Crocker Stephenson’s “Snapshots” Column about Godsil

January 19, 2006 issue of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Original URL:

He’s most grounded when he’s on a roof.

I see James Godsil coming around the corner of the old Soldiers Home Chapel.

I say, “Godsil, how’s it going?”

He says, “I’m in danger of having my wings burned off, I’m flying so high.”

Godsil looks like Einstein. Mustache. Hair. Eyes. The man’s a ringer. He has the slightly abstracted manner you might imagine Einstein had. He’s got Einsteinian charm. Strangers sometimes call out: “Hey, Einstein!” Godsil smiles and waves.

Godsil has Einstein’s body, but Walt Whitman’s soul. “I am large,” Whitman wrote. “I contain multitudes.” That’s Godsil: multitudinous.

Photo-Benny Sieu
“The view from here
is a view to die for.”
- James Godsil, roofer,
atop the Soldiers
Home Chapel

Godsil, who is 60, is a roofer. He co-founded Community Roofing & Restoration in 1975 and says, “If I can still work on roofs till I’m 65, then mine will have been the most blessed of lives.”

He leans a 35-foot aluminum ladder against the chapel and climbs onto the roof. He shinnies up to the top and checks a repair. Godsil is where he most likes to be: standing in the sky, straddling an apex.

“The view from here is a view to die for,” he says.

He climbs back down.

“I feel safest on a roof,” he says.

“A satisfied mind is at the root of safety and security. When I am on a roof, I know what I’m supposed to do. I have no doubts.

“I have spent a lifetime trying to understand the mysteries of water. The mysteries of water and buildings. You can’t (expletive) water. It leaks or it doesn’t leak.

“On the ground, I have to face the challenge of living in complex social circles, where there are all kinds of ambiguity.

“There are issues of money. Issues of status. Issues of justice and fairness. Issues to which answers don’t exist.

“On the roof, water and rain and the snow and the ice will tell you if you’ve found the truth. It leaks or it don’t.”

Godsil, the transcendental roofer.

“I became a roofer,” Godsil says, “to save my soul.”

We go into the chapel and sit in the back pew. Godsil is involved in a multitude of things. If you want a sample, check out One of his passions is the restoration of the Milwaukee Soldiers Home buildings, which are behind the Zablocki Veterans Affairs Medical Center. As we talk about the project, Godsil runs his hand along the back of the pew. We talk about exuberance, which is what he feels about the restoration. As he talks, his hand teeters on the edge of the pew.

In 1982, Godsil’s father, Joseph, fell while fixing the roof on the family garage. He fell about 10 feet. He went to the hospital and died of a heart attack. Joseph was 73.

Godsil knows about falling.

“I have to stay on this side of exuberant and not fall into manic,” he says.

“There have been times when I have taken on more responsibility than was appropriate,” he says, dropping his hand onto his lap.

“I have flown too high.”


Contact Crocker Stephenson at (414) 224–2539 or by e-mail at

Last edited by TeganDowling.   Page last modified on January 19, 2006

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