Donta Mahdi says he’s never had a father to show him how to be a man.

But the 17-year-old Akron student says he has found something “like a father” in Matt Simpson, the masonry instructor at Buchtel Community Learning Center.

“I wasn’t looking for a father,” Mahdi said. “I was looking for myself. This [masonry program] is going to make me a man so I can provide for my family.”

Mahdi said he admires Simpson, a first-year teacher leading the same masonry program that he graduated from 15 years ago when the course was taught at Central-Hower High School.

Simpson said he was not unlike most of the kids he teaches. He was not the greatest at math or English. He didn’t have a lot of money.

Simpson said many of his students play sports, but they can’t count on making it big in the NFL or NBA.

“I knew that I wasn’t college material. But I also knew that I wasn’t going to work at McDonald’s either,” Simpson said.

The program took center stage Thursday while an invitational masonry competition was held at Buchtel.

The competition featured 26 students from eight schools and career-tech programs from across Ohio. Parents, teachers, mentors and masons from opposite ends of the career spectrum observed as students quickly and methodically assembled walls from cinder blocks, bricks and mortar.

In the crowd, veteran masons Rich Nagy and Chris Brendel, both 74, reminisced about a fading art.

Through a thick German accent, Brendel told stories of how men like himself helped rebuild Germany after World War II.

“They’d kiss you to come on the job and work for them,” he recalled.

Nagy’s story is quite closer to home. He was one of the first to graduate from Akron’s mason program then housed at the old Hower High School.

Still laying brick, he can recall blistering cold days working on senior high rises near Chapel Hill. He said a trowel was the quickest way to knock off the icicles that formed under his nose.

“Guys wouldn’t even come in because it was so cold,” he said.

Nagy worked in the field for 40 years after graduating from Akron schools. He then became the masonry instructor in a career-tech program at Maplewood schools in Trumbull County.

Nine years ago in his mid-60s, Nagy founded the very masonry competition that he and about a dozen others from the field served as judges for on Thursday.

“There ain’t anyone out there loves masonry as much as I do,” he said.

Some in Simpson’s class competed, while others, like Mahdi, helped out by mixing mortar compound and water churning out “mud” for the effort.

Mahdi said he’s building more than walls in Simpson’s masonry class. He’s building a foundation for a career.

“I know it’s a great trade,” he said, removing goggles that protect him from the dust. “It’s a skill that I’m going to have forever. No one can ever take it from me.”

Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3792 or