EDITOR'S NOTE: Welcome to Part 2 of Working Stiffs. Denton and surrounding towns are filled with people who work hard for little pay. Students at the University of North Texas Mayborn School of Journalism teamed up with the Denton Record-Chronicle to tell their stories. UNT professor Mark Donald served as their editor. The stories will be appearing in the newspaper and on DentonRC.com over the next few weeks.
Standing in front of the Courthouse on the Square, Tim Mullen dabs sweat off his forehead as he supervises four Denton County Jail inmates — trusties who are helping him load filing cabinets into the back of his county-issued pickup.
Mullen is a large, mustached man. He wears a worn-out navy blue shirt spotted by bits of dried white paint. A walkie talkie hangs off his Wrangler jeans, always at the ready, waiting to tell him about another work order or county building that needs his attention.
As one of the maintenance repair specialists for Denton County, a job he's had for the past 20 years, Mullen is county government's go-to handyman. From judges to constables to clerks, he unclogs their toilets, paints their walls and assembles their desks. His job defies definition, and it's one for which the 56-year-old "jack of all trades" has groomed himself since he was a teenager. Each day for him is different.
"Of course, everybody has days you really don't want to go to work," he says. "But for the most part, I enjoy it."
Mullen's blue-collar work ethic is supported by a strong back, reflected in a grateful smile and fueled by his desire to do an honest day's work. There's not an ounce of entitlement in him, just a deep sense of responsibility born from a time in his life when not working meant not being able to provide for his family.
It was a late night in summer 1998 when the Mullen family heard the rolling thunder approaching. Tim and his wife, Debi, grabbed buckets to catch the rain as it started to seep through the leaky roof of their Aubrey home.
Their two young children, Brent and Mackenzie, got up to help and raced across the dusty splintered floorboards. It was the young family's first year in an aging three-room farmhouse desperately in need of maintenance. Mullen could fix anything, but he didn't have enough money to make the repairs — not with him only making $7.50 per hour at Victor Equipment Co. in Denton.
A rainy night that created an emergency reminded Tim of his responsibility to family back when he was a child. From the time he was 15, he pitched in to pay the bills for his divorced mother and older sister. Back in those days, summers meant 40-hour weeks making $2.10 per hour waxing and stripping floors.
"I kind of resented it sometimes because the kids I was friends with were out playing, and we were working," he recalls. "But I knew it was necessary."
Tim's first stint at Victor Equipment came just after he graduated from Aubrey High School in 1980. He worked at the machine shop for almost a year, building regulator gauges used for oxygen tanks and cutting torches.
He left the job because he didn't like being stuck inside all day and moved to Oklahoma to work as a roughneck on an oil rig. Even though one of his dad's friends offered to pay his college tuition, Tim chose to keep working on the rig.
"I was making good money," he says, "and I thought, 'I don't need college.'"
He quit working in the oil fields because it forced him to move around too much, and he wanted to be closer to his fiancee. So, he moved to Houston to work for her brother's drywall company, where he hung Sheetrock and learned the construction business for three years.
His first marriage didn't survive his return to the Dallas-Fort Worth area and a career change to law enforcement. He joined the Lewisville Police Department, where he honed his people skills for seven years, managing irate citizens in stressful situations while maintaining a calm demeanor.
And then, Tim met Debi Eubanks.
"The first night, we were together until 5 a.m. just talking and learning about each other, and then the next night we saw each other, and the next," she says. "There was only one night that we were dating that we didn't see each other, and it was a tough one."
On Sept. 9, 1989, seven months after they had met, they married.
"We were just so similar and wanted the same things out of life," Debi says. "We both wanted children, we wanted a house with the white-picket fence and a dog."
Tim also wanted to be his own boss. So, in 1993, he left the police department and started his own business, cleaning out homes after tenants had been evicted. But after Mackenzie was born, he realized he needed a steady paycheck with benefits. He quickly found a job as a maintenance man with Electronic Data Systems in Plano, where he made only $7.50 per hour. But at least he had benefits.
More financial challenges mounted with the birth of their son a year later. With a low-income job, no college degree and two young children, his paycheck could stretch only so far. Even working 70 hours per week at EDS and taking extra evening shifts at Earl's Grocery Store near his home wasn't enough.
"It was a struggle, but there were people that had it a lot worse," Mullen recalls.
To put food on the table, Tim would walk to the convenience store in the early-morning hours just so he could be the first one standing in line at the butcher counter.
"He'd be putting out meat that was marked down half-price or less, still good stuff," Tim says. "I'd buy it up because it'd be cheap and I'd freeze it. So we didn't eat steak, but we had some cheap hamburger meat."
In 1998, the Mullen family moved into the leaky farmhouse in Aubrey and Tim returned to Victor Equipment. Only this time, after a year, he was laid off.
It was then Tim learned Denton County was looking for a maintenance repair specialist, a job he seemed uniquely qualified to do. Who more than Tim knew how to work with his hands — fixing, lifting, loading, painting, patching, framing, finishing?
Danny Brumley, Denton County's director of facilities and an old high school friend, hired Tim the day he applied.
This job stuck
Returning to the county facilities truck, a Ford F-150, parked in front of the courthouse, Tim reaches for the e-cigarette in his shirt pocket to take a puff. He takes out his iPhone and begins to scroll through the rest of the work orders for the day.
Walking in his white sneakers to where the jail trusties are standing, he tells them it's time to break for lunch. As he turns around, Kim Cupit, one of the many county employees he helps, greets him with a smile and a hug.
After 20 years on the job, many greet him the same way.
"Tim has never met a stranger, even a fencepost likes him," Brumley said. "He gets along with pretty much everybody, and he has a way of communicating and talking to people."
In the breakroom of Denton County's Facilities Management building, Tim sits at a table and pulls out his lunch — a turkey sandwich, chips and a Diet Coke. Three co-workers join him for their daily lunchtime activity: a game of dominoes.
One of them keeps score on a white legal pad.
"Just remember, it doesn't matter who wins or loses," Tim says laughing, "but y'all know, only losers say that."
After four rounds of dominoes, Tim pulls out his cellphone, and the reality of the job returns after lunch. There are cabinets to be fixed, gazebos to be repaired and walls to be painted — and that's just for today. But he doesn't mind.
"There's a lot of good people who work for Denton County," Tim says. "Being able to do stuff for them, like hang a whiteboard up so they can write on the wall, may be a little thing to do, but it's a big deal to them. And it makes me feel good that I'm able to do that for them."
It may be a simple blue-collar job, but it's allowed him to provide for his family and live comfortably. A few years after he started working for the county, he and Debi purchased their first home in Aubrey. Tim says it may not seem like much, but for them, it was a big deal.
"It's just hard — you can't keep up with the Joneses whenever you're like we are," Tim says. "So we just did the best we could. We've never gone under. We've always had a roof over our head."
Now, Tim and Debi talk about retirement and hope to set aside enough money to buy a lake house so they can both finally relax. He may never be rich, but he is proud to have survived some of the worst things that life could throw at him.
"You don't take things for granted just because you know you've been there," Tim says. "There were times I couldn't have walked in the store and bought a Coke. I didn't have enough money. Now I can go in anytime I want."