When Darlene Rutkowski-Hanks became an architect, she knew she’d design residential houses and apartment complexes. With any luck, she’d work her way up to hospitals and office buildings.
But a fence strong enough to stop a tire flying at 200 miles per hour from hitting patrons at a NASCAR race?
“That was crazy. They don’t teach you that in school!”
That was for the 1997 Gateway International Raceway (now named World Wide Technology Raceway) in Madison, Illinois. Of the 150+ projects Darlene has drawn in her 30 years at The Korte Company, creating the plans for that racetrack was her absolute favorite. The 152-acre site included nearly a dozen buildings, a grandstand for 40,000 people, a drag strip and the 1.2-mile oval track itself.
“And I drew all of it. It was truly amazing.”
(And what Darlene drew, site superintendent and almost-famous rock musician Dan Scott made sure happened for real.)
From start to finish, that project took two years. During the kickoff, Darlene was expecting her first child. And when the project wrapped up in 1997, she was expecting her second.
“They had a whole ceremony on the track before the inaugural race for everyone involved in the design and construction. But it was a hot day, and I was huge because I was six weeks away from my due date. I was nauseous. I had actually been sick all morning, but I pulled it together.”
The grit she showed on that hot, sunny day is exactly what got Darlene here, twenty-five years later, as the managing principal of Korte Design.
Love at first sight… and sound
Darlene’s earliest memory is the sound of chalk striking the floor, and the bent figure of her father sketching lines on plywood. He ran a residential construction firm called Rutkowski Construction Company. She spent much of her childhood at his side.
“As a little girl, I would sit with two hands holding a hammer and driving nails into the plywood subfloor.”
At first, her dad spent every Saturday working on house plans in his home office. She would push a desk next to his so that she could draw with circle and door templates. On her tenth birthday, her parents presented her with bib overalls and construction work boots — the first of many.
“By then, my dad had moved his office outside of our home and into more of a commercial setting. I would go out and visit the construction sites with him. I was passionate and I loved seeing things built.”
But as much as she liked working alongside dad, she also knew she didn’t want to be a laborer forever. So after high school, she studied architecture at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. It struck the perfect balance between designing buildings and a lifetime of swinging hammers.
But every summer, she still felt called to work beside her dad. By then, she knew how to do everything from digging concrete footings to handling framing and trim work. It was the summer of 1987 that she fell in love with a fellow crewmember named Eddie.
After graduating and marrying, they launched their own company in 1989: Advanced Construction and Residential Design.
That was 33 years ago. And while starting a successful independent business is often the pinnacle of a career, it’s not even close to the end of Darlene’s story.
“Something’s got to change”
Darlene and Eddie stayed busy trying to get their business off the ground. She handled estimating, payroll, accounting, contracts and design. Eddie managed construction, field operations, and sub-contractors. And they both met with clients. To supplement their income, she also worked full-time as a CAD designer for Koch & Associates.
It sounds like a lot, and it was.
“I was working way too many hours. It was like, ‘Wow. Something’s got to change.”
She started watching the classifieds in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and spotted a job opening for a CAD technician with 3-5 years of experience at a Metro-East architectural firm.
“This was way back before you had online searches and stuff. When I applied, you had to write in and it went to a P.O. box. I didn’t even know who I was applying to.”
One day, the phone rang. It was Dave Holtgrave, the president of Architectural Interior Services (AIS), the predecessor of Korte Design. They settled on a date and time for an interview.
AIS appealed to Darlene for two reasons. One, she was tired of historic library renovation projects and wanted exposure to big jobs. Two, the commute to and from St. Louis was taking its toll. AIS seemed perfect, and her nerves ran high.
But what she most remembers more than anything was worrying about her outfit.
“I was on the fence. I thought, ‘Okay. This is a construction company. Do I wear a dress, or should I wear pants and be like a guy?’ Truly, truly, I remember that because I debated it for quite a while.”
She laughs about it now. She ultimately chose a dress. It’s what her mom told her to wear.
But during her interview with Dave, it didn’t matter at all. He just saw a bright young CAD technician he could mentor, and that’s exactly what he did. One of the first projects she worked on with Dave was a Lanter Warehouse project in Madison, IL.
“He was a great mentor. He was the kind of person who could gauge where you were and what you were capable of. And then he’d give you just a little bit more. He was always pushing you, but never throwing you in the water with no life preserver.”
Three and a half years later, she was finally ready for her licensing exam. And once she passed, she wouldn’t just be a CAD technician anymore.
She’d finally be a fully licensed architect.
Third time’s the charm
At the time, the Illinois architecture licensure exam happened just once a year in Chicago, and it spanned four days. Darlene braced herself. Testers were required to complete all nine sections of the exam at once. And if she failed any sections, she’d have to retake the test the following year.
“I was not expecting to take all nine sections and pass them. Back in the day, maybe three to five percent of all candidates would pass the whole thing one time. It’s too much information.”
As predicted, she didn’t pass all nine sections at once. But to her surprise, she passed the two most frequently failed sections: site design and building design. It took two more tries to clear them all.
“And then, I officially became a project architect. That meant I could be introduced as, ‘This is your architect,’ versus just, ‘This is the designer assisting with the job.’”
That felt good. And it was just the stepping stone Darlene needed.
“I did that for years, running projects from a design standpoint. And then I started taking on large projects, like the U.S. Postal Service projects, and I helped the team land our first-ever Hershey project.”
At 1.1 million square feet, it was the largest build The Korte Company had ever delivered. (After this addition, the building is even bigger today, measuring over 1.3 million square feet.)
In 1999, she became a senior project architect. Eleven years later, she was promoted to managing principal.
“I’m here to be the backstop”
As managing principal of Korte Design Inc., today Darlene focuses on winning new work, fostering client relationships, financial management of the company and as the Architect of Record for all projects conducts independent technical reviews of drawings.
“I’m here to help out along the way, but I’m not just managing people. I’m overseeing all of our projects. I have my fingers in pretty much everything that Korte Design is working on because I’ve been here for so long and Korte has many, many repeat clients.”
That kind of awareness of prior projects is a critical part of The Korte Company’s success. People like Darlene don’t just help us get projects done. They help us get projects done right.
“My job is to do the best due diligence we can for our clients. And the Design-Build aspect of our method is exactly what I love to do. I did it with my own small firm in residential. It’s ingrained in me. To me, Korte is the only truly integrated, under-one-roof Design-Build firm.”
She’s also responsible for supporting her 15-member team of project architects and designers. Most days, that means fielding questions about building codes or helping brainstorm solutions to tricky design challenges.
“I’m here to be the backstop for anybody who needs it, like Dave Holtgrave was for me. Not too long ago, we were working on the St. Paul Church here in Highland. From a square footage standpoint, it wasn’t huge, but it was a very complicated project.”
“There were lots of questions like, ‘With differing floor height elevations, how do we transition from one to another?’ ‘How do we address fire protection systems from a code standpoint, since the existing buildings didn’t have them but the new one would?’ ‘How do we make all the tie-ins waterproof so we don’t have leaky roofs and walls?’”
In the end, Darlene drew on her deep institutional knowledge to find solutions to every single one of those problems. It’s the perfect example of just how far she’s come in her time with The Korte Company over the last 30 years.
“Korte’s given me a lot of opportunity for professional growth recognition and reward. We are an employee-owned company, but it’s more than that. It feels like a family here, and I feel grateful to be part of such a wonderful organization. Korte also understands that everybody has a life outside of these walls. Even with me having my two children and being employed full-time, I never had to miss any of their school functions. Not the Valentine’s Day parties or the Halloween parades or anything.”
Life outside of and after Korte
Darlene first joined The Korte Company as a relative newlywed who was just starting to build her family. While challenging at times, balancing the two has never been a major barrier to her own success. Just look at the Gateway International Raceway. When she started working on it, she was pregnant. And when she finished it two years later, she was pregnant again.
“It was stressful and fun all at the same time. Another funny spin to it was the joke in the office: If we did any more racetracks, I’d have enough kids for a basketball team.”
Darlene stopped after two children, but that’s been more than enough for a completely fulfilling life. Though grown now, her daughters stay close, and Darlene’s mother lives just a few minutes away. They all still gather once a week for game night, which is when Darlene gets to flex her other life-long love: cards.
“I really like cards. I’ve been playing cards with family since I was probably five years old. We like to play 500 Rummy and Gin Rummy. I love Texas Hold ‘Em and all kinds of poker.”
When The Korte Company hosts casino fun nights, she usually comes away a big winner.
“Even with my grandparents, we used to play for nickels, dimes and quarters. When we’d go to Grandma and Grandpa’s, I’d bring my piggy bank full of change and we’d sit down and play poker.”
When she’s not a card shark, she’s on the water with Eddie.
“Anything to do outside, I enjoy. We have an open-bow, 24-foot boat that we trailer all over the place. We’ve done that for years.”
Together, they’ve explored some of the region’s most scenic lakes: Kentucky Lake, Lake Monroe, Lake Springfield, Lake Shelbyville and Lichfield Lake.
“What we really like is Table Rock, Bull Shoals and Norfolk. Those are my three favorites because they’re not that commercialized. We just like to be relaxed, not worrying about people barhopping on the water and all that craziness.”
When Darlene gets out on those lakes, she can finally unplug completely. There’s just something about the water that helps her relax and live in the moment.
“I’m on the boat to be on the boat.”
Meanwhile, Eddie likes to fish. Soon, they might even add a fishing boat to their fleet. That’s because, as a recent retiree from a life-long career in the concrete ready-mix industry, he’s finally got time to play.
And as much as Darlene loves her job working for The Korte Company, she’s mentally preparing for the eventual day when she’ll join him.
“I love what I do, but I know I’m not going to be here in my 70s.”
It’s hard to imagine someone as energetic as Darlene settling into retirement, but that’s still at least a decade away anyway. In the meantime, she does like imagining how she’ll spend that distant future.
“I definitely want to retire on water, some nice inland body of water because I don’t like the risk of hurricanes. But we’d really like to have a lake home be our primary residence.”
They say a rising tide lifts all boats. It’s true of Darlene’s career, too. She’s lifted countless already, and there’s more to come.