Thomas Chandler was worried that his career in the automotive program might be over before it even got started. Thankfully for the students at Laurens 55 High School in Laurens, South Carolina, he was able to find a job after graduation.
“I graduated from Piedmont Technical College’s Automotive program in 1976. If you can remember, that was not a good year to go out in the industry,” Chandler recalls. “I couldn’t find a job right off and had to go to work in a real shade tree shop for about six months until the guy I worked for got hired by a Chrysler dealership as a Service Advisor. He took me with him and I worked for Chrysler for three or four years. Suddenly they shut the business down and I was out of a job, in two days. Eventually, I went to work for a machine shop at one of the part stores and did head work, valve jobs and engine rebuilding for the next year.”
Chandler says Chrysler eventually opened up another dealership in the area so he returned as a technician/service advisor for the next five years before joining a local GM dealership. “I finally decided I wanted to make money, so I went to an independent shop. I actually enjoyed it until the owner sold it to somebody else that I just could not get along with. I had always wanted to teach, but realized it wasn’t an option, so out of the blue, I started a mobile repair shop service called Professional Automotive Services out of the garage at my house. It quickly grew and the next year I had to build a four-bay garage with two lifts.”
Now, if you’re wondering when the “instructing” of Thomas Chandler being named the April finalist in the 2021-2022 Instructor of the Year program sponsored by B’laster Products and Tomorrow’s Technician, hang on. There’s still some learning he had to do first, he says.
“We outgrew our building in five or six years, and so I designed a real modern eight-bay building that we built over on the other side of town in a real good section. And the same year I moved into that building – 1985 – I was selected as the National NAPA ASE tech of the year. I had been involved with ASA, the Automotive Service Association of South Carolina, even serving as the president of ASA of South Carolina. I guess getting that award got me noticed nationally. And they put me on the national ASE Mechanical Committee. From there, the mechanical committee became really involved in getting some of the standardized plugins for the computers at that time. Because at that time each dealership and brand had its own plugin and the codes weren’t standardized and all. We went through legislation to help get all that standardized,” he says.
Still, the passion to teach still burned. “After my son graduated from college, I put him in charge of running the business because I really enjoyed working on cars more than anything else. I really did not like talking to customers and handling complaints,” Chandler says. “But my wife was a school teacher who found out they needed an automotive instructor at Laurens High School. The school and I worked out a deal where I could teach first, second and third periods and then fourth period would be my planning time and I could go back to my shop and run both things. That’s how it all got started.”
Chandler says he took over a program that was – to put it mildly – in disarray. “I spent two months cleaning it and getting it ready for my students before they started that year.”
Even though some might prefer irate customers to high school customers, Chandler says the fit was perfect for him.
“I had been a Scout Master for years and I liked that age group of kids that I could mold and teach them right and wrong and so forth. So I naturally just fit into the high school level. And through the years, I guess, the rest is history. I don’t have as much problem talking to the students as I do with some parents. Parents sometimes remind me of some of these customers I had to deal with!”
Over the past decades, Chandler says he has had a number of significant personalities in his classroom, but one student stands out who defied all preconceived notions. One of the first girls in his class was so short, she could barely fit in the desk. “We actually had to buy an 8×8 block of wood to put under her desk so she could rest her feet because she couldn’t reach the floor. She stuck with me for four years, and she is now the lead tech at my old shop. She has really done well for herself. In fact, if I had to pick somebody to take over for me when I leave, it would be her.”
Chandler says part of his goal in his classes is helping students exceed expectations. “I’d be crazy to think I can turn everybody into a technician. But if I can’t turn them into a technician, maybe I can turn them into a good employee, by teaching them just how a shop works and change the image of our industry.
“The first thing I decided to do when I became a teacher was to change the image of the technician more than anything else. I threw mechanic completely out of my vocabulary and instead used technician and tried to set a good example, as far as the way I talked. The way I portray myself is that automotive technicians are great, very technical people. It’s just not taking a bolt off and putting a bolt in anymore. You have to be almost an engineer to fix today’s cars. If we can change the image of the technician, then maybe we can get some of these parents to think better about letting their child be a automotive technician. Because even now, many people still have that stigma in their mind, of technicians as greasy, dirty, nasty talking people.
“And I said to myself, that’s not the way it really is. So the first thing I decided to do when I came to teach, I was going to wear a tie. And so I dressed up and I wore a tie and I still do wear a tie three days a week. To just prove that to them that it can be a clean job. You can do the job clean. In fact, most technicians who are good wear gloves and they don’t get dirty. Nobody wants their car dirtied up when it’s being worked on.”
This isn’t the first recognition Chandler’s classroom methods have received. In 2019, Laurens District 55 High School was named the School of the Year by Tomorrows Technician, Wix Filters and O’Reilly Auto Parts. Chandler says it was an honor to be recognized but gives much of the credit for that – and Instructor of the Year consideration – to his students and coworkers.
“I didn’t even know about it until I got the email that we were being considered. But when we can take these people in the high school level and change their way of thinking a little bit, if we can make them into a good employee, a good moral person and if we can turn into a good workforce of the future and all, then we’ve done our job whether they turn into a technician or not.
“It’s an honor and I want to thank B’laster, because they sure have got me out of some sticky situations. It won’t be much longer before I retire. I’m just hoping we can find somebody who cares enough about the program that they can fill the slot. I will stick with it until I can find somebody that I think I can approve of. And then I’ll probably still be in the business as a substitute teacher as long as I’m able.”