Hot hobby

Welding program garners grant

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Kenny Gehrman has gotten a good start on his goal of someday owning his own "Monster Garage" where, like the popular TV show, he dreams of fashioning flashy cars out of drab pieces of metal.

"That's what I want to do with my life -- own my own custom hot-rod shop," said Gehrman, a Hayden High School senior who spent last summer rebuilding a 1951 Plymouth.

He has garnered much of his skill and inspiration from the welding program at the high school, where instructor Kevin Kleckler challenges students with complex projects while encouraging them to think outside the box.

"He kind of gave us a chance to mess around ... to try something we didn't do before," said Gehrman, who, with classmate Chris Willingham, spent his semester building a shiny red trailer, complete with diamond plating, chrome wheels and orange flame tail lights, for Kleckler.

The welding program at Hayden High School has not gone unnoticed.

In the past two years, the program has received $75,000 in grants, including a recent $30,000 Carl Perkins Technical Program grant and another $5,000 in funds from the El Pomar and Yampa Valley Community Foundations.

It's the second year the program has received the Perkins grant.

The money will go toward equipment, including a four-post automotive lift, and the high school's welding certification program, the only high school program of its kind in Colorado.

"You won't find any program in Northwest Colorado of this caliber," said Kleckler, who also teaches a welding certification program at Colorado Northwestern Community College in Rangely.

This is the fourth year Hayden High School has offered welding certification to students. The school must have quality equipment and meet certain standards of the American Welding Society to provide certification, Kleckler said.

Hayden High School students may take different welding classes all four years of high school, including beginning and advanced welding and automotive repair. Students from the Steamboat Springs and Moffat County school districts also have come to Hayden for the classes, Kleckler said.

"This is the reason I come to school right now," said Willingham, a senior who likes the class because it gives him "the ability to be creative and not go by the book."

Willingham and Gehrman plan to attend WyoTech, an automotive technical school in Laramie, Wyo. Gehrman hopes to start there in the fall while Willingham plans to join the U.S. Navy first.

Welding and other vocational programs, which are quickly falling by the wayside at many schools, are important considering not all students end up heading to universities, Kleckler said.

Kleckler's and the Hayden School District's dedication to the program is apparent in the workshop, a huge, roomy garage in the bus barn, where students were busy sweeping up metal shards and cleaning equipment on their last day of class Friday. The space has about 10 welding bays and more equipment than any nonwelder could name.

In some ways, welding offers students the best of the academic and technical worlds.

Not only does welding teach students hands-on skills outside the classroom, it encourages creativity and problem-solving, Kleckler said.

Not to mention a way to make a living.

Skilled welders are in huge demand statewide, particularly in the construction industry, where structural beams and fancy metal are becoming very popular in custom homes and other buildings.

Kleckler spends his summers doing metal work in high-end homes near Steamboat. He also is responsible for all the metal work in the new Ski Haus building on Pine Grove Road.

Several former students also work in local body shops, said Kleckler, whose certification class at CNCC is required for students pursuing mine training.

Kleckler's high school program also is good training for the business world. For about 10 years, students have put their new skills to work building trailers, which the school sells to locals and buyers from as far as Wyoming and Kansas.

"It was something I thought would be an awesome project for the kids because (trailers) are complex but simple at the same time," he said.

In addition to grants, the high school welding program received a national award from the Hobart Welding company in 1998 and also has been recognized as a U.S. Air Force Teacher's program of the year in 2001 and 2002.

But for Kleckler, the program boils down to "trying to communicate my love for burning metal," he said. "That, and caring for the kids."

-- To reach Tamera Manzanares call 871-4204 or e-mail tmanzanares@steamboatpilot.com

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