There’s an old saying to “Never judge a book by its cover.” It’s sometimes hard for me to follow that sage advice, but it always comes to mind when I see John David Law.
I was 15 when I first met him. He was doing some masonry work for my parents, building two short patio walls in the winter of 1967. It was a small job, the kind I would learn many years later that he squeezed in between more substantial work.
He was only at our home for a couple of days. Daddy introduced us as the two of them talked in our back yard. He was a very personable fellow, but I figured him to be a man who walked comfortably on the wild side of life.
His beard was long and untamed. He wore a red leather aviator hat with the front bill turned up. The unbuttoned side flaps were comically positioned almost perpendicular to the ground. He looked like a man who might be headed straight to the liquor store as soon as he got paid.
The next time I saw him I was living in Vienna and working at Bank of Dooly. It had been about 14 years since our first introduction, but that childhood memory somehow quickly surfaced. My boss, Luke Couch, told me that John David Law was one of the finest gentlemen I could ever know. John David laughed and modestly deflected Luke’s comments. Over the next 35 years, however, I learned that the praise given was well deserved.
I visited with John David in his home in mid-November. The weather was cold and rainy, finally allowing me to catch him taking a rare break from work. He’s 85 now and still laying bricks with no intention of retiring. Currently he’s working 40 feet off the ground on a church in Americus. I told him that seemed too risky. He laughed and said, “Well, if you fall the ground will always catch you.”
His parents, Willie B. and Annie Mae Law, taught him about farming, family, and faith. On Sundays they were all in church. That’s where you’ll still find John David today, often singing or leading a devotional. His home church only has services once a month, but John David participates in worship somewhere every week.
He graduated from high school in Vienna in 1953 then worked a few months at Robins Air Force Base. Uncle Sam called him into the Army on March 9, 1954. After serving his country he came back home and farmed for a short while. One day in the Cordele Post Office he saw a listing of various occupations and incomes. It was a moment that would change the course of his life.
He had never laid any bricks when he enrolled in the two-year masonry program at Savannah State University. The GI bill provided $122 per month for education. He and four other guys rented a house because it was cheaper than the dormitory. In Savannah he learned about bricks and blocks and blueprints.
After graduation he worked for a construction company for 12 years. His wife, Myrtislean, got sick and asked him to stay with her in the hospital. His employer, however, wanted him on the job. John David left the security of a regular paycheck and became a self-employed contractor. He’s been busy ever since. What looked like a potential setback to his career turned out to be a blessing. John David smiled and spoke with deep conviction, “I’m a believer in prayer. I prayed for it.”
He and his crew laid 250,000 blocks and 400,000 bricks for Malone Tower in Albany. Not far away on Broad Street they laid 500,000 bricks for a housing project. His personal one-day best is 4,000 bricks by his count. J. C. Lloyd, who was hauling the bricks, said the count was 4,500. I tend to think J. C. is right. John modestly added, “I only lay about half that many now.”
After I got to know John David I told him about my misguided childhood perception. We’ve laughed about it many times since. I learned that he never took any paychecks to liquor stores. He’s never tasted alcohol, not even in a fruit cake. He credits his maternal grandmother for that.
He still sports a long unruly beard, but he doesn’t look wild to me anymore. Behind that beard I found an exceptionally fine man, a man whose faith is as firm as his strong handshake.
Sometimes I’m still tempted to judge books without opening them. That’s when I summon my childhood image of John David Law. The cover that I saw didn’t tell the story I expected. The real story was between the covers. The story that matters is always on the inside.