Goodbye, Mr. Chips
by Michael Dresdner
This year, after more than three decades of devoting his life to teaching woodshop to high school kids, Doug Bennetts is retiring. For Doug, it wraps up a lifelong love affair with helping young people learn about wood, some of whom are now learning from their father's teacher. "We have lots of second generation students, and that works very well," Doug admitted. "There is something to be said about being known as Old Man Bennetts."
Long before he was Old Man anything, Bennetts got his BA from Western State College in Colorado in 1973 and became an industrial arts teacher in Strasburg, Colorado. In 1977, he got married and moved to Buena Vista, Colorado, where for the next 30 years he taught drafting and woodshop and coached the wrestling team at Buena Vista High School.
Teaching high school in a small town requires not only patience and dedication, but a willingness to give up financial riches for other rewards. "I work as a woodworker in the summer to support my teaching habit," Doug admitted to me. "Teaching is my true love. Just working with the kids; what a great amount of energy and excitement. You can't have a bad day when you are working with kids. You can't lie to a kid: they see right through it, but they are easy to get going, and they give you exactly what you demand from them. There is nothing easier than exciting a kid, and once that happens, they are happy to give you what you want."
Apparently, what he wants is success for his charges, because they certainly produce some astounding results. Over the years, his students have built bed and dresser combos, entertainment centers, rolltop desks, chairs, futons, dining room sets and bedroom sets. "One year, 1981, a student named Chris Banning wanted to build a piano," Doug recounted. "I made some calls, and everyone said there is no way a kid could build a piano. That convinced us to go ahead and do it. We took an existing piano, borrowed the soundboard, harp and action, and built a case around it.
"The piano was actually less difficult than a rolltop desk, which is something we do often. Usually, sophomores tackle that, and typically get it done within the school year. One kid built an 11-piece bedroom set in one year," he told me, "and another built a seven-piece and a five-piece bedroom set in the same year. Another student, Ken McMurry, did a set of red oak kitchen cabinets for his mother. They are still in the house. His brother Brett built a bunk bed with an armoire and dresser underneath and a desk at the end. At least a dozen former students are now full-time woodworkers, but my real goal is to give them not a vocation, but a safe, satisfying hobby. I also teach them how to approach using tools of any type, and how to get along with others in a shop or work setting."
Clearly, Bennetts also encourages them to set their sights high, then helps them succeed. It can start as early as eighth grade, where students can take general shop, which is six weeks each of drafting, woodshop and metal shop. "That year they learn hand tools only," Doug explained, "along with basic woodworking skills. If they take woodshop again, they get 'Woods I,' which is nine weeks of hand tools only, from how to sharpen a cabinet scraper to using planes, brace and bit, and so on. The next nine weeks is machine safety and use. The next semester after that, they design and make a project, starting with drawings. The only restriction is no drawers or doors. They make bookshelves, coffee tables and things like that.
"Second year woodworking is called cabinetmaking. After about four weeks of instruction and a group project, usually a nightstand with drawer and raised panel doors, they design, cost estimate and build their own project. It must include a door or drawer. If they make it to third and fourth year, there are no holds barred. They can make anything they want, provided I feel they are capable of what they want to tackle.
"Typically, during a school year they spend an average of four hours per week in class from Labor Day to Memorial Day. But I also make the shop available from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day for kids who want to come in early or stay after, and until 9 p.m. on Wednesday nights. I stock alder, poplar, red oak, maple, cherry and similar veneered ply, but they must buy their wood and hardware from the school. We supply the tools and finishing materials. For their first project, a candle wall sconce, they use a wipe-on finish, but later they can learn more sophisticated finishing methods, including spraying."
"At the end of the year, we have a creative arts fair where all the shop, drafting, home economics and art departments get together and display their wares for three days. Judges are brought in from outside, and the community gets to see what goes on here. There are best in show ribbons, often with gift certificates that go with it thanks to the support of local companies. The local companies are very supportive, and it seems like they will do anything and everything to help. For instance, if there is something the kids need that they can't really afford, there's always someone to step up and provide it."
It seems astounding in an age when schools are cutting hands-on programs that such a school thrives, but Doug insists that this town understands its value. "We always understood the need for 'dusty arts' and managed to convince the school board that keeping hands-on education is more valuable than simply doing things on a computer. We sold the program to the community, and they in turn supported it. There is a lot of hometown pride about our program. In the mid-90, when other schools were scrapping their wood programs, we were building a new facility. We gave the community their money's worth, and they supported us."
He, in turn, supported his charges. "Don't underestimate the power of a kid," Doug insisted. "They can do so much. In short, don't tell a kid he can't build a piano. I've been told I demand perfection. When I am grading a project I tell them, 'Grandmas like anything, but I'm not your grandma.' After 34 years of teaching kids woodworking, the two things I know the least about are kids and wood. They more you learn about both, the more you realize how much you don't know."
What's next for Bennetts? "I may start doing some woodworking professionally," he told me. "I'm currently in the process of outfitting a shop. Maybe I will build coffins. A local mortuary said they'd buy every one I can make. It's a good business; people are dying to get in it. Someone's got to build them, and it may as well be me." As for the vacancy he is leaving, he admitted that they might have a hard time replacing him. "I guess there will be a lot of pressure on whomever is chosen to follow me, but I never thought about it before. I'll still be in town, though, and I will help out whenever I'm asked."
That he is always willing to help is no surprise coming from a man who along the way has picked up awards as Colorado Technology Education Association Teacher of the Year and Citizen of the Year for the town of Buena Vista. He's also donated a ton of time to the 4H Club in both the woodworking division and the swine division. "I teach kids about woodworking and raising pigs," Doug asserted in a statement that fairly screams out for some pithy commentary. I'll let you readers insert your own. All I have to say is that it will be a sad day for Buena Vista at the end of the school year when this dedicated educator hangs up his apron.