Many of the documents we feature at vulcanhammer.net have a Gulf of Mexico chart at the top. That reflects the importance of the Gulf Coast region in general and the offshore oil industry in particular, for which we feature Vulcan: The Offshore Experience. We are saddened to note that perhaps the central figure in that part of Vulcan’s history, Herman C. Hasenkampf, has passed in the midst of the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina. This is our tribute to him, originally written in September 2005 at the time of his death.
Herman, born in 1921, was a member of “the greatest generation.” During World War II, he flew a B-24, from which experience he brought home a real bomber jacket. Although he “outgrew” it as the years went by, the jacket fell victim through theft to New Orleans’ crime, unfortunately not the first victim of the city’s crime problem nor its last.
Returning home, he began to work for Woodward Wight & Co., a New Orleans supply house which sold just about everything. Herman remembered that he made many of his early sales calls in a boat, which coursed the bayous south and west of New Orleans. Herman’s specialty was heavy equipment, and one of the manufacturers he represented was Vulcan Iron Works. South Louisiana was always an important territory for Vulcan, even before offshore oil came to dominate Vulcan’s output. Herman was present at Vulcan’s 1952 Centennial celebration.
As was the case with many things along the Gulf coast, offshore oil came to dominate the scene, both literally and economically. By the 1960’s Woowdard Wight was Vulcan’s premier distributor, a position it would hold for more than a decade and a half. Herman was the primary “point man” for sales of both Vulcan hammers and Clyde cranes to such offshore contractors as Ingram, McDermott, Brown & Root, Santa Fe, Raymond, Fluor, and Teledyne Movible Offshore. He was the ideal man for the job. A patient relationship builder, he knew everyone in an organisation from its board chairman to the stockroom clerk. When Hurricane Betsy flooded his St. Bernard Parish home in 1965, one of the people he called on for help was Robert Howson, later McDermott’s Chairman of the Board. His philosophy of building friendships and relationships with his customer base paid off; Vulcan hammers dominated sales of pile driving equipment in the Gulf for a quarter of a century. It also helped get both Woodward Wight and Vulcan through the “sticky wickets” as both the offshore industry and the Vulcan line itself went through the growing pains of expansion.
But Herman was more to Vulcan and the Warrington family than just a distributor; he was a family friend whose wisdom and affability were treasures, especially at difficult times. He was also a unique individual in many ways. Most of his offshore customer base was in Houma and Morgan City, and I made many trips down to the “bayou” with Herman. Such travel was more than a business trip. To start with the only way to get there was old Highway 90, across the Huey Long Bridge and through the sugar cane country. It was slow enough with stretches of two lane roads and sugar cane trucks, but Herman wasn’t a fast driver, and going from New Orleans to Houma (where he always stayed) was an all day adventure.
What really made the trips long, however, were the cigars. He smoked the smelliest (Optimo Admiral, “muy claro”) cigars on the market, and he smoked them everywhere: the car, his office, his customer’s office, you name it. His cars always had tinted windows, and when I went on to my brother’s in Houston, just smelling my clothes betrayed my last stop. My father, a heavy cigarette smoker himself, finally took all he could stand on one of these cruises to Houma. When Herman stopped in Raceland for gas, my dad bought an aerosol car deodoriser, opened the door, broke the top off of the can, threw it in and quickly closed the door. Herman always prided himself that the Holidome in Houma always gave him the same room, but with the cigars such a policy was a necessity as much as anything.
He had the unappetising habit of lighting one end of the cigar while chewing on the other, but while working on his stogies at both ends he assumed one of his favourite roles: storyteller (as shown in photo on the right, with my brother.) Herman was a consummate storyteller, using stories from his own experience to illuminate the points he wanted to make, both to his customers and to us at Vulcan. Those of you who have visited our companion site Positive Infinity have wondered about some of the illustrations we’ve used, especially those of you who compare them with those used in church. Herman’s ability to use stories from his own experience is one we have tried to emulate and expand on; in short, he taught me how to use stories and illustrations to make a point, and occasionally I’ve had recourse to some of his originals. The only downside was that Herman repeated many of his stories, but I suppose that repetition is the essence of education. Herman also taught me what fans of Justin Wilson and David Benoit already know: the South Louisiana stories are the best.
Unfortunately, new forces would come to bear on Herman’s situation. The first was the sale of Woodward Wight in 1977. Herman sensed that the sale would be the end of the organisation, an all too typical result of corporate acquisitions. Facing the loss of its key distributor, Vulcan hired Herman and several others from Woodward Wight and opened its own offices in New Orleans and Houston. Herman thus became a direct part of the Vulcan family, and this he remained until he retired. Herman’s years at Vulcan spanned the oil boom of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, and his retirement came with the subsequent bust that affected Vulcan and everyone else in oilfield services and equipment.
But the business that Herman retired from was different from the one he entered. As the industry “matured” relationships became less important and corporations became more rigidly “bottom line” oriented. But was this an improvement? Hadn’t Herman and his contemporaries built the offshore industry? Today we are told that, when doing business in the Far East, for example, relationship building is everything (something we can attest to.) And yet this part of the world is booming. Have we really lost something in the process?
Such questions doubtless haunt many in and around New Orleans these days. As we mentioned earlier, Herman’s house flooded during Hurricane Betsy. When Katrina rolled around forty years later, St. Bernard Parish was flooded even more deeply than it was before, and not only that but the floods were far more widespread. The immediate result of this was a crime spree not seen in the US in a long time. Herman’s generation found itself with many problems. Their solutions were not perfect but they were an improvement. These days we can neither bring ourselves to fix the problems we have and move things forward nor restore our sense of community, one which Herman embodied on both a personal and professional level.
However, by the time Katrina approached New Orleans Herman had greater woes of his own. He was gravely ill, and his family arranged his evacuation to his son’s in Slidell. He passed from this life on 15 September 2005 surrounded by his family which he loved and cherished.
One of Herman’s stories came from his years in Catholic school in New Orleans. He told of one of the nuns who would never give a 100 because “only God is perfect.” She was right; only God is perfect. Events like Katrina are reminders that we are not. The only way we can achieve perfection–and even that only in the life to come–is to make God’s perfection ours, and we can only do that by doing it in the way He has set before us.
Herman’s passing has left a hole that cannot be filled until we join him again in eternity, as he himself has already done with his oldest son Chris, killed in a plane crash more than thirty years ago. Today our hearts and prayers go out to his wife Stella, his children Steven, Clare and David, and their families, who must deal with their loss–our loss–with the aftermath of Katrina as a backdrop. All of these events remind us that “Wherefore Jesus also, that he might sanctify the people by his own blood, suffered without the gate. Let us go forth therefore to him without the camp, bearing his reproach. For, we have not here a lasting city: but we seek one that is to come.” (Heb. 13:12-14, Douay-Rheims)
Originally posted soon after his death in September 2005.