GATESVILLE — I know a man of steel.

No, not that guy in the movie.

Don Swartz is no muscle-bound comic book hero in a tight caped costume with a red “S” on his chest.

For the 17 years I have known him, Don has always worn blue twill work pants, brogans, a denim shirt and a grimy, sweat-stained gimme cap from a lumber yard or steel company.

He stands about 5 feet 6 inches tall and weighs about 130 pounds.

Don matches the description a New Mexico forest ranger once gave of a particular cowboy.

“He is not big,” the ranger said, “but he is twisted tight.”

Super? I doubt Don could leap a building in a single bound, but he can construct a building from the ground up.

When I wanted to build a small rock house on a wooded hillside outside of Gatesville, Don offered advice for the frame.

“Go with steel,” he told me.

The building contractor on the house was a wood-frame man, so he hired Don for the steel work.

In his 70s at the time, Don demonstrated what it meant to do a day’s work.

He showed up early every day in his weary pickup with a battered green Thermos bottle full of sweet black coffee and a carton of Winston cigarettes.

From daylight to dark, Don would measure, cut, fit and weld purlins and I-beams into a house skeleton.

His breaks were only as long as it took to smoke a cigarette and swig a cup of coffee. He never sat down, didn’t eat. While younger workers rested or snacked, Don puttered with his tools, swept up or walked around inspecting his work.

He had learned to weld as a boy on the family farm in Ohio.

When it was time to strike out on his own, he took to driving big rigs, hauling steel all over the country.

He honed his steel skills, along with some carpentry, and became a pretty fair mechanic so he could keep his trucks on the road.

Don could always find work, which was a good thing because he had to feed and clothe 11 children and several grandchildren.

His travels brought him to Texas and, despite the pleas from family members “up home” for him to return to Ohio, Don settled in Gatesville.

There are three shops behind his house.

There is the wood shop with whining saws, the sweet smell of fresh lumber and nifty gadgets like that handy “biscuit cutter” joiner he loves to show off.

The auto mechanic shop smells of grease, oil, solvent, diesel and gasoline and has a wide array of tools for pulling, turning, tapping, twisting, lifting and wrenching an ailing truck or tractor.

There is the welding shop that smells of hot metal and is crowded with torches, tanks, helmets, rods, heavy gloves and lots of steel — plate, pipe, rebar and angle iron — sorted by size.

The tools are there for gates and barns, hog traps and transmissions. The skill is there and, as always, the passion for work.

The strength is fading. This man of steel is now sitting down to rest.

Who will take his place?

Contact Tim Orwig at

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