Twenty years ago this month, I wrote a column for this fine magazine titled, “Reaching for Higher Plateaus.” Contractors I meet still remind me of that column, even after all these years. They ask how Kelly is doing and I tell him she is now a fifth-grade schoolteacher and a happily married mother of two. She continues to make me smile and she still thinks it’s gross that I get excited over old heating systems. But she turned out just fine, in spite of me.

I thought it would be a good time to retell that story because it still rings true and it offers perspective, especially the last part. Here ’tis.

My eldest daughter, Miss Kelly Holohan, is bright and beautiful and 13, which means that next September she’s scheduled to set sail on the good ship High School.

Being an eighth-grader, she’s presently at the top of her game — nearly done with grammar school and about to make the great leap into Serious Young Womanhood. All the younger kids, including (and especially!) her three sisters, look up to her because she’s reached this high plateau.

So Miss Kelly Holohan and I have been out there on occasional weekends looking at high schools. Good Catholic parents get to do that, you know. It’s a rite of passage. We look and we listen and we find out what it takes academically to get in (it’s not easy here on Long Island). And then we check the depth and consistency of the ol’ bank account, glance backward at the three sisters sailing rapidly in Kelly’s wake, and decide to take the plunge anyway because, regardless of religious persuasion, that’s what moms and dads do.

So how do you decide on the right school? Well, to my way of thinking, you raise the kid the best way you can and then you let her decide. If you did a good job, so will she.

Miss Kelly Holohan, after much mature deliberation, decided on the smallest Catholic high school on Long Island, a proud old institution nestled in the hills of the North Shore near the place Teddy Roosevelt once called home. I thought she’d made a good choice.

“They have an open house this weekend,” she told me one day last fall. “Will you come and look at it with me?”

“Love to!” I said, and off we went.

Now I don’t know about you, but I have a heating fetish. The first thing I look at when I walk into any room — particularly if it’s an old room — are the radiators. It didn’t take me long to make up my mind about this school.

“I love this place, Kelly. You have to go here.”

“I know, Dad. They have the best teacher-to-student ratio on Long Island.”

“That’s not what I mean, sweetheart.”

“Are you talking about the computer and science labs? They’re really up to date.”

“No, honey.”

“The English program? It’s the best on the island.”


“The basketball team? The girls won the state championship, you know.”

“No, Kelly, that’s all fine and good, but I’m talking about these radiators. Look at them! Do you realize this building has an intact Webster vapor system? Look at those hand valves! Aren’t they beautiful?”

I suppose it’s important at this point in the story to explain that I have what my mother calls an “Irish Whisper.” I inherited this from my father, Ed Holohan, who has never been accused of being shy. You can always recognize a comment uttered with an Irish Whisper because its level of volume is always in direct proportion to its level of impropriety. An Irish Whisper is usually kicked into high gear by elevated levels of either excitement, indignation or alcohol. On this day, I was running solely on the first.

“A Webster! You don’t get to see one of these babies too often!” I whispered.

“Daddy, pleeease,” Kelly pleaded through clenched teeth as a hallway filled with parents and teenagers turned in our direction. Sister Mary Immaculata, an elderly nun with the face of an angel, was leading our tour. She smiled at me and said, “Yes, we have Websters here, as well as many other fine dictionaries. You’ll see them all when we get to our library. Now please, let’s move along.”

My enthusiasm, as we moved along, was unbounded.                       

“Honey, look. See how they’ve added motorized valves to each radiator,” I whispered. “They can zone each room that way. Oh, sweetheart, you’re going to have four comfortable years here! I just know it!”

“Daddy, I’m gonna tell Mom ...”

“Now this is our science lab,” Sister Mary Immaculata continued as we entered a room that looked like Dr. Frankenstein’s workshop. “Each student has his or her own microscope and ...”

“Kelly!” I whispered from a crouched position. “They have new steam traps. See? Hoffmans! They take good care of this old system. This is the place for you, honey!” I looked up to find, not Kelly, but a couple of other dads staring down at the new steam traps. Kelly was over on the other side of the room trying her best to look like an orphan. The other dads were getting into it, though.  

“You guys in the business?” I asked.

“I am,” one answered.

“I could tell!” I said.

“And if you’ll all follow me now,” Sister said, “we’ll walk over to the other side of the campus.”

I couldn’t wait to get there. That building looked as old as the first.

Kelly smiled sweetly as we crossed the street. She hugged my arm and said, “Dad, if you say anything about heating when we get over there, I’m going to kill you in your sleep. Seriously.”

“Uh oh,” I said.

“Dead as a road pizza.”

“OK,” I promised.

Now a promise is a promise, but I’m sure you’ll understand why I couldn’t keep it. You see, as we entered the vestibule, my eyes were drawn to this glorious old free-standing radiator. You should have seen the metal work on this beauty!

“It’s a Dunham system! A Dunham system!” I whispered.

“Right through your heart with that turkey knife, Dad. Dead center. About 3 in the morning, I figure.”

“But Kelly, look! This is a Dunham, not a Dunham bush. This one goes back to the turn-of-the-century. Wow! A Webster and a Dunham on the same campus. Oh, you’ve made the right choice, sweetheart! I love this school.”

“Yeah, the turkey knife. The big one. Right through your heart, Dad.”

An essential human business        

We go through this all the time. It’s not really about heating, you know; it’s about growing up. It’s about seeing — really seeing — the mundane things of life and appreciating the work that went into producing them. Most of us never think about the ordinary stuff — things such as electricity and telephones and fax machines. Until they stop working, that is.

I’m not sure if it’s a curse or a blessing, but I’ve never been able to just let everyday things slide by me. I can’t drive from state to state without thinking about the men who built the highways. Someone had to think it all out and blast through all that rock. That’s worth a few moments of thought and wonder and appreciation while you’re driving, isn’t it?

When I’m in an old basement, I look around and think about The Dead Men, those who came before us. They were living in hard times. And they were trying to figure out better ways to keep people warm. Their competition was the fireplace.

But next to farmers, these guys knew they were involved in the most essential human business there is. As are you.

I couldn’t help but think about The Dead Men as I walked through Kelly’s school. On that long-ago day when they finished their work in what was then a state-of-the-art building, they were at their highest plateau, just as Miss Kelly Holohan, Eighth Grader, is now. But they also knew they had a long way to go.

The Dead Men worked with their hands and their hearts and their heads. They did the best they could with what they had at the time. They dealt with those tough times and they grew because they were involved in an essential human business.

You’re involved in that very same business. Everybody needs heat and hydronics is the best way to provide it. America may be throwing a recession, but that doesn’t mean you have to attend.


Follow PM on Twitter!, Like PM on Facebook!, Contact Plumbing & Mechanical