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Friday, July 17, 2009 | Robert Rackley’s lifetime of work is encased in San Diego’s walls. It’s in thousands of the city’s houses, schools, churches and businesses, and it earned him the nickname that his family proudly says was testament to his reputation as one of the city’s most sought after specialists in his trade.
They called him “Bob the Lather,” and for roughly four decades he had a direct hand in San Diego’s evolving cityscape, wrapping the bare frames of its soon-to-be buildings with tar paper and chicken wire. That basic framework provided the backing for the walls’ plaster, and allowed the structures to rise.
It was just one among many steps in constructing a building, but his small company, Rackley Lather, was noted for doing the job better than almost any other, his family said. He and each on his team, several of them his children, could lath a house a day.
When he started the business in the late 1950s, it was among the first black-owned construction companies to operate in San Diego, and Rackley’s nickname became synonymous with quality work, according to his family. In the early 1980s, to promote the interests and organization of San Diego’s black construction workers, he helped found the Black Contractors Association, which today trains future minority contractors.
Rackley died July 12, at the age of 80. He had suffered a stroke a week earlier, his son Bernard Rackley said. He was a devoted worker who built his company’s reputation with a firm hand, demanding as much from his children who worked for him as he did from any person he employed. He derived satisfaction, his family said, from being the man developers called in a scramble when the work done by men they’d hired for less failed inspection.
“You didn’t want me to do the damned job and now you’re calling me, huh?” he often said, according to Catherine Kennedy-Thomas, Rackley’s daughter. “He would come and clean up his mess so it would pass inspection. The inspectors knew him. They looked at a house and knew that daddy wrapped it.”
Robert Lee Rackley was born on Jan. 2, 1929, in Vada, Ga. His parents, Isaac and Lucille Rackley, were sharecroppers who like many African-Americans in the early 20th-century South struggled to break free from the burden of debt imposed by plantation owners who charged exorbitant rates for the use of land and farming tools.
As a teenager, Rackley, who was the eighth of 12 children, left the plantation to escape the cycle of debt that made economic advancement impossible. He followed an older brother to Tallahassee, Fla., where he first learned to work as a construction worker as an employee of his brother’s business, lathing houses and buildings at Florida A&M University. A street near the campus bears the Rackley name.
It was in Tallahassee that he met Sadie Mae Arnold, who he married in 1951. The couple had three children before moving to San Diego in 1955 to join members of Arnold’s family.
Once settled, he worked briefly for the local lathers’ union before establishing his own business, and as a lather secured contracts to work on construction projects across the city, including buildings at the Naval Training Center in Point Loma, downtown’s Horton Plaza, and on housing and retail tracts countywide.
In the early 1960s, he bought one of the homes he helped build in the O’Farrell Park housing development in Encanto, where members of his family still live.
It was out of that house that he built the family business. He taught his teenaged sons, and eventually his daughter Catherine, the trade, and his wife delivered materials to Rackley’s job sites.
“That was how I learned San Diego,” Sadie Mae Rackley said. “He would call and say, ‘Take the truck and go to this yard, and bring me three rolls of wire, and three of paper.’”
His family estimates that over the course of his career he was physically involved in the construction of thousands of the county’s buildings.
“Today you can drive throughout San Diego and see his work everywhere,” Kennedy-Thomas said.
Rackley and fellow black contractors formed informal networks of professionals who recommended each other to developers, passing along responsibility for the next step of a project to an African-American contractor who specialized in it.
“You started having a collective group of black contractors working together,” his daughter said. They eventually created the Black Contractors Association in 1982.
His commitment to his work was rivaled perhaps only by his love of fishing, to which he committed such concentration that as kids, his children were strictly forbidden from interrupting his focus on his line.
“He loved to fish. If he didn’t catch a fish, somebody disturbed him, or a kid was throwing a rock, or there was some reason why he didn’t catch that fish,” Kennedy-Thomas said. “He wanted pure concentration — no distractions whatsoever … because you were interfering with the fish.”
His family described him as a strong patriarch whose demands of his children were great, but whose dedication to his family remained strong, even after he and his wife divorced in the mid 1980s.
Each night, he required the last child in the kitchen to roast raw peanuts on a cookie sheet in the oven and serve them to him with a glass of ice water poured into a frosted mayonnaise jar. He bought raw peanuts in bulk.
“If you didn’t burn them, you’d be okay,” his daughter said. “His peanuts were like his martini for the evening.”
On weekly camping trips with his family, he would teasingly scare his eight children by precariously maneuvering his car along winding mountain roads.
He was an avid gardener who enjoyed cooking, and whose family said always had a pot of food on the stove when visitors arrived. “Oxtail, black-eyed peas, pigs’ feet. He just always cooked, always,” Kennedy-Thomas said. When his children visited him as adults, they were always sent away with food.
As an experiment, he opened a soul food restaurant, which he called the Pink Pig, on Market Street in 1974. It closed after two years.
After retiring from construction in 1998 and shuttering his business, he took on occasional odd jobs until he moved into an assisted living home.
In the motorized wheelchair that he used for mobility, he would linger at the building’s entrance, greeting visitors.
“We called him the hall monitor,” his daughter said. “He would drive his wheelchair so fast that they had to turn it down. He would just be speeding. It was like, ‘Daddy you can’t speed.’”