The Road Back Home
By Steve Dallape
“Ever since I was a kid, I was taking stuff apart and trying to put it back together.”
It’s not unusual for high school students to be undecided about their future plans. After all, common wisdom dictates that it’s not until one’s junior year that serious thought be given to life after graduation. And even then, it can take several years and many tries before a person gets a grasp on what they want to be when they grow up – even if, technically, they are grown up.
And then there are those for whom it all comes together in a sudden epiphany. The stars align, the clouds part and a ray of light beams down on them, bearing the knowledge of what their life will be, then and far into the future. Jason Ruot was one of those fortunate few, and it all started just across the parking lot from the high school, at OKAW Area Vocational Center.
“When I walked in there, I said, ‘This is it. This is what I’ve been looking for,’” Jason says. He’s recalling that fateful day in 1989, when the then high school junior first encountered OKAW. It was guidance counselor Jerry Evans who tipped him off about the vocational school. Before that, he had no idea that anything like it existed, or that something like OKAW was what he was yearning for. “Ever since I was a kid, I was taking stuff apart and trying to put it back together,” he recalls. “I was always taking stuff apart and seeing how it worked.”
Jason studied at OKAW during his junior and senior years at VHS, and when he graduated in 1991, he took Jerry Evans’ advice once more and went on to Lincoln Tech in Indianapolis, IN. There, he studied Automotive and Diesel Technology, earning a degree in Applied Science when his one-year course of study was complete. He had some good job offers from companies in the Indianapolis area, but no desire to live in a city that large. “I was like, ‘Nope. I’m going home, I’m moving back to Vandalia’.”
After returning to the area, he quickly landed a job with an independent auto repair shop, where he honed his craft for two years before taking a position in a dealership service department. He served fifteen years there, a streak that was only broken because the dealer went out of business. Undeterred, he joined the Operators Local 520, and started a good-paying job with an asphalt company, operating and maintaining rotomills, which are machines for grinding up asphalt.
That job was indeed lucrative, but it extracted a toll from him as well. He was on the road, traveling to wherever his services were needed, sometimes six days a week. He would return home on Saturday night, spend Sunday catching up with his family, and then head out on the road again on Sunday night. “I was missing so much with my kids,” he recalls. “I was missing football games, I was missing band concerts. I was missing just so much.”
And then, another one of those clouds parting, beam of light moments. He was talking with Darren Dugan, the Auto Body instructor at OKAW Area Vocational Center, who told him about a position that was open there for an Auto Mechanics instructor. Once again, the stars had aligned, and Jason knew exactly what he had to do. “It was a dream of mine. I remember when I found [OKAW] in ‘89, I thought ‘This is great. I would love to work here.’ And now I am,” he says with a grin.
There were trade-offs involved, but ones that Jason was only too happy to make. He would be taking a substantial pay cut from his union job with the asphalt company. But, he would also not have to always be traveling, and would not have to miss any more football games or band concerts. “To me, that was more important than the pay,” he says.
“Now, my wife says, ‘You’re Mr. Mom’.” It’s a title he’s glad to hold, because it means that he can be there for his kids, doing all the little things that he never could before, like picking them up from school each day.
Not only is he able to be there for his kids, but he has found a great deal of pleasure and satisfaction from being there for his OKAW students as well. “My favorite thing is when I’m explaining something to a kid, and he says ‘Oh!’, like a light goes off,” he enthuses. While most OKAW students go on to study a trade at schools like Ranken Tech, Lake Land College or Kaskaskia College, not everyone leaves OKAW with the same enthusiasm for the trades that they came in with, and that’s okay with Jason. “Another aspect of it is, OKAW Auto Mechanics teaches kids,’This ain’t what I want to do’,” he says. He once had a student who he had taught for two years tell him, “All this did was help me figure out that I am not going to do this for a living,” Jason recalls. “I said, ‘That’s fantastic! That’s what we’re here for.”
For those who do decide to pursue a career in auto mechanics, the field is ripe with possibility. “There’s so many opportunities in the automotive field,” Jayson says. Beyond repairing and maintaining vehicles in a dealership or independent shop, there are other options that might not be as obvious, like service writer, warranty sales – even a career in racing. Jason shares that recent graduates can expect to earn $30-40,000 annually, but that figure can certainly increase with experience gained and skills acquired.
All-in-all, it can be a pretty sweet life for someone with the aptitude and ambition. And if you are still a little undecided, don’t worry if the clouds don’t part and that beam of light doesn’t hit you. Just talk to Mr. Ruot, he won’t steer you wrong.