Gordon Peeks offers advice as electrical student Grant Pavelka bends a pipe Tuesday at North Platte Community College. Bradley Gillen, also an electrical student at NPCC, is in the background.
Next year will be a special one for Gordon Peeks. It will mark the 50th year that he has taught industrial education in Nebraska.
The milestone is one the Chappell native is proud of. It's also one that makes him chuckle. That's because when Peeks first started thinking about careers - teaching wasn't even a consideration.
"When I graduated in 1964, I knew two things: "I didn't want to go to Vietnam, and I didn't want to be a teacher," said Peeks. "I'd had so many rotten teachers in high school."
Peeks enrolled late in what was then Kearney State College and studied math and chemistry instead. However, he didn't find enough fulfillment in those areas to make them into a profession.
His delayed registration ended up being a blessing in disguise. Few advisors were left by that time, and the one he was assigned to was in the industrial education department.
"He encouraged me to take a couple of drawing and architecture classes as fillers, and before I knew it, I was hooked," said Peeks.
He married in 1968, and the following year, his wife took a job as a housemother. She and Peeks relocated – into a dorm of 400 women.
The fact that he was living on-campus made Peeks the perfect candidate for a new opening at the college.
"They were short an instructor in Advanced Woods," said Peeks. "I was contacted and told that I was going to be the lab aide. At that point, I still didn't want anything to do with education. It took them three meetings to convince me."
Peeks felt like a fish out of water the first semester.
"I was no longer with my peers," Peeks said. "I was teaching a lot of guys who had just come back from Vietnam. I was in my early 20s, and they were in their 30s. Not only were they older than me – they also had more experience. A lot of them had been officers."
His ability to adapt and gain the admiration of his students is ultimately what convinced him to pursue a career in education.
"What changed my mind was that I was able to get concepts across," said Peeks. "The vets respected me for what I knew and what I could show them. That built a sort of camaraderie among us, and suddenly, the classroom had a pull on me."
What should have been four years at the college turned into five as Peeks picked up the classes needed to become a teacher.
"Instead of doing the regular major/minor option, I chose a comprehensive major and bit the whole thing off in 60 hours," said Peeks. "I'm glad I did. It gave me a broader perspective."
He graduated from Kearney State with a bachelor's degree in Industrial Education in 1969 then earned a master's degree from the college in '71.
"The course of study was the same for both degrees, which allowed me to get a professional certificate," said Peeks. "At that time, there were no doctorate programs for industrial education in the state, so my certificate was lifelong."
Peeks would go on to pick up another 60 graduate hours, 48 associate hours and 25 baccalaureate hours throughout his career.
"I spent a lot of time in school in the summers," said Peeks. "Working with people in my field deepened my respect for the profession. I was able to take all the things I was doing, pair them with what others were doing and become a better teacher."
Peeks began teaching at Elm Creek while he was still at Kearney. In 1971, he and his wife moved to North Platte where she had been offered a job as a counselor. Because there weren't any positions open in education at the time, Peeks found work with the railroad.
Two days before he was supposed to start, an opportunity opened up through the church he attended, Our Redeemer Lutheran. Peeks was asked to replace a teacher, and soon he was teaching all subjects and coaching all sports for sixth through eighth grades.
"For a while, I also taught math to second through eighth grades, and because I was the youth director, also taught Sunday school," said Peeks. "It was a huge change from teaching at the college level where the students were self-motivated. At the elementary level, I had to find ways to get the kids' attention before they wanted to learn."
He also wasn't prepared for the prep time.
"Just learning what had to be taught was a challenge," said Peeks. "I had zero background in that area. My curriculum guides ended up dog-eared."
In 1972, Peeks accepted a job at North Platte High School. He remained there for the next 41 years, and taught a variety of classes, including: Electricity, Electronics, Residential Wiring, Algebra I and II, Applied Physics and Credit Recovery.
Health concerns forced him to resign from the high school in 2012, but he stayed involved in education through the Sylvan Learning Center.
In 2014, Peeks accepted his current position at North Platte Community College - part-time lab assistant for the Electrical Technology department.
"It's been a godsend," Peeks said of working at NPCC. "It's great to be back in a college environment."
One of the best parts has been seeing familiar faces.
"This will be the last year that I have students at the college that I also taught at the high school," said Peeks. "That's been great. Anytime I cross paths with former students and see how successful they've become, it makes me feel warm inside."
One of those students, now residing in South Carolina, recently tracked Peeks down and sent him an email. He wanted Peeks to know that a porch swing Peeks helped him build as a freshman in high school is still getting good use.
"Only now, he sits on it with his grandkids," said Peeks.
That lasting impact on students and the relationships he's built with them over the years is why Peeks has no immediate plans to retire.
"I'm still having fun," Peeks said. "I want to finish 50 years of teaching. That's my first goal. I suppose I'll leave when I physically can't do it anymore. I always joke that I've earned this white hair and receding hairline, but in reality, the students keep me young. I would miss seeing them every day."
Peeks is the first one to the electrical classroom every morning. He arrives at 7:20 a.m., opens the doors and eagerly waits for the students to stream in about 40 minutes later. Some call him, "Gordie," others call him, "Coach," - all seem to enjoy him just as much as he enjoys them.
"I don't know what I would do without those kids," Peeks said. "I love watching them apply themselves – whether it's setting up a circuit and making it work or taking a theory and putting it into practice. That's what makes life worthwhile."