PEMBROKE – As a little kid growing up in the Boston suburbs, Lee McColgan had a gift. Call it a natural ability. His family saw it. So did his friends.
The little boy could build things. He could draw. He could paint. He could sculpt. But mostly, he could build things.
“I could look at things and recreate them,’’ McColgan, 39, told me the other day at his home here. “I was going to be an artist. There was never any question about it.’’
At age 10, his family moved to Vermont, and by the time he was ready to graduate from Rutland High School, his classmates had recognized his talent. In their senior high school yearbook, they conferred on him this honorific: most artistic.
But the rhythms of life, the cross-currents that shape our career paths are mysterious forces. Sometimes they draw a straight line from A to B. Sometimes they dictate circuitous voyages.
And that’s what makes Lee McColgan’s journey to his home woodworking shop here – where he is at work on an elaborate piece for the oldest house in Boston – so remarkable.
“He had such a passion, such a natural talent,’’ said Michael Burrey, McColgan’s mentor and an instructor at the North Bennet Street School in the North End, where students learn – among other things -- bookbinding, cabinet-making, and carpentry.
‘’He gets it. That’s the shortest way I can put it. He gets it.’’
Yes, he does. Except that he almost didn’t.
You want to be an artist? People asked him. How will you pay the rent? How will you make a living? Get real. Where is all of this leading?
For a while, it led to Nebraska, where Lee McColgan put his artistic instinct on a shelf and went to work as a mutual fund wholesaler.
If there is an occupational polar opposite of master woodworker, the world of high finance – that buttoned-down land of high-yield bonds and high-stress brokers -- is surely it.
And, it turns out, he was good at it.
He was making well into six figures, giving advice to financial advisers about how to select the right funds for prudent and often lucrative investments. That type of thing.
Along the way, he met a woman from Norwell, Liz Bailey. They married and began to make a life together, living in Omaha not far from one of the richest men on the planet, Warren Buffett, the chief executive of Berkshire Hathaway.
But something was missing.
“I felt unhappy doing the numbers stuff,’’ McColgan said. “I got to the point where I said, ‘I’ve got to pursue my passion.’ That was only a couple of years ago.’’
And then he did what many of us have wanted to do -- and then don’t. He quit his job. He turned off the career superhighway. And he changed his list of clients. Instead of brokers, he went to work for historical societies, for owners of old churches, for caretakers of historic houses he was hired to help preserve.
It sounds romantic, like running off to operate a cozy country inn in the mountains. Turns out, it’s nerve-wracking stuff. It’s not the soul-crushing work of finance and numbers. But it’s a lot of work. A lot of staring at the ceiling during sleepless nights.
What have I done?
“The best word to describe taking that leap is this: terrifying,’’ he said. “I have always had confidence in my natural ability to build things. Thank God for my wife. She never once put any pressure on me to do otherwise. She knew that was my passion and I had to pursue it.’’
And it is that pursuit has led McColgan to the James Blake House in Boston, built in the mid-1600s near the salt marshes of the South Bay, a four-room historic architectural gem he has been hired to help polish anew.
“It’s about 20 years older than the Paul Revere house,’’ said Earl Taylor, president of the Dorchester Historical Society, which own the house. “If one can make it to the attic – and not every visitor can – you can still see the original plaster at one of the gable ends of the house. There’s plaster with mud and pine needles and horse hair.’’
In other words, almost 400 years of history.
There are only a few examples of its early Colonial construction techniques remaining in the US. Massive oak beams form its skeleton. Its attic still has remnants of the original wattle and daub -- strips of wood daubed with chopped straw and clay.
It’s one of the few houses in New England built by immigrant carpenters, according to the National Register of Historic Places.
And now Lee McColgan, the guy who left high finance behind two years ago, is at his upstairs workshop here, using a mallet and gouges to reproduce a 17th century carved piece of furniture to slip into Boston’s history.
“It’s Boston’s oldest house,’’ McColgan said, standing over a headboard, his latest piece of woodworking here. “There’s something cool about that to me.’’
McColgan has spent part of his life working alongside enormously successful financial planners. He knows how important it is to set goals. He knows the difference between wealth – the size of your bank account – and prosperity.
The latter comes with a satisfaction money can’t buy.
“The reality is a lot of people get to retirement and they might have pension plans and they might have money in their 401K,’’ he told me as dusk took hold outside. “And maybe they liked their work but didn’t love it and one day they retire. And, all of a sudden they have all this free time. I have seen a ton of it. People don’t know what to do with themselves.
“People go back to work. They’re unhappy, unsettled. The question you should answer first in life is: If money wasn’t the issue, if you had all the money in the world, what would you be doing with yourself? And if you have an answer to that, that should be your career. That’s what you should be doing. I’ll never stop making stuff. I will never stop doing this.’’
And then, before he went back to work with the wood he loves, he added this:
“For me, that’s what this is. If money wasn’t the issue, I’d be doing this anyway. So many people go through life not thinking about their career that way. And I was one of those people. I would be doing this no matter what.’’
One of the richest men in the world no longer lives down the street.
Lee McColgan no longer lives in a world of securities and commodities and the next big financial killing.
He’s alone in his workshop. And he’s smiling.
Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.