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Frank Gray

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Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette
Kroger carpenter Todd Earnest stands in front of shelves he helped build at the Village of Coventry store. Kroger honored him for finding the cause of a falling ceiling at another store.

Store closing an honor for flaw-finding worker

Todd Earnest says he really wanted to be an architect. In fact, he even attended college for a short time.

But he didn’t come from money, he said, so he went out to work in the dirt, in the construction business. He was a steelworker, one of those guys who puts up the heavy steel framework for buildings. He was a union carpenter.

In all, he says, he’s been in commercial and industrial construction for 27 years. For the past five years, he’s been a carpenter for Kroger.

You don’t think of grocery stores as needing carpenters, but they do. One day last week, Earnest was walking around with a clipboard with several pages of work orders, things that needed to be repaired at various Kroger stores from Defiance, Ohio, to Peru, Ind., and everywhere between.

One of those orders was to replace a broken cylinder lock at the new Kroger Marketplace at the Village of Coventry.

Last spring, Earnest received a humdrum-sounding call from the manager of the Scott’s store on North Anthony Boulevard. Ceiling tiles along the perimeter of the building were falling down. That isn’t common, but it could have been caused by gusts of wind.

Earnest repaired them. A month later, he got another call. The ceiling tiles were still falling. That caught Earnest’s attention.

The wall, he realized, was moving.

“A lot of guys wouldn’t take two looks, but with my experience, I could see something wasn’t right,” Earnest said during an interview last week.

So Earnest, who lives only about five blocks from the store, started keeping his eye on what was going on. The tiles along the edge of the ceiling continued to buckle and bend and fall.

Finally, he climbed into the attic and inspected the wooden trusses, a construction method that no one uses any more. Joints were expanding. Pieces were cracking.

Kroger officials had been notified of the problems with ceiling tiles. Now Earnest told them the problems had to be given top priority. Engineers and architects were brought in along with the city building department.

“I think they closed the building that day,” Earnest said.

Engineers tried to shore up the building with heavy timbers, but a week later, parts of the building were still moving, and more work had to be done.

Meanwhile, the people in the neighborhood around the store weren’t happy. They liked having the store nearby. They wanted it open. Now it was closed, and all because of a guy who lived in the neighborhood – Earnest.

Let’s make it clear: Earnest isn’t reviled in the neighborhood, although he says some neighbors and people at church would say, in a good-natured way, “Thanks for closing the store.”

But people in the neighborhood, Earnest said, didn’t understand how serious the problem was.

“Not at all,” he said.

In fact, he said, the building was failing, and if that hadn’t been discovered and the building shored up – twice – “It would be on the ground now,” he said.

“Compared to the tragedy at the Indianapolis fairgrounds (State Fairgrounds), it could have been that bad,” Earnest said.

“It was all about safety,” Earnest said.

Kroger, by the way, gives out awards to its employees, and the top award is something called the President’s Award. It was designed for store managers and district managers who beat their goals and draw the attention of top management. It doesn’t go to people like Earnest, a carpenter.

Except this year.

Last week the company gave him the President’s Award.

It was unheard of, one Kroger spokesman said.

The company has also given Earnest something called an Above and Beyond award, something that Kroger has given out only 29 times in its history.

Earnest feels a little uncomfortable talking about the awards.

“I get embarrassed,” he said, saying he’s gotten a little bit of ribbing.

“I’m not one for adulation,” Earnest said. “It was just another day, and I was doing my job.”

Some people are doubtlessly unhappy that the store has been closed, but they should also be happy that Earnest, who shopped there himself, kept his eye on the building almost daily.

Frank Gray reflects on his and others’ experiences in columns published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, by fax at 461-8893, or by email at fgray@jg.net. You can also follow him on Twitter @FrankGrayJG.

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