November 20, 2015 10:45AM
It was an experience that would have been surreal for almost anyone. But for Andrew Masters, a Kansas guy who was then in his mid-20s, it was almost bizarre.
“I’m at this party, just kind of standing on the side being a wallflower,” Masters said. “Then I look to the side and see Rue Mclanahan, ‘Blanch’ from ‘The Golden Girls’ is standing right next to me. Michael Stipe from R.E.M. is also there. It was an interesting evening.”
The December 2003 party in the upscale SoHo neighborhood of New York was the annual Christmas celebration hosted by former U.S. president Bill Clinton, who personally invited Masters to attend.
But why was Masters, an Overland Park native and 1998 graduate of Pittsburg State University, invited? Even in the moment, it would have been hard for him to explain.
“I’m just a construction guy from Kansas,” he said. “I’m looking around the room wondering how in the world I ended up there.”
The soft-spoken construction management professional is too modest to say he earned that invitation to the party. He describes the events that led him there as a “right place, right time” scenario.
While that may be true, it was also a case of being incredibly good at one’s craft.
In March 2000, Masters’s then-position with international construction firm Hensel Phelps took him to Little Rock, Ark. At just 24 years old, Masters was named a lead project engineer on the development of the Clinton Presidential Center, the facility that four years later would house the Clinton Presidential Library, offices of the Clinton Foundation, the University Of Arkansas Clinton School Of Public Service and various Clinton-related exhibits.
And although helping build big, important facilities was not new to Masters, nothing could have fully prepared him for what this project would hold.
“It was a huge challenge that was also a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” he said. “Many times in construction you have plans and specifications from past jobs you can look at, but on something like this, there is no relevant example. It’s a brand new thing and everything is totally unknown.
“But then you go in to meetings with (Clinton’s former chief of staff) John Podesta, and that’s when you know you’re in a whole other world,” he said.
One of Masters’ main roles during the project was to help oversee the design and development of the center’s exhibits, which contain various artifacts and memories from Clinton’s eight years as president. One of the main exhibits and attractions in the center is a replica of the Oval Office during the Clinton Administration.
“Working on the Oval Office component was incredibly interesting because I got to look at the original design for the Oval Office,” Masters said. “There was so much I learned about the design of the actual room and how President Clinton decorated the office when he was there.”
For example, Masters said, he discovered that the carpet in Clinton’s Oval Office featured 13 different colors to represent the 13 original colonies.
“For a history buff like me, that’s fascinating stuff to learn,” Masters said
Masters was also in charge of making sure that everything in the replica Oval Office matched Clinton’s actual Oval Office.
“We’re talking about everything from the couches and paintings on the wall to the grandfather clock and Resolute Desk,” he said. “I had to go find companies that produce replicas and that could produce items that would match exactly what President Clinton had in his Oval Office.”
For other exhibits, Masters and the team of designers were tasked with “deciding what story to tell” at the center.
“We worked with the National Archives to decide which artifacts to display at the center,” Masters said. “One of President Clinton’s former speechwriters wrote the text that would go with the exhibits. Of course, President Clinton had the final say on everything.”
One of Masters’s favorite memories of the experience came when he was helping develop the visual timeline exhibit, which would include binders of information regarding what Clinton did on a particular day during his presidency.
“We flew out to Harlem, New York to meet with President Clinton and his team to talk about the timeline,” Masters said. “At one point, President Clinton was arguing with (former advisor) Bruce Lindsey about what the president did on this one particular day during his presidency.
“I’m sitting there listening to this wondering how in the world they can remember exactly what they did on this one particular day 10 years ago,” he said. “It’s unreal how much these guys can remember.”
At another point, Masters received a close-up look at how presidential security works.
“We are at the Topping Out celebration of the President Center, and I’m standing near the president,” Masters said. “The Secret Service put this pin on my collar, and I wasn’t quite sure what it was for. The agent said, ‘Look over there on that bridge. Do you see the sniper over there? Now look on top of that building. Do you see the sniper there? That pin on your collar tells them it’s ok for you to be near the president.’
“The entire rest of the day,” Masters said, “I’m checking my collar to make sure the pin is still there.”
Masters, who now works for Crossland Construction in the Kansas City area, said the entire Clinton Presidential Center project was a “unique learning experience” that gave him a rare behind-the-scenes look at an American president.
"There were many of us on the project staff that didn't necessarily agree with the politics or the party affiliations, but we all respected the Office of President of the United States,” he said. “We all realized, myself included, that President Clinton spent eight years as president in service to our country in an effort to make our country and our world a better place.
“I have tremendous respect for the man. The Clinton Presidential Center is a place where the history of that time period, the events, the occurrences, and President Clinton's legacy can be shared with the American public for years to come. I was honored to be a part of the project."
Masters credits the education he received at Pittsburg State with preparing him for that unique challenge and others he has encountered during his career.
“The PSU construction management program is one of the best in the nation,” he said. “I’m not just saying that because I went there. I mean it’s hands down one of the best. I’ve worked with interns and new hires from some of the other big, Division One programs, and I’d take a PSU graduate over them any day.
“It’s not just about the education they receive at Pitt,” he said. “Graduates from PSU’s program come out understanding work ethic. They understand that it’s necessary to sometimes get your hands dirty. They have that hands-on attitude, that willingness to do what it takes. I wouldn’t be where I am today without that experience at Pittsburg State.”