By SARA CLIFFORD AND SUZANNAH COUCH
Thirty-six years ago, Chris Todd was building cabinets.
He didn’t know he’d spend the rest of his career opening doors for hundreds of kids, helping them find things inside themselves they didn’t know they had.
Next year, he won’t be teaching at Brown County High School. He retired at the end of May.
The building trades program he’s taught for 34 years won’t be coming back, either. It’s being folded into the C4 area vocational school, headquartered in Columbus.
“We’re definitely going to miss him. There were some kids who, I think, that was a major reason why they graduated,” Principal Shane Killinger said.
No one applied for the job when it was posted this spring, Killinger said. The teacher must have a Career and Technical Education license for the school to receive reimbursements from the Indiana Department of Education.
Administrators met with students who had the class on their schedules to go over their options next year. They expect five or six will continue studying building trades in Columbus.
Todd had more than a dozen last year, split between two, three-hour classes.
He knew many of them wouldn’t continue in the field. He knew some weren’t interested in the first place. He took them anyway.
“I had the great fortune of working with a lot of kids who really were directionless in their lives, and skill training is really what was needed to help them kind of find a direction,” he said.
“Finding a career, as we all know … it gives you that first sort of toehold into ‘I can really make something of myself.’ And the kids, toward the end of the school year, no matter how much trouble we were in during the course of the projects, can look at something and go, ‘I did that.’”
A guiding hand
Tyler Cecil hasn’t been his student for years, but he still finds Todd when he’s looking for direction.“From the start, Mr. Todd would always ask how our home life was as well as our academic career,” Cecil said. “He is a person who genuinely cares about others, and he was a big motivator to me in decisions that I faced, and he always would help you if you needed it.”
Todd was the teacher who helped him to “look at the big picture and set goals,” Cecil said.
Wes Gordon took his class as a sophomore. He’ll be a senior next year, and he’s thinking about going into the military or becoming a chef.
Todd is “just the kind of person you can always trust,” Gordon said.
A couple times he had some things going on in his life that “I tried not to bring with me, but I did, and he’d come over and ask me what was wrong and we would just sit and talk about it,” he said.
“It’s not like I fix anything,” Todd shrugs. “I just keep my ears open and try to be supportive, do you what you would assume a parent would do for those limited moments you have with them.”
It became more common over the years to have a grandparent be the parent in a student’s life — or not know who was, Todd said.
“He was the social worker, the teacher, the builder, the contractor,” said Maggie Mills, who had them build a garage for her last school year.
“Chris didn’t mind rascals at all,” she said. But there was a time for goofing off and a time for working — and Todd made sure they knew that.
“If something was getting a little out of line, he would just quietly, and not embarrass anybody, talk to them and say, ‘That’s not OK here,’” she said.
Mills also noticed his emphasis on “getting it right,” having students fix a mistake before it became a big problem later in the building process.
Stopping by the work site, Killinger said it was “wild” because so much was going on.
“It was just organized chaos it seemed like, but if you stopped and watched, they were all working,” he said.
Assistant Principal Angie Evans said students gravitated toward Todd because he met them where they were, helped develop talents he noticed in their work and pushed them to complete a project.
“That was, I think, (something) a lot of our kids had never experienced before. They were really proud of the things they did,” she said.
Todd, who’s 63 — “but don’t put that down; it’s going to ruin my image” — already had decided to retire before he heard his program wasn’t going to continue.“It’s just time,” he said. “Things needed to change. I needed to change.”
He hadn’t planned to become a teacher.
He moved to Brown County from Indianapolis with his wife, Jennie, in the mid-1970s to build a house in nature. He built a business, too: Possum Trot Cabinet Shop.
Then he was severely injured in a car accident.
What he would do next, “I had really no clue at that point. I was only like 27 or 28. I was young. And when you’re in that situation where your world has just been thrown upside-down, you’re kind of like, ‘Hmm, what can I do with myself?’” he said.
He had been taking a master’s class in education when he was asked to substitute-teach in building trades.
“I was like, ‘Oh, well, I guess I could do that.’ Before I knew it, they hired me to do it. And here I’ve been.”
He can’t go anywhere now without running into a former student, he said. “I’ve had people drive by, I hear them lock their brakes, back up, and say, ‘Hey, you can’t do that. You can’t leave.’” he said.
“I’ve taught their kids now, which is kind of strange,” he said — especially that those “kids” would let their kids take the class. “‘No, no, we never did that. We never have any fun in my class, ever,’” he says about some of the stories their parents have told.
With his retirement, Todd left a list of building projects that were in line for future years.Having students build a three-car, two-story garage with a lean-to on each side was the only way Mills could afford it, she said.
Typically, a project would span at least a school year. They used to build a lot of houses, but banks aren’t as willing now to let projects run that long, Todd said.
“But that’s also different times, different kids a little bit, and then of course finding those people who are willing to put their money here. It takes a special person. People, they might derive equity from it, but it’s going to be a painful, large project, because you’re teaching.”
He was thankful for their trust and patience.
“Working for wealthy people was not really what I wanted to do,” he said. “I liked working with people trying to achieve something, because it would help them, and it would help us.”
He was aware he was teaching more than job skills. Some students might have carried an “F” the whole semester if that’s what Todd saw might motivate them, but that wasn’t the grade they received at the end.
“I’m probably going to give them all As,” he said about his last class, days before the school year ended. “They do work hard. They do accomplish these projects.
“You just got to do what you do to make these kids succeed. The grades, to me, have never been the issue. It’s the accomplishing and the succeeding and seeing that they get through these projects and they have something to look back at. That’s what work is.”
He doesn’t have big plans for retirement. He’ll probably travel to a party he always has to miss around the first week of school, and he may build another boat or two.
He’s most excited for more time to spend with his grandson, to whom he is known as “Boom Boom,” from a Temptations song he sang to him as a toddler: “Boom-boom, for your love …”
“We throw all this input into kids. What do they pick up on?” Todd wonders aloud. “What is it that really allows them to make that connection with you?”
He expects they’ll build more things, dig in the dirt and act like kids together. “He seems to be learning just fine,” Todd said.
“He doesn’t have to run off and do all these stupid activities we create and think we have to do.
“Maybe if you just spend time with them, you’re better off.”