At 91 years old, Ethelmae Humphreys feels lucky.
Most mornings, she drives herself to the TAMKO Building Products corporate offices in downtown Joplin and is greeted by portraits of her late father and husband as she walks through the doors on her way to the job she’s held for 70 years.
“Some of us are very lucky,” said Ethelmae, TAMKO’s longtime chairman of the board, just a week after she was honored for her 70th anniversary with the company her father founded. “I’ve always said that when it’s not fun anymore — if it gets to be a burden — it’s time to be done. But so far, it’s never felt like a burden. I feel no obligation. I do it for the pleasure of it.”
Ethelmae may feel lucky, but most of the people who know her say luck has very little to do with her success, tenure or the respect afforded her in almost any room she walks into.
“I view (Ethelmae Humphreys) as the matriarch and grand dame of the roofing industry, which is predominantly male,” said Sheree Bargabos, former vice president of TAMKO competitor Owens Corning’s roofing division. “Her presence and longevity are inspiring.”
“I don’t know how to define Ethelmae’s presence very well; it’s always there and it’s always significant, but it’s never intrusive,” said Leland Browne, a former longtime vice president at TAMKO. “She was, and still is, an integral part of this business and one of the finest people I have ever known.”
“Ethelmae changed the flavor of the industry,” said Jim Hilyard, former president of TAMKO competitor CertainTeed. “She really did break women into the industry, and I’m sure the women that are in the industry today are particularly there because of Ethelmae changing the culture.”
Born into the business
To make TAMKO what it is, Ethelmae had to do what no one else could. She was in fourth grade when her father, E.L. Craig, started his first roofing business. He was a serial entrepreneur who started and sold a variety of businesses before Ethelmae was born.
“The business ran all of our lives,” she said. “Whatever we did or did not do was related to how the business was doing.”
Ethelmae spent much of her childhood traveling with her mother as she oversaw the family businesses or following her father on the road. The summer she turned 16, Ethelmae worked in the family roofing company, sacking nails to ship with rolled roofing to the U.S. Army overseas.
The year Ethelmae graduated from high school and headed to college, her parents moved to Joplin to start TAMKO in 1944. She had a penchant for languages and graduated from the University of Kansas with a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts in 1948. But her father’s failing health and a fierce sense of loyalty changed her course.
“By the time I graduated from college, I knew I needed to come home and help out,” Ethelmae said. “I would be the only language major who was going into the roofing business.”
For the next few years, Ethelmae served alongside her father as bookkeeper, payroll clerk and secretary. When E.L.’s health deteriorated and he started wintering in Florida, Ethelmae took over the executive operations of the business.
And just like that, TAMKO became her life.
“I never intended to do it — I just knew somebody had to, and I was the only one,” Ethelmae said.
The younger sibling
Ethelmae may have been the only biological offspring of E.L. and Mary Ethel, but she never felt like an only child.
“I felt like the business was another sibling — it’s as accurate a way as I can think to explain it to make anyone else understand,” Ethelmae said. “TAMKO had all the same needs as a younger sibling because I had to take care of it. And the truth is, I wanted to take care of it. I have always wanted to, I suppose.”
A lesser person could have given up in the face of the challenge and doubters. Ethelmae was a single woman, in her early 20s, running a building products manufacturing company in the 1940s. It was simply unheard of. She admits it was an overwhelming task, but she was not overwhelmed.
“The thought that I was in over my head must have entered my mind at some point, but the situation didn’t frustrate me because I’d always been told and believed that I really could do anything that I set my mind to — so I went about doing it,” Ethelmae said.
In her willingness to lay aside her own plans and take on the family business, the company became her life. She continued to lead TAMKO after she married Jay “J.P.” Humphreys, an accounting machine salesman for the National Cash Register Company. She didn’t slow down until the moment her first son, David, was born, leading heated negotiations with the Teamsters union until 5 p.m. the day before.
“When Jay came into the business, I transferred much of my attention to our children, but I never transferred my affection,” Ethelmae said. “TAMKO was still important to me; I just knew that it was going to be OK because somebody that I loved loved it too.”
Two more children followed: Sarah and John. For the good of the company, Ethelmae stepped back, relinquishing the top role to her husband, who served as TAMKO president for 30 years. But she stayed involved in both the daily issues as well as the long-term industry decisions, including traveling internationally to investigate new products and partnerships.
Ethelmae succeeded her mother as chairman of the board in 1972 and returned to a full-time position at TAMKO in the 1980s. She again rose to the occasion when her husband died in 1993. She took on the executive role for TAMKO in his absence but stepped back again when the couple’s oldest son became CEO the next year.
“She graciously accepted the leadership put on her and over the decades repeatedly relinquished control and took it up again to steer TAMKO through some of the company’s most turbulent seasons of transition,” David said. “She was instrumental in making those transitions successful, but even more so, I think we can be grateful for her steadying influence, her wisdom and sound advice, and her steadfast dedication to the company and its employees over 70 years.”
Ethelmae continues to be a significant force at TAMKO’s corporate offices, and her steely determination and unyielding loyalty to the business that started when she was just a child has made her something of a legend with employees companywide.
The majority of her responsibilities today focus on the operations of the E.L. Craig Foundation and the J.P. Humphreys Foundation, charitable nonprofits named after two of the most important men in her life. She is slowly transitioning more of those tasks to her children, David and Sarah, but says she has no intention of “retiring” anytime soon.
“I will do this until I don’t enjoy it anymore and as long as I am physically able,” Ethelmae said.