Shaun Cashman melded the gregariousness of the Irish with the compassion of a person who had been in the trenches and hadn't forgotten where he came from, according to his family and friends.
The combination served him well in his career in the labor movement and as the state's commissioner of labor. One of his mottoes was "Be, do, have" — emphasizing his belief that anyone who works for something can achieve it.
Cashman, 76, who lived in Old Lyme, died Sept. 24.
He was born on June 17, 1936 in Middletown to William M. and Catherine C. Cashman. He was the baby of their seven children — and one of six boys. He loved sports and played football, basketball and high school at Middletown High School.
After graduating in 1954, he enlisted in the Navy, where he was a Seabee, doing construction projects in Antarctica using skills learned from his father, a plant maintainer at A.N. Pierson, a wholesale nursery in Cromwell.
After leaving the service, Cashman ran a bar, John B's, and later a small real estate company. He enrolled in the Hartford Art School, but had to drop out for financial reasons.
He eventually went into construction, and was quickly attracted to union leadership. He was first a business agent, then was elected business manager of Laborers Local Union 611, a position he held for 25 years.
He soon developed into a good negotiator, respected on both sides of the aisle. "He didn't just fight for labor," said his son, Tony. "He was very rational and able to bring both sides together — labor and management. He had respect for management. Without the company, there is no job."
In the mid-'70's, Cashman joined AA, and became an advocate for its methods and the hope it holds out for people addicted to alcohol. He sponsored many people seeking recovery, and was not reticent to talk about how the organization had changed his life. When he died, he was in his 36th year of sobriety.
Cashman continued to advance in the labor movement. He was elected president of the Connecticut State Building and Construction Trades Council, an AFL-CIO association of 14 trade unions. In 1984, he attended a seven-month trade union program at Harvard Business School that brought together union officials and MBA students in classes on arbitration, economics and contract negotiation.
When Sister Helen Dowd bought a new facility for her Intensive Education Academy, a school in West Hartford for students with disabilities, she turned to Cashman for help renovating the building. He arranged for Otis Elevator to donate an elevator — and for free labor to install it — and lobbied for a state bond that paid for the renovations.
"I didn't have the foresight of what this property would involve," Dowd said. "I could count on him."
In that position, he represented management, but got along well with the unions. "He was extremely fair and easy to work with," said Carol Carney, president of one of the unions at the labor department. "He was very forward thinking. He wanted to make employees want to come to work."
At the time, the concept of "lean business" was in vogue. That philosophy emphasized reducing waste, improving customer service, measuring employee performance and involving employees in problem-solving. Cashman applied the similar idea of lean government to the labor department.
To employees, however, the approach sounded as though he intended to have fewer employees working harder. To reassure them, Cashman went around to the different department offices to sell the program, promising no layoffs and touting the system as a more efficient and better way of working.
"He pushed lean government as the best and fastest way to do work. He wanted to make it the focal point. ... He knew it was going to be a hard sell,'' Carney said. "You have to let people know you aren't doing it to lay people off."
At one office, he asked employees to offer better ways of organizing training sessions, and they came up with new methods of doing the same tasks. "We cut 50 percent out of the time," Carney said. "It was amazing."
He organized visits for field personnel to the main office so they could see how things were run, and cut out a lot of red tape and bureaucracy. At Halloween, Cashman dressed in costume and went around distributing candy.
"We had better morale than that at any other time in my 37 years at the DOL," Carney said. "As union rep, I saw it worked really well."