Ivan, the Great (Carpenter)

“I can’t hear so I must rely on my eyes and my hands to communicate.

To hear Ivan Sass talk, you’d think being born profoundly deaf has actually helped him to become a better carpenter and more productive worker for Sass Construction and now Murphy Bros.

“I can’t hear so I must rely on my eyes and my hands to communicate. I’m very aware of my surroundings. I probably see things better than most carpenters. My work speaks for me,” he explained during a recent interview at Murphy Bros. Chanhassen offices.

Coworkers and clients say he is fast and skilled, but his productivity and craftsmanship seem more about his singular focus and perseverance. “I don’t have distractions. I know what’s needed and I keep going until the work is done,” he explained.

John Murphy, left, with Ivan Sass

“Most of the clients who have Ivan only want him back," said Murphy Bros. owner John Murphy. "They say, next job we need to have Ivan. He’s personally requested. He has his own fan club."

John's not surprised Ivan is popular. "His attitude is great, regardless of his deafness. He has a passion about what he does and conveys that to his clients and his teammates. All my staff totally enjoys working with him. He’s proof that, with a little work and perseverance, you can get along just fine with what most of us would consider shortcomings," he said.

"Client satisfaction is core to who he is," John continued. "He goes above and beyond. You want that from all of your staff members.

Ivan credits his mother for teaching him to speak as a young child and today’s technology for making it easier than ever to communicate. His mother insisted he learn to talk and worked with him every day to teach him to read lips so he could interact in a hearing world. “It was always, talk, talk, talk. You need to learn to talk,” he recalled.

Now he occasionally taps out words on his always handy smart phone if he cannot make himself understood through speech and uses video chats so he can read the other person’s lips. “It was so hard for me to understand people talking on the phone. Now, with text messages, emails and video chat, I can communicate with anyone,” he said.

Ivan’s got an easy laugh and mischievous sense of humor that are at once disarming and engaging. Like the time a client told him he needed to go out for an hour and a half and Ivan joked. “ Great. That’s just enough time for my nap.”

Listen to him for 10 minute (yes, you have to listen carefully) and you are drawn into the authentic life of a man who loves his work, his family and the great outdoors -- often simultaneously.

Ivan worked for his brother, Mark, at Sass Construction for 30 years before John Murphy bought the company last year to expand his presence in the Southwest Metro. He spends most weekends with his grown children, including several family camping trips each year. “ I love my job, but you have to have a life too. I enjoy my time off.”

When work slowed and Mark started to talk about selling the construction business during the Great Recession, Ivan worried how he would get by. But he kept working and took on side jobs until the market bounced back. Later, when he learned Murphy Bros. would acquire Sass Construction, he asked to meet with John and brought along his wife and his daughter to interpret if needed.

John Murphy consulting with Ivan Sass at a client's kitchen remodel

“I met John and we talked and I thought, Wow. I am happy. He’s a great, calm guy. He trusts me to do my thing and get it right. I am so blessed he bought Sass Construction when my brother retired.” From his own perspective, John says the transition has been easy.

Ivan learned sign language at the Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf in Faribault and attended Gallaudet University in Washington DC for three years before discovering his true calling was to work with his hands. Although his first “construction” project as a young boy was building a tree house with a friend, his carpentry inspiration came years later when he helped another friend build a wood and canvas camper for the back of his pickup truck.

After two years majoring in sheet metal at technical college, Ivan went to work fabricating ductwork for a heating contractor. He didn’t care for it. So, in 1985, he joined his brother Mark at Sass Construction. “In the beginning, we did everything ourselves. Mark would sell the jobs and draw up the plans and I would do the work.”

Ivan’s wife, Karla, suggests that there is no part of construction that he dislikes, but he will tell you that’s not quite true. “I don’t like to tape drywall, but that doesn’t mean I’m not very good at it.”

Ivan and his wife, Karla, hit the road on their Honda cruiser. 

Considering the importance and challenges of good communication in remodeling, you might wonder how a deaf carpenter excels. Ivan claims he has only experienced one drawback. “I can’t hear if a floor squeaks.” So far, he hasn’t found an app for that, so he has others mark squeaks in the subfloor before he starts.

Like many deaf people, Ivan has learned to adapt. “When am driving my construction van or my motorcycle I check my mirrors all the time so I am aware of my surroundings. Meanwhile, he keeps his mind focused on what lies ahead, whether that is completing a custom kitchen remodeling, flying to a remote Canadian fishing camp for a weeklong vacation with 15 friends or riding his motorcycle along Minnesota’s scenic byways.

At 56, Ivan says he looks forward to working for John for 10 more years. “I thought it might be different working for someone other than Mark, but it is the same. People know my work and call for me to do their projects. I tell them I work for John Murphy now and they say fine. “

Although he looks back with satisfaction at training his three daughters to check their side and rear mirrors to drive safely, Ivan takes special pride having taught his nephew Brent Sass the trade over three summers when he was just a kid. Now Brent is an acclaimed professional sled dog musher in Eureka, Alaska, where he builds log homes.

“He texted me from Alaska a long time ago to say, “Thank you, Uncle Ivan, for teaching me carpentry.” The message still resonates – in Ivan’s heart.

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