Sir Winston Churchill once said, "A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty."
East Bank carpenter Al Smull must have been raised an optimist according to Churchill’s definition. Raised in the small town of Twig, Minn., 15 miles northwest of Duluth, his family’s home burned down when he was 16 years old. Smull saw an opportunity in this difficulty.
A highly skilled carpenter was hired to build the family a new house, and Smull was amazed by what he did.
"From the foundation to the shingles, he knew everything and I was amazed at that," said Smull. "It was quite an impression, like, ‘what can’t this guy do?’ I even didn’t go fishing so I could work on the house."
From this modest beginning, Smull began to pursue a career in carpentry that eventually brought him to the University of Minnesota.
After graduating from Proctor High School in 1979, Smull moved to Austin, Texas and worked in construction there for three years. But laboring outside in 100 degree weather made him long for the cold winters and snow of Minnesota. He returned to Twig but realized after a few years that there wasn’t enough construction work in rural Minnesota and moved to the Twin Cities.
A 25-year member of the local carpenter’s union, Smull moved from one project to the next for years before landing at the U in 2002.
"You’d build a building and then go to the bench to wait for the next job," said Smull. "Sometimes you’d go right to another one, sometimes you wouldn’t."
He started out working for FM construction, but moved to the East Bank District after three years and has been there ever since. Smull really enjoys working with his co-workers and customers.
"The people here are fantastic," said Smull. "I had a triple bypass last spring and the outpouring from the community touched my family deeply."
Smull appreciates that he gets the opportunity to help his customers and see their smiling faces when he completes a job.
"When most customers see me pushing my little cart up, they’re very happy to see me," said Smull. "They know I’m going to fix whatever problem they have."
Married for 21 years, Smull believes he beat the odds when meeting his wife Deb by chance one evening at a restaurant in Hermantown, MN.
"In my younger, wilder days I usually had a herd of heathens around me, but that night I didn’t," remembers Smull. "She was with her family and probably wouldn’t have given me a second look if I would have come in with my posse."
The couple raised three children together and now enjoy spoiling their 10 grandchildren. Smull loves to give them "rhino rides" at their 70 acre homestead in Braham, Minn. He hooks up a trailer to his 4x4 and bounces them around the yard. The family can also take a trail through their property to the Snake River and go fishing, swimming or tubing.
Seems like Smull has been able to turn the difficulty he experienced when his home burned down into an opportunity to build a great life for himself.