Michael D. Smith is the Lead Pipefitting Instructor at the Tulsa campus. He has been teaching at Tulsa Welding School for about three years; he first started work in the pipefitting field in 1977.
How long have you been in the field, Mike?
I started in 1977, but I got out for about 15 years, before coming back in 1999. It’s been about 25 years.
Is TWS your first teaching job?
No, I was a substitute teacher in the Oklahoma City and Coweta Public School systems. I taught all ages – grade school, junior high and high school. Also, in my time out of the construction field, I worked in long term health care. I took the corporate ladder to the top and became an Administrator of a nursing home. That involved continuing education for the staff to ensure they kept their certifications and licenses up to date. I figure I’ve been teaching something, somehow, someway, pretty much all my life.
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Why did you decide that teaching is something you’d like to do?
I grew up in a time when people said, “It took me 15 years to learn this; why would I teach you how to do it in a month?” So I was self-taught in almost everything I did, and that made me mad. If I can teach you something in a month that took 15 years for me to learn, then you’ve got 14+ years jump on me.
Why did you choose Tulsa Welding School?
I’m from Oklahoma, and I got tired of traveling for work. I wanted to come home and settle down. I applied when I heard they had a Pipefitting program here.
What do you like best about teaching?
The “aha” moment. When you get a student that’s struggling, and you see that they’ve caught on. Just their body language, their facial expressions, the self-satisfaction they feel when they realize, “I got it!” In pipefitting we have a way that we change direction/change the plane of a pipe. It’s called a rolling offset; students have struggled with it for years, and I don’t know why. When I explain it, they’re like, “That’s all there is to it? It’s that easy?” It’s the moments like that when they realize, “I can do this, I am going to be good at this!” that I call the “aha moments”.
As a boy, what did you want to do when you grew up?
As far as I can remember, way back when, I either wanted to be a fireman or a philanthropist. My guess is that was probably the first big word I’d learned, so I wanted to be one! Something in my life is lacking that I was never able to become one. We’d all like to have enough money to be able to give a lot away!
Tell me something that most people don’t know about you?
I guess most people wouldn’t know that I was an executive in nursing homes for many years. I went to college, got my degree, then went to OU and got my Administrator’s License. Then, I spent over eight years troubleshooting problem nursing homes throughout Oklahoma. People wouldn’t know that I was listed in the 1993 Who’s Who Registry of Rising Young Americans in American Society and Business, and that in 1997 I was the Vice President of the Tulsa Metropolitan Healthcare Association.
You obviously had a successful time in healthcare. Why did you come back to pipefitting?
To make a short story long, I dealt with making life and death decisions every day in nursing homes. I was also dealing with it at home because we knew my wife wasn’t going to live much longer. Something had to change. This is what I used to do out of high school; I came back to it because I needed to spend time with my wife visiting different hospitals, doctors and clinics around the country. If I wasn’t at work and a pipe didn’t get installed, no problem. But as a nursing home administrator, it was pretty vital that I was there every day. Something had to break before I did; so I quit and came back to construction.
Please tell us about your family.
I’m twice widowed. I lost my wife Shirley 17 years ago to a migraine headache. We traveled to specialists everywhere. She was even a case study at the Mayo Clinic, but they could never figure out what caused it. A couple of years later I met another woman, but I lost her to breast cancer before we could move in together or things could progress. I did remarry, but I’m divorced now, so it’s just me. I don’t have any children. I still have my mother, three sisters and a brother.
What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to new students who are just starting out?
Get off your phone and pay attention! Seriously, I guess the advice I’d give them is to simply do what they came here to do – learn. Dedicate 100% to it as you’re only going to get out what you put in. Try and apply that to the rest of your life too – never stop learning. Anything worth having in life is on the other side of fear – “I’m afraid to go to school” – “What if they say no?” – “What if I can’t do this?” Obstacles are what you see when you take your eyes off your goal. Spend your life preparing for retirement, but live every day as if it’s your last. I’d also say take time to live life to the fullest, and just be a simple person.
What’s your favorite tool?
Nowadays, I would say it’s the laser. I have a three beam laser level. I can lay out 90 degree angles. I can check alignment of pipe and fittings. I can lay out hangers; I can do so much with it. It’s one of the most versatile tools that I have.
If you could choose to have dinner with anyone, alive or dead, who would it be?
I’ve got too many loved ones that have passed to be able to pick just one, so if I could talk to anybody, it would be Jesus himself. Maybe he could answer some questions I have.
If you weren’t a teacher and money was no object, what would you be?
If money was no object, I would be a philanthropist. That childhood dream. I’d give my money to people in need. We’ve got senior citizens, the disabled, veterans that need medications and medical procedures. There needs to be somebody to take care of them.
You get an unexpected afternoon to yourself; what would you do with that time?
I’d jump on my motorcycle and go ride – destination unknown! Going back to that last question, if money was no object and I didn’t have to work, I’d get on my Harley Davidson and follow the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit. I’d also like to ride though all 50 States and Canada.
Thinking back to your time in the field, what was your favorite part of the job?
I’ve been on the tools. I’ve been a foreman and supervisor. I’ve been in QC [quality control], but my favorite part of the job is being able to say, “I built that. That was done by me.” When the job’s over and you’re driving out in your truck, you can look in the mirror and say, “I built that.” When students are taking about stuff like that, I can pull up Google Earth and show them a refinery in the Virgin Islands, a Coastguard base in Kodiak, Alaska, various power plants that I’ve worked on around the country. It’s just the pride of the accomplishment.
If you were to tell one person “Thank You,” who would it be and what did they do?
That’s a tough one – I would have to say, Shirley, my late wife. She invited me over to her house to drink a beer and talk on the night before Thanksgiving 1987. I didn’t leave for 12 years until the day she died. We never really had an argument. 29 years ago she saw something in me. I was in my late 20s, extremely wild and careless; I didn’t really care about life or anything.
I was somebody I didn’t like…if that makes sense? By doing nothing more than being herself, she got me back on the straight and narrow, got me to quit drinking, and got me to put all the stupidity behind me. She made me want to grow up, and I did. She didn’t do it, as much as she made me want to do it. She made me want to be a better man. I really don’t know how to put it, but she probably saved my life.