Senior Project Manager Tony Lentola, PMP, was the owner’s representative for UTHealth during construction of the School of Dentistry building and two other major facilities for the university. He will retire March 31. Photo by Brian Schnupp.
When Senior Project Manager Anthony R. “Tony” Lentola, PMP, retires on March 31, he will wrap up a career that culminated in construction of The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) School of Dentistry’s new building – a $155-million, 300,000-square-foot landmark facility completed in 2012.
It was the largest capital outlay in UTHealth history, and Lentola not only oversaw the construction project from planning to completion, but coordinated the move of approximately 800 faculty, staff and students, plus nearly 60 years’ worth of records and equipment from the old “Dental Branch Building” to the new facility.
Little wonder he considers the School of Dentistry project to be the “crown jewel” of a career that began in the early 1970s in his hometown of Friendship, N.Y., where he was an Eagle Scout and one of 42 students in his high school graduating class.
He enrolled at Alfred University to study ceramic engineering, but soon left to support his growing family. He took his first construction job as an unskilled frame carpenter, building wood forms to be filled with concrete for bridges, underpasses and roads.
“With that job, you work in the mud, the blood and the beer,” he laughed.
He was hired as a sweeper at Worthington Turbine Co., and through the union (AFL-CIO), eventually bid on a job as a “layout man” – one who goes to the drill presses, lathes, etc., and lays out the materials machinists need for their various production runs.
“For that job, I had to learn to read technical drawings, and being able to read blueprints facilitated some better opportunities for me,” Lentola said.
As he gained skills, his wages rose dramatically. On a per diem basis, he earned excellent pay working on coal country construction projects as a member of the United Mine Workers union until they went on strike. “When they do that, you don’t cross their picket lines,” he explained.
With free time to fill, he remodeled his parents’ former home in Friendship into a three-apartment unit, but when that job ended, the Miners were still striking. With a child on the way and no source of dependable, steady income, Lentola knew he had to find work.
“I did my homework and understood there were employment possibilities in Texas,” he said. “So in 1981, not knowing a soul in Houston, like the Clampetts I loaded up the truck and headed to Houston, Texas.”
Stopping for the night in Texarkana, Ark., Lentola bought a Sunday edition of the Houston Chronicle to check for jobs.
“UT Health Science Center was advertising for a journeyman-level carpenter who could read drawings and run a crew and do layout work — which was all right up my alley,” he recalled. “I actually called the university from Texarkana and got interviewed and hired over the phone before I even crossed the Texas state line.”
While UT paid less than he’d earned working on coal-country construction projects in other states, the university’s benefits were excellent, and he liked Houston. Even so, he expected his Texas residency to be temporary, fully intending to return to his job with the Miners.
Tony Lentola (center) was among those who cut the ribbon for the School of Dentistry's dedication in June 2012. Also pictured: Dean John Valenza, DDS and Mary Le Johnson of WHR Architects. Photo by Brian Schnupp
Thirty-two years later, Lentola’s still in Houston and now says he’ll never leave.
“This university has been my second family,” he said. “To be able to love what you do and come to work every day with eagerness to tackle the day – I feel very blessed. The decision to stay with the university and not go back to the Miners and the fabulous money … that was the best decision of my life.”
He became a senior project manager after earning the “Project Management Professional (PMP)” certification from the Project Management Institute in 2002. That certification, along with his work experience, qualified him for the job that would otherwise have required a degree.
“I’ve taken lots of college courses over the years but never put them all together for a degree,” Lentola said. “But even if I’d gotten a degree, I can’t imagine life could’ve been better than what’s happened to me in Texas. I wouldn’t change it for anything.”
At a March 26 retirement reception in Lentola’s honor, UTHealth Project Management Director Wes Stewart noted that in addition to the new dental school, Lentola oversaw construction of the Medical School’s six-story Research Replacement Facility, which opened in 2007 at a cost of approximately $130 million; and in 2008, Lentola watched over a $4.2 million expansion of UT School of Public Health’s Regional Academic Health Center in Brownsville.
While he's proud of those projects, Lentola said the dental school was “by far the most challenging, most rewarding project” he’s ever undertaken and completed in his life.
“It’s the only building on campus where we educate students, do research and see patients,” he said. “And not only were we charged with overseeing the programming, design and construction, but we oversaw moving the entire School of Dentistry’s student, staff and faculty population. We had to make sure their space needs were met, that the new furnishings were in place, and that all equipment was operating the way it was expected to.
“That was different from just a construction project, and we did it. We had a tremendous team for this building,” he added.
In retirement, Lentola plans to travel, flip houses, do some consulting, take up golf or even do some freelance writing, but he will definitely visit his family a lot more often.
His parents, two sons, a daughter and four grandchildren — not to mention plenty of Italian and Lithuanian cousins – all still live in the Northeast. “But my roots are here,” he said. “I told my Mom the only time I want to see snow again is on the back of a postcard.”
He won’t be at the School of Dentistry by 5 a.m. on weekdays anymore, but he’ll keep in touch with his UTHealth family as they care for the crown jewel of his career.
“Per UT System, this was designed to be a 50- to 100-year building,” he said. “With technology changing so much, that may not prove true, but if it has to last 100 years, I’d be willing to bet that it could.”