you read that right!).

Jimmy Gaine always excelled in school, especially in mathematics. Despite his initial desire to pursue higher education when graduating from high school in 1980, he chose to forgo an opportunity to attend Manhattan College and instead enter the world of union construction.

It’s not so far-fetched when you think about it. Every building you spend time in––schools, libraries, stores, movie theaters, and even your favorite restaurant––is the product of mathematical principles applied to design and construction.

His decision was also a very personal one. Growing up in a single family-household, the money he could make on his tools was hands-down more than what he would have made if he had gone to college then. “I wanted to ease the financial burdens on my mother, so I looked to a career in the trades.” For Jim, building a career in a blue-collar industry rather than a white-collar industry literally paid off.

While it’s true that the NYC Carpenters Union provided Jimmy opened the door to a fruitful career, it was his tenacity, determination, and brain that helped him succeed along the way. After gaining a foundation of skills in union carpentry, Jimmy decided to take the next step in his career.   He scored high on the civil service exams and successfully made the jump to become a city carpenter. “I finished in the top five percent of the civil service examinations on the last 3 tests, and I’ve been a city carpenter for just about thirty-three years.”

Ask any member who has been in the industry for a few decades, and you will be sure to hear that construction ebbs and flows. Sometime there are construction booms and at other times there are construction declines. Just as Jim started to love working as a city carpenter, construction essentially came to a halt in 1991. The massive shutdown of construction resulted in him being laid off from his civil service job. With no available work in the field, Jimmy knew he had to build on his natural abilities and skills and take steps to provide for his family.

“My wife was pregnant, and there wasn’t work. I knew that with a wife and kids, I had to be prepared. I always loved school, so I figured I could try to be a teacher if I were ever out of work again. The first step to that was getting a college degree. That’s how I found Lehman College.”

While he remained hopeful that things would pick up (and they did indeed pick up with several construction booms over the years since), Jimmy pulled on his love of mathematics and he was accepted to Lehman College in 1995.

College wasn’t easy, but he knew that he had to pull out all the stops. By that time, the industry had picked up and Jim worked full-time for the city during the day and took classes full-time at night. He did that while being a devoted husband and father to his children. Jim credits his wife, Sonnia, with helping him see it through.

“Looking back, I know I only made it thanks to my wife. She was with me every step of the way. I never would have made it out of undergrad without her. We’re married 33 years and now have eight children together, one of whom is a union carpenter himself. She’s the reason I did it all. I could never stress how grateful I am to her for everything, and I mean everything.”

In 2002, Jim completed his bachelor’s degree. Not long after, he started a new civil service carpenter job at none other than Lehman College. The school where he completed his degree was now his new place of employment where he taught night classes. As fate would have it, Lehman College had a program that allowed staff to obtain degrees on the college’s dime. When Jim felt the time was right for him to get his master’s degree, Lehman covered it entirely. Since completing his masters in 2013, Jimmy has remained a member of the Lehman College math faculty..

“At first, people are always surprised when they find out I teach college math or when my students find out I’m a union carpenter during the day. I usually start the semester by telling my students that my evil twin brother is the carpenter at Lehman. But the students all realized I’m the carpenter early on. I’ll be teaching, and the stick ruler is hanging out of my pants, or they’ll see me doing repairs on the campus during the day.”

As a professor, Jim teaches calculus courses at Lehman and now he also teaches part-time mathematics courses at Iona College. Despite his love for teaching, he quickly added that he still loves carpentry. “I love them both. I’m blessed I don’t have to choose one. I’m a union carpenter by day and a professor by night!”

Jimmy’s love for his careers isn’t a one-way street. He is equally liked by his students and the faculty at Lehman. He’s become so well respected that this past June, at their Commencement ceremony, he was awarded the title of “Teacher of the Year.”

“It was awesome! I didn’t even know I was nominated. Then, my boss called me one day and said I needed to come in and speak to him. I started thinking I did something wrong. The next thing he tells me is I was chosen. Oh my god, can you believe that? I was surprised because it’s a large school with so many talented faculty, but I was deeply honored.”

Although Jim has been very fortunate in his dual careers, that doesn’t mean his decades in the union weren’t without struggle. In Jim’s first few years as a carpenter, he was candid about the struggles he experienced with a debilitating drug and alcohol addiction. Thankfully, the union was there for him.

“I needed help, and the carpenter’s union got me that help. They found me excellent drug and alcohol counseling. The coverage they provided was outstanding. I have been sober since June 25th, 1989, and I’m eternally grateful to the union for that. Take me at my words: the carpenters union is awesome!”

Jim is now in his early sixties with over 40 years of work under his toolbelt, and no plans on retiring anytime soon. In five or ten years, he still sees himself at Lehman College doing what he loves “I want to do what I love and that’s being a union carpenter by day and a professor by night.”