Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Longtime AHS auto teacher retires, tells story

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AZLE — After 39 years, Azle High School auto tech teacher Robert Herring said most people can’t look at his shop without thinking of him or look at him without thinking of his shop.

On May 23, the same day as the district’s retirement and awards ceremony, Herring sent an email to all his colleagues at AHS announcing that he would not be returning to the school in the fall. The beloved auto tech teacher sent in his resignation unexpectedly after being urged by his doctor to slow down and take care of himself amid unforeseen health issues.

Herring’s love of cars goes deep.

“Automotive has always been my spark,” he said in an interview with the Tri-County Reporter.

Born in Martinez, California, Herring moved around as a child, and grew up around racetracks because of his Uncle Brad who was a mechanic. Along with his stepdad Carol Herring, who was a longtime special education director at Azle ISD, he considers his uncle one of his biggest influences. His family eventually made its way to Mineral Wells where his mom ran Herring Nutrition Center on the bottom floor of the Baker Hotel, and he became Mineral Wells High School’s first sophomore auto tech student. Herring said he felt encouraged by auto tech teacher John Hutton who saw his potential. During his time as a student, he and a special education student restored a 1921 American LaFrance firetruck that’s still on display at the city’s firehouse. He and other auto tech students also acted as the school’s bus mechanics. His first car was a 1962 GMC his father pulled out of a ditch on a farm and paid $100 for.

“He drug it home and said there’s your vehicle — when you get it running you can drive it,” the 64-year-old recalled.

Herring worked on the vehicle with his uncle and while he didn’t understand everything at first, the lessons stuck. He was soon the go-to mechanic of the house, working on his own car as well as his parents’ when any trouble arose. After his uncle passed away, Herring received his tools as a gift on his next birthday.

Early on, Herring dreamed of being a doctor but never had the money for school.

“The only difference is our customers keep coming back, year after year, even after the car is an antique,” Herring said. “A doctor’s customer they cease to exist at some point, they’re going to pass.”

In the summer of 1985, while working at North Hills Lincoln Mercury in Richland Hills he got a phone call from Azle High School principal Don Walker who offered him the school’s auto tech position. Despite liking his job, he entertained the idea and sat down for an interview.

“He pitched me my keys and said go check out your shop. I said ‘I don’t want this job. This is not what I want to do.’ He said, ‘well, just go check it out.’ Well, I go out there to check the shop out and the cops show up. I was almost arrested because they didn’t know who I was. I was not Mr. Tanner, the teacher at the time.”

Soon after, Herring learned that Tanner had recently suffered his second stroke and planned to retire from the position because of his terminal health. Herring was familiar with the district through his father and had regularly allowed AHS auto tech students to work on cars from the dealership where he was employed. After learning Tanner had specifically requested Herring for the job, he felt he could not say no. He took a one-year leave of absence from the dealership and agreed to take the AHS position for a year to give the school time to find a permanent instructor. Herring said his one-year leave eventually turned into 15 years before he officially left the employment of the dealership.

“I wrote my resignation (from AHS) twice in the first eight years and then the kids came to me, and they said Mr. Herring we’ll do anything you say, we’ll work on any car, we’ll do any paperwork, whatever you want. Just please don’t leave.”

In that time and the years following, Herring found a home for himself at Azle High School. He has worked for seven principals and has been awarded teacher of the year three times over the course of his career. Herring said this year he even taught the great grandson of one of his first students. Throughout the decades he spent at the school, having the ability to talk to students going through hard times is one of his favorite things about the job.

 “I love those kids like they’re my own.” Herring said. “I get a lot of the kids that were trouble. They don’t have a place where they’re part of it. A lot of times the kids that don’t do good in academics or other classes, they flourish in mine because they find their place.”

After nearly four decades teaching, Herring said there’s no shortage of kids and adults he has helped make an impact on. He recalled one instance when Ms. Brown, a crisis intervention counselor, told him one student said they wouldn’t be alive if he hadn’t sent them her way. The auto teacher described other times when a student asked to pray with him or came to him during a difficult time. Herring’s colleague at the shop, fellow auto tech teacher Cody Zdyb was one such student less than a decade ago. Career and technical education teachers Josh Weston and Jarrett Cotton were also his former students.

“Being able to get that close to a student, that shows that they fully trust you and they look up to you for advice or friendship,” Herring said. “I can’t go out to eat or go to the movies or something without someone coming up and saying, ‘hey Mr. Herring how are you doing?’ There are kids that may never do anything in sports, they never won an award in their life, but they built a starter, or an alternator and it got a superior rating and a blue ribbon and that’s big stuff.”

Results don’t come easy. Herring recalls he and his wife often spending sun-up to sun-down at school, sometimes only coming home to shower between teaching classes and prepping students for competitions. Herring said without his wife Susan, a former special education educator of 35 years, none of it would have been possible.

“My wife is my partner, we do everything together,” Herring said. “She is the mother for the Skills USA team, she does everything in the background. She makes me look good.”

As much as the Herrings have done for Azle students, those students have given it right back. Through successful showings at Skills USA competitions, which AHS has participated in since his third-year teaching, and extreme attention to detail, Herring said his students have made his shop one of the best in the state and have also made him look good in the process.

“We have world class students right here in Azle,” Herring said. “We’ve got people all over the world that came from Azle. That’s why I fell in love with this town, it’s not just the teachers that care, the parents care. We’ve got some equipment that I’m told we’re the only high school in the United States that has it. People walk in and the first thing is ‘wow, look at this place,’ they’re real excited about it. We made it to where if a student wanted to be successful all they would have to do is do the work.”

This year, the seven-person Skills USA team of Colby Griggers, Faith McMorris, Isabell Evans, Seth Sears, Emiliano Lopez, Adam Brown and Adrien Vega earned first place in the opening and closing ceremonies competition at Skills USA. Herring said this has been a regular occurrence since his students organized a SkillsUSA team in his third year. In the past has even had industry professionals from the Automotive Transmission Rebuilders Association comment on the quality of work students had done at contests.

“No one has a transmission as good as yours,” Herring recalled them saying. “You’re doing at your high school what we wish industry would do in their shops.”

Herring said walking away from his career is the hardest thing he has ever had to do, but he believes it’s a necessary step in God’s plan and his recovery. The list of people Herring said he will miss extends from the administration, who he said are the best “bar none,” to teachers in the far-off English hall like Ms. Burnham who he said always help to inspire, motivate, and pull him out of a slump.

“I’m proud of the things I’ve done,” Herring said. “I’m proud of the people I worked with. If it hadn’t been for them a lot of things might not have happened. I just love the people that I work with. it’s just real hard to walk away. … God’s in control and we make it what we make it.”

Herring’s loyalty to Azle students extends beyond the halls and walls of AHS. In his time living in the Azle area, he has helped and made close friends with his students and neighbors. When the Herrings lived on Poe Street, Herring recalled making it a point to get to know everyone in his neighborhood and ensuring that children on his block had a safe place to play. As a reaction to cars dangerously zipping through the community during the evenings, Herring and his neighbors organized community barbecues in front of their houses to offer food to any passersby while letting them know to “drive slow on Poe.” In another instance, Herring was approached by former AHS Principal Randy Cobb after the school received comments from parents that Herring had been speaking with young children throughout town. To Cobb’s amazement and relief, Herring revealed that he had been passing out free bicycles collected by him and other teachers to children who did not have one. Herring said he has instilled this kindness in his own children, teaching them that even just a simple fist bump and “I’m glad that you’re here” can go a long way.

“We are sometimes the only Jesus that our students see and our loyalty to our kids doesn’t stop at school,” Herring said. “Our loyalty to our kids and our community is never-ending. I always tell people just keep living, keep loving and keep giving because there’s people out there that need it.”

In their downtime, Robert and Susan Herring hope to go on adventures around the country. The couple also plans on spending more time with their grandchildren, Tucker and Mandie Herring, age 8 and 7, who both attend Liberty Elementary. Most of all, he wants to continue helping people. When he recovers, he hopes to return to AHS to continue instructing in some capacity. Herring is currently looking forward to seeing many of his former students and colleagues at a retirement party at his former AHS auto shop June 29. From 2-6 p.m., the public can meet with Herring, revisit old memories and thank him for the impact he has made on their lives.