By Jean Zehringer Giesige
ST. MARYS — Every year, the Tri Star Career Compact hosts an open house for high school sophomores who want to check out its vocational education programs. Two years ago, welding instructor Todd Smith remembers, there was something unusual about one of the sophomores who visited his welding class at the Dennings Building in St. Marys: she was a girl.
And not only that.
“We usually take the sophomores and put leathers (protective leather jackets that protect welders from sparks) on them, and then our welding students help them try to weld something,” Smith said.
The student who was assigned to help the girl visitor came to Smith. “He said, ´You’ve got to come and look at this girl’s work. She’s better than half of the guys in this class,’ ” Smith said.
That could have been considered the very beginning of the welding career of Krista Brackman, but it certainly isn’t the end. Brackman, 18, a senior at Marion Local High School, will graduate this spring and then follow her welding wherever it leads her. “I want to travel the world with my welding,” she said.
Brackman will be the first female student ever to graduate from Tri Star’s two-year welding program during Smith’s 18 years as an instructor, and only the second to attempt it, he said. In every way, she breaks the mold.
“I think she’s a very courageous young lady,” Smith said. “She knows what it’s like to get dirty, and she knows that the dirt will wash off.”
Welding, Smith said, “is the most efficient, cheapest method there is to permanently join two materials. A weld is stronger than nuts, bolts or rivets. As a trade, it takes a lot of hand-eye coordination, and a lifetime of learning.”
While still a hot and dirty trade, it does not require the heavy lifting that it once did, he said.
“You used to picture a welder as someone who had to be big and strong, like a blacksmith,” he said. “Now, we have machines that do the heavy lifting. It’s a finesse trade, now.”
Brackman, the daughter of Eugene and Joyce Brackman of Maria Stein, grew up on her family’s farm, watching her dad fix anything that needed to be fixed, including welding. The oldest of seven children, she learned early on to help out — and she learned that she enjoyed it.
“I knew that I wanted to work with my hands,” she said. “I didn’t want to be stuck behind a desk.”
When she tried welding in the vocational agriculture class she took as an underclassman, she liked it. “I talked to a bunch of kids who told me to go for it,” she said. “It didn’t bother me to be the only girl in the class.”
Brackman, one of 15 welding students who will complete the course this spring, plans to find a job after graduation. That shouldn’t be difficult, since there is a high demand for welders in the workforce, according to Smith. Eventually, she said, she plans to continue her education at the Hobart Institute of Welding in Troy.
“It’s been great having her here with us,” Smith said.
Down the hall at Tri Star’s Dennings Building in St. Marys, med prep instructor Janet Nelson is also enjoying a unique student in her class: the only boy in a room full of girls.
St. Marys senior J.R. Beckett signed up for the course because he intends to be a firefighter and an emergency medical technician (EMT) or paramedic after he graduates from high school, he said.
He’ll be following the footsteps of his father, Jim, who was an EMT with the St. Marys fire department, Beckett said. “When I was a real little kid, I used to hang out at the fire station with him. I’ve always known that that’s what I wanted to do,” he said.
In the two-year med prep course, he has learned about anatomy, physiology, medical skills and terms, alongside nine female students, who represent all nine schools in the Tri Star Compact.
“Part of my job is to help them sort out their career choices,” Nelson said. “They may think that they want to be doctors or nurses, but this can show them that there are so many other things out there in the medical field. It’s a super program.”
It’s been super for Beckett, 18, who plans to continue his education at Hocking College in Nelsonville, after he graduates.
“It was a little weird at first, but the girls all treat me like their brother,” he said. “My friends tease me about it. They think it would be awesome to be the only guy in here.”
He’s handled it beautifully, Nelson added.
“You have to admire him for spending two years in a class with all girls,” she said. “I’m sure it hasn’t always been easy for him, but he’s done a great job. He just rolls with the punches. He’s going to do well in whatever he tries.”