Tom Chall was there when the automotive program began at Century College in White Bear Lake. He was the one who started it.
Now, 41 years and countless students-turned-mechanics later, he's retiring. In his time at Century, Chall has seen some major changes, not only at the two-year college but in the automotive industry as a whole. He's also been a keen observer of student behavior. With his wealth of experience, we asked him to take a look back on his tenure.
What was the price of gas when you started teaching? Twenty-five cents a gallon. I had a '72 Vega, and when I would drive from Milwaukee, $3 would fill the tank. I could always fill the tank for under $4. The students think it's unfathomable.
The biggest change in cars through the years? When I started, the car was like a big go-cart. It had seven more pistons than a go-cart, and seven more spark plugs. There was nothing electronic about it. Today's automobile has more technology than the first lunar landing to the moon! It's just amazing. ... Every part of the vehicle is computer-controlled. It has changed so that the computer senses every function of the car. You could go into a slide, and it will start to correct it to take you out of the slide. The automobiles today are superior, cleaner and more efficient.
Common problems, then and now? Common problems are always the brakes, steering suspension, spark plugs. You don't have to worry about a distributor cap -- we don't even have a distributor anymore. ... Today, you get the "check engine" light that signals there's a failure in one of the computer systems. You have to diagnose and know it, and be able to fix that in today's cars. ... The hardest thing to teach is diagnosing. Fixing is the easy part. ... Only half of the students make it to the second year [of the program], and the reason is they have to score well in electrical. We can start out with 500 and end up with 75 students. Every one of my students said they never realized how complicated an automobile really was.
Accomplishment you're most proud of? We [Century College] have the best program in the state. Our students are the proof of the pudding. When students head to a manufacturer's training session they come back and say "wow, thanks for teaching me so well." ... My teaching colleagues are a big part of the success of the program. And they're both former students, too!
Biggest challenge? The biggest challenge is trying to teach someone who doesn't really want to learn. You just can't do it. The good news is, the number of students who want to learn far outweigh the ones that don't. It's very satisfying to have a student who wants to work very hard, and does very well because they're doing something they're passionate about. If you're passionate, you'll be successful in life.
Philosophy on teaching? You have to know your subject matter inside and out. It's the rubber-to-the-road reality; you just need to know your subject matter well, and share that passion. ... You also have to have the ability to get complicated concepts across to people. I have 25 different ways to explain something. If you don't get it across one way, try another way. I once had a student who would sit in the front row, and I could read his face like a sign. When he got it, his face lit up like a light bulb. You have to find a different approach until that light goes on.
Favorite memory? When students share with me that "you've been more of a dad to me than my dad." That's happened on a couple of occasions. We have some students in the program that have been down a tough road. That's another part that's rewarding ... to see someone pull themselves up by their bootstraps, give them a trade so they can make money, and deal with the ex-con stereotype. Some turn their life around. As a teacher, you can be a big part of that.
Funniest memory? Around 10 or 15 years ago we had gotten in a fast car and I asked one of the security guards if he wanted to ride in "my new car." College was over with, so we went out and did burnouts in the back parking lot. When we were in the car, the security officer's phone rings, and it was one of the administrators saying there was this black Camaro doing burnouts in the back. The security guy said he was right on top of it, and put his hand out the window and waved at the administrator. It was extremely hilarious. He handed me the phone and I invited [the administrator] to come down, too. I'll chuckle about that one for the rest of my life.
Retiring after 40-plus years - now what? My wife, Pam, and I are blessed with a beautiful house on the lake, and we have three grown children. I do love to boat, and I have a brand-new pontoon. But if you have a gift, you have to give it away; you can't just hoard it. I'm working on some outboards for some friends and neighbors. I also will do more church volunteer work. I've spent a whole lifetime at Century College. Right now, our automotive program is the best in the state. And I run into students everywhere now! If I'm in Florida getting off a plane, I run into a student. If I'm in Montana, I run into a student. Or boating at Cross Lake, I run into a student. It makes you feel proud.
Kelly Jo McDonnell is a Twin Cities freelance writer.