Faculty Connections – Meet David Wilkins

DavidWilkinsTulsaDavid, 64, is a Lead Senior Instructor at Tulsa Welding School. He first started welding in 1975.

Thanks for your time. Where did you first learn to weld, David?

I first learned to weld in a shop in Tulsa about 42 years ago when I was in my early 20s. I did a little welding there. Just some structural stuff but not as a professional welder. It was only when I went to Tulsa in 1991 that I decided to go into welding full time.

How long have you been teaching at Tulsa Welding School?

I graduated Tulsa Welding School 25 years ago this coming Thursday (4/27/92), and I’ve been an Instructor there for 19½ years.

Why did you decide that teaching is something you’d like to do?

When I first went to Tulsa, as a student, my wife and I decided that I’d work in the field for 10 years. Then, I’d go back as an instructor. The people that owned the school at the time had encouraged me to come back at some point in time to teach there. My goal was 10 years in the field, which would put me close to 50. But as it worked out, it was only about five years later that they called to say they needed an instructor and that they wanted me. When I finished the job I was working on, I came and talked to them. I took a weld test, and on 10/9/97, I became an employee of Tulsa Welding School.

Had you taught anything anywhere prior to that?

I had not.

So, why did you want to be an instructor?

Intriguing things interest me. When they first talked to me about it, I was unsure. But the more I thought about it, the more I thought it might be a good place to retire from. My wife has some health problems, so I thought it would give me a chance to be home more, with more of a set schedule, and I had insurance for a change. I think the whole thing just intrigued me the more I thought about it. Then I just decided to do it and jumped in with both feet.

Having jumped in, how long did it take you to find your feet?

It was kind of a culture shock; it took me probably six months to a year. I’d worked construction all my life so it was really all I knew how to do. I’d worked from Maine to California in refineries, chemical plants, acid plants, paper mills, sugar mills…then all of a sudden I walk into a welding school. I was used to working 7 days a week, 12 hours a day, then all of a sudden I’m working 5 x 8 hour days. I didn’t know how to deal with that hardly.

I had companies calling me every week wanting me to go back out. It did cross my mind that I could go back in the field and make more than I was making at the school. But, my wife and I talked, and I decided to stay. It turned out to be a really good change for me. I’m so glad I did it; I’ve really enjoyed it.

What do you like best about teaching?

Everything…but to narrow it down I’d say I’m a people person. I’ve had students from all over the world. I’ve met some really good, really interesting people. I also really enjoy welding and teaching my craft.

As a boy, what did you want to do when you grew up?

I always wanted to work with my hands. When I was growing up, my dad was a carpenter and drove the school bus. So I grew up doing carpentry. We laid and finished hardwood floors. Dad would build small things; so that’s what I grew up doing. I did three years of drafting in high school, and I was a draftsman for a company for a year. But I soon figured out that being cooped up in an office was not for me. So that’s where it really all started – working outside – working construction, so that what I’ve done. I’ve run heavy equipment, drove trucks, welded more than anything, but that’s where it all started, right there.

Thinking back to your time as a welder. What was your favorite part of the job?

Being able to step back and look at something and say I did that…and it’s right! Now if something was wrong, that’s different! Just the sense of satisfaction you get.

If someone’s reading this thinking about going to welding school, why should they pick Tulsa?

I’ve told students before that we’re the largest welding school in the United States, and we didn’t get to be the largest by being the worst. My grandson went to a votech [vocational technical training], and they told him that when he got done with his two year program, he’d be able to go out and go to work. That was far from the truth. I’ve had a lot of students that had gone to a votech type scenario and have left to come to Tulsa Welding School. They tell me they’ve learned so much more, so much faster.

We, as instructors, have been in the field, and we know what it takes…and that’s what we teach them. We’re welders who have learned how to teach, not instructors who have learned how to weld. When I came to work here, I didn’t know how to teach. I had to learn and it took a little while, but it was my craft, my profession, first and foremost.

Tell me something that most people don’t know about you?

That’s kind of hard to come up with. I’m just an old country boy. I live out in the country on 10 acres off a dirt road. My wife and I play music; we do Bluegrass festivals, stuff like that. I tell students that I have 20 music instruments, and my wife has 32 crock pots! As teenagers before we were married, my wife and I sang together, played music together.

Please tell us about your family.

This coming August, my wife, Geneva, and I will have been married 45 years. We had three children, two girls and a boy. Our youngest daughter died in a car accident almost two years ago when she was 21 years old. My oldest daughter is an RN, and my son is Assistant Superintendent of Schools. He has his doctorate degree in education. Our oldest grandson is 27 and a part-time policeman, our granddaughter is 7 years old, and my wife and I are raising our 5 year old grandson, our youngest daughter’s son. We also have a great-grandson who is almost two!

My condolences on your daughter. You have a real multi-generational family.

We do. Both of my parents are still alive, and both of my wife’s parents are still alive. We have five generations on both sides of our family. It all makes for some great Holidays!

Which Phase do you teach, David?

I’ve taught all the phases during my 19½ years, but for over 13 years I’ve had the new starts when they come in the door on day one. I introduce them to a welding rod and a welding machine. Usually about ⅓ to ½ of my class has never welded before, while some may have welded a little on grandpa’s farm or in an agri-program, something like that. As a rough estimate, I’d say I’ve had about 6,500 kids come through my class. That’s a bunch of kids! I call them kids, although my oldest student was 74 years old!

What’s the best piece of advice you give to new students just starting out?

I ask them one question, “How bad do you want this?” I’ve asked a lot of students that. I’d tell them that it’s not going to be easy; so take a deep breath and hang on. I actually had a new class today. We have new starts every three weeks. I had 24 people in my classroom this morning. Once I’d introduced myself, I asked them, “Do you all know why you’re here?” I said…”Y’all are too dumb to go to college, that’s why you’re here!” They all laughed and some of them said, “Yeah, that’s right!” and I said, “Why do you think I’m here! I’m not college-type material, but I can weld.”

If you weren’t a teacher and money was no object, what would you be?

I would be a musician with a good local group that travels maybe 5 or 6 states, maybe go longer distance once in a while. But, I wouldn’t want to go big time. I think they get into losing reality when they become big stars. It’s more of a profession to the big timers than it is enjoyment. I really enjoy the music.

What’s your favorite tool?

Probably a TIG Rig. I like TIG welding. But probably your hood is the most important tool because without that you can’t weld at all. So, a hood and a TIG rig.

If you could choose to have dinner with anyone, alive or dead, who would it be?

That’s a hard one right there! I’m going to tell you who my hero is, and that’s my dad Charles. He’s 88 years old, and he still does beautiful woodwork.

You get an unexpected afternoon to yourself. What would you do with that time?

Right now I’d be mowing! We have 10 acres, and I mow about 3 of them. We’ve had a lot of rain and sunshine here, so you can hear the grass growing! But, if I had some real time to myself, I might be out in my shop here at home working. I do some art welding. I make belt buckles, things like that. Or I might get one of my instruments out and just play, enjoy some relaxing time. I don’t get that very often with a five year old running around!

If you were to tell one person, “Thank You” who would it be and what did they do?

I go back to my dad. He taught me how to do things right. I’m not going to say he’s a perfectionist, but if you ever saw some of his woodwork, you’d wander how he did that. He never took me fishing or hunting. Did I miss that? No, I never had a desire to do that, but he taught me life. He taught me how to work. He taught me how to make a living. He taught me how to take care of my family. He and my mom, Gladys, have been married for 66 years. I can’t say that I ever saw them in an argument or fight, and they worked together for years in an upholstery shop. They just taught me life, and what I needed to do to take care of my family, how I should treat my children, and my dad taught me how I should treat my wife.