Read this story as it originally appeared Dec. 8 in the Burlington County Times.
Pemberton Township resident Jimmy Spears, 76, was honored in Chicago on Sept. 1 by the American Welding Society as the first welder to log 50 years of membership.
HAMILTON — When the welding shop at Mercer County Technical School comes alive, you begin to understand how heavy metal music got its name.
Huge, mechanical machines illicit primitive growls that sound as if they are coming out of the late Lemmy Kilmister’s bass guitar; tanks the size of men form a mosh pit in the middle of the shop floor; sparks fly from a machine where a student grinds and shapes steel; the smell of humans using heat to wrestle with iron and carbon fills the room.
On one piece of equipment is a bumper sticker that declares, “My welder can beat up your welder.”
Across the shop, a bright light flashes — its the wild flame of a torch just being lit. In a split second, the flame is tamed into the tool that allows for bridges to be built, skyscrapers to stand, airplanes to fly.
Teacher Jimmy Spears had just lit his torch to demonstrate to a student how to bevel a plate of mild steel, something he has been teaching for the past 50 years. He bounces around the shop, stopping to talk with students in between prepping equipment and the day’s classwork.
He’s in his element.
Spears, 76, of Pemberton Township, was honored in Chicago in September by the American Welding Society as the first welder to log 50 years of membership. He was also one of the first African-American men to be a welder and one of the first to teach the craft in New Jersey.
It was that flash of bright light, the subsequent sparks that fly when a torch cuts through metal and the environment of a welding shop that first drew Spears to craft when he was a middle schooler in West Palm Beach, Florida.
Little did Spears know his attraction would lead him to a career where he would not only break barriers but where he would also build a lasting impact on the lives of students who were often looking for a new path in life.
“I knew I was blessed to be able to do it, and found it so easy to do because it was something I enjoyed doing,” Spears said last week inside of his classroom at the technical school in Hamilton, Mercer County.
When he was in his early 20s, Spears moved to New Jersey from Florida, because, as his sister put it, “We have welding companies every other block in and around Trenton.”
“Sure enough, I came up, and three days after I was here I went to work in Bordentown at Baldt, Anchor and Chain,” Spears said.
When he was around 26, Spears was working for American Bridge U.S. Steel when the company began to give him leaves of absence to teach students — not something he had always wanted to do but, depending on who you asked, something he was destined to do.
Spears said as a middle school student he was sent home for misbehaving, where he was met by his mother.
“She spanked me and said I just want to tell you, all your going to be is a teacher, so you might as well behave,” Spears recalled.
He credits mentor and fellow welder Leroy Alston, who he would fill in for as a teacher, with taking him from the workshop to the classroom.
“That was his way of exposing me to it because he felt with what he saw at U.S. Steel that with a little college, and little more finesse, I could be the kind of welding instructor that he felt I could be,” Spears said.
In the times he subbed for Alston, Spears said he felt he could literally spark something in his students and connect with them in the classroom.
“I said I kind of like this, and from there the rest is history,” Spears said. On March 1, 1970, he began his teaching career at Mercer County Technical School.
When he called his mother to tell her news, all she said was “Told ya,” Spears recalled, laughing.
When he and Alston would go to the New Jersey Education Association convention in Atlantic City each year, they were the only two black vocational school teachers.
He said that while he was aware there was probably people out there who had an issue with him teaching, it was something he didn’t witness personally.
“I didn’t need to see it, but I knew it was there,” Spears said. “But it made no difference. Whatever students I had, I was just as comfortable teaching them as I would be teaching my own son .. this is what I do and this is what I teach.”
Spears’ passion for welding and for teaching led him to form lifelong relationship with his students.
Barry Parker had just got out of drug rehab in Newark when he found himself in Spears class in 1991.
“He’s the best thing to happen to this guy,” Parker, 64, of Trenton, said. Parker realized Spears’ class was a major opportunity for him.
With Spears’ patience and willingness to work with him, Parker completed the class and was able to land a job as a mechanic for the city of Trenton.
“His class was the first thing that I ever completed in his life,” Parker said. “He is one of the most inspiring people I’ve had in my life other than my father. He was very encouraging and gave me a lot of insight into working in the industry.”
Parker said he and Spears still talk at least once a month.
“I take (what I learned from him) with me every day … I consider him like an older brother,” Parker said.
Christy Jones-Spree was in high school in 1984 when she decided she knew she didn’t want to sit at a desk all day for the rest of her life. So, without knowing much about welding, she decided to take the class. Spears would be her teacher.
“He taught me how to keep eating for a lifetime,” Jones-Spree said. “I used to think he was mean, but as you grow older you understand he was only being that way because that’s the way the world is.”
Jones-Spree recalled a time when she thought she was ahead of the game after completing all of her projects early. Until Spears called her over from a welding booth.
“He said, bring a garbage can with you,” Jones-Spree said. “He took all my objectives and threw them in the trash and told me to start over,” because she hadn’t taken the time needed to perform them the right way.
“Just by learning from that has made me a better person to not rush and do things,” Jones-Spree said. The Trenton resident would go onto become a union steelworker and Trenton firefighter.
Maxwell Bricks found himself in Spears’ class after he retired from a 40-year career as a computer programmer. A self-professed motorhead, Bricks said he finally wanted to take the time to learn the craft of welding.
Bricks, in his 70s, said his relationship with Spears turned from one of a student-teacher into one of admiration for his skills as a friend.
“He’s very patient, and more than willing to say you’re not doing it correctly, you should do it this way,” Bricks said. “He’s such a giving man, so willing to impart the knowledge that he has.”
Spears said before he was honored for his 50-year milestone, he hadn’t thought much about stopping teaching.
In 2001, he retired from teaching every day and now only teaches nights. But after the half century mark of a career, Spears said he wants to take it a year at a time.
“Those 50 years brought things home,” Spears said. “I’m 76, and blessed to be able to do the things that I’m doing, but it can’t last forever. As much I have enjoyed it, it can’t last forever. But I truly have enjoyed it.”