February 2007 Issue
These Ohioans are making the grade with new careers.
| A Winning Equation |
Peter Petto has always had a passion for puzzles. As a third-generation manager of his family's foundry, Arrow Aluminum Castings, once headquartered in Avon Lake, he never missed an opportunity to brainstorm with colleagues about how to make the company's products - which included parts for trucks, manufacturing and lighting - last longer. Petto never tired of theorizing about why some things worked without a hitch while others didn't, and negotiated union contracts with finesse and respect.
But most of all, he enjoyed the camaraderie that developed while helping employees brush up on the math skills that were crucial for product-quality control.
So when the family decided to close their 60-year-old business in 2004, Petto had no doubts about what he would do next. He enrolled in Cleveland State University's 13-month-long Master of Urban Secondary Teaching (MUST) Program. In August, the 54-year-old received his master's degree in education and a teaching certificate in mathematics. Today, Petto is a ninth-grade math teacher in Euclid High School's Academy of the Arts, introducing freshmen to the joys of algebra and geometry.
To those students who break into a cold sweat while struggling with formulas and theorems, Petto must seem the quintessential teacher, a dedicated Mr. Chips mixed with a touch of Gabe Kotter humor, always willing to share an enthusiasm he hopes will become infectious.
"When you love something, it's a lot easier to teach it," he says. "Although I'm prejudiced, I would say math is the language of all science; it is the one essential thing you need to know to be good at any kind of science."
Petto, who says he reads mathematical journals for recreation the way he imagines good English teachers read novels and Shakespeare afterhours, graduated from Northwestern University in 1975 with a bachelor of arts degree in economics, and received his M.B.A. from the University of Michigan two years later. He admits that college was easier this time around.
"Because they're not really sure where they're headed, young college students often can't apply what they are learning in a meaningful way," Petto says. "But when I returned to school, I'd sit in the lecture hall and think, â€˜This may sound brilliant, but can I apply any of it in the classroom?' To me, that was the important question."
But, he's quick to add, just because the classroom experience was more meaningful when he was older didn't mean the challenges accompanying it were easier to master.
"Know that what you are undertaking is going to be big," Petto warns. "When you begin to change your life when you are in your 50s, you don't stop and think what you've gotten really good at and - much like driving a car - you can do without a lot of concentrated brain power. But now, you're switching jobs, and suddenly you're thinking obsessively and breaking into a sweat over what seems to be every little task. It can be daunting."
To make sure he "still liked kids," Petto says with a smile, he led math proficiency classes in his hometown of Bay Village. He spent his days student-teaching at Cleveland's James Ford Rhodes High School before dashing downtown four nights a week to make a 5 p.m. class.
"Those all-nighters I used to pull in my 20s to get coursework completed? I discovered they just weren't possible 30 years later," he says ruefully. "Your body is less resilient now than it used to be. So if I stayed up too late one night, I was tired for the next few days, not just for the next day."
The way to stay on track, he advises, is to eat three squares, take your vitamins, get eight hours of sleep a night and plan, plan, plan. Petto readily shares the credit for his success with his wife, Anna, and 14-year-old daughter, Laura, who offered moral support and plenty of Cokes when he was immersed in a project, and his classmates who worked as a team to meet deadlines.
Any sacrifices made, including sleep and recreation, he says, have been well worth it.
"I'm one of those guys who just loves learning," Petto says. "I want to know how everything works. That's part of why I'll hopefully be a good teacher. The other part is that in some ways I've never grown out of high school. I still think of myself as a teen-ager. It's always startling to look in a mirror and realize I'm an old guy."
| Lifelong Learning |
Shirley Schmidt, who describes herself as a "young senior," entered the workforce when using a word processor meant sitting down in front of a manual typewriter, and Gregg shorthand was the preferred method of dictation.
"Times certainly have changed," the Mason resident says with a laugh. And she's broadened her horizons right along with them. In June, she will graduate with a bachelor of science degree in business management from the University of Phoenix.
Schmidt, who spent her childhood helping her parents and five siblings grow corn and raise chickens and cows on their farm in Versailles, knew she was not destined to be a farmer's wife. "I had greater expectations for life," she explains. So she caught a ride to Dayton from a friend to attend Miami-Jacobs Career College, where she earned executive secretarial certification. Sixteen years of marriage, time spent being a stay-at-home-mom to four children, and divorce followed.
To support her children, Schmidt returned to work, landing a job with Ponderosa Steakhouse. She worked her way up the corporate career ladder -- learning the ins and out of computer automation and compiling training manuals for staffers.
"At first," she admits, "it was all Greek to me. But I was greedy for the knowledge and greedy for the opportunity, so I jumped in with both feet, not knowing anything about it. But neither did anyone else. It was an opportunity and I took it and did well with it."
The challenge of learning something new led Schmidt to enroll at the University of Phoenix, first as an online student, then as a participant in the classroom.
"When I was out of work and going to apply for jobs, I can't tell you how many doors I couldn't get into because I didn't have my degree," she says. "That was the thing that made me take the plunge and say, â€˜I'm going to college.'"
Today, Schmidt is a customer advocate at Reynolds & Reynolds, a Dayton company that provides information technology, software solutions and professional services to the automotive industry, from streamlining accounts-payable systems to providing public relations for customer support.
She credits her alma mater with helping her hone the skills needed to succeed on the job.
"The University of Phoenix has given so many adults an opportunity to go back to school in an environment where it doesn't matter what you look like or how old you are," she says. "The beauty of being online is that communication isn't really a factor when you are dealing in e-mail. So there are no barriers."
Her degree has also given her the confidence to forge ahead, knowing that the possibilities are endless. Next step: a master's degree.
"Now that I've gotten in the habit of going to school, it's kind of like exercise," Schmidt explains. "But instead of exercising my body, I'm exercising my brain.
"I don't think I'm done with school and I know I'm not done with my career possibilities. My job has afforded me the opportunity to finish my lifelong goal of getting a degree. I don't look at my life as â€˜This is as good as it gets.' I believe the sky's the limit."
| True Calling |
Leslie Flemming loved every minute of the 33 years she spent working in the field of education, including time spent at the University of Arizona, the University of Maine and as dean of Ohio University's College of Arts and Sciences from 1996 to 2005.
At an age when many people would be considering retirement, Flemming, now 63, decided to change her life's path. Two years ago, she enrolled at Bexley Hall, an Episcopal seminary in Columbus. "The idea had been in my heart for a very long time," Flemming says.
The decision was one Flemming had considered for decades, while she and her husband, Jack, a schoolteacher in Belpre, were raising three children (Elizabeth, now 32; John, 29; and Catherine, 27) and moving about the country.
"I'm old enough to remember the fact that when I was first considering career options virtually nobody was ordaining women," Flemming says. "The Episcopal Church did not officially begin ordaining women until 1976. By that time I had begun my academic career, I had my Ph.D., and the first of my three children was born. There was no possibility of my pursuing any kind of ordained ministry seriously. My career progressed, we had two more children, they got to be bigger children, then they were in college, so even though I thought about it over the years, there never seemed to be a right time to seriously do it."
That "right time" finally presented itself. "As the kids all graduated from college and moved out on their own and my husband flourished in his job, it seemed like it might be more possible to actually seriously consider this," Flemming says.
Of course, there were still practical issues to address.
"One of the questions I asked myself was, â€˜Is this something I can do at my age?' The answer to that is Dear Abby's answer, which is: How old will you be if you don't do it?" she says. "Part of the process is looking at your financial situation to see if this is something you can reasonably consider doing. Everything worked out for us. I had run out of excuses for saying no. Finally, the time had come when I could really follow my heart and answer what really felt like a call."
Flemming and her husband still live in Athens, although her schedule doesn't permit much time at home.
"The greatest burden falls on my husband," she says. "With me up in Columbus, he's alone a good part of the time now and we only see each other on weekends, at best."
Flemming, a full-time student in her second year of a three-year program, lives on campus. She is studying for a Master of Divinity, a requirement for ordination in this diocese, which is part of the Episcopal Diocese of Southern Ohio.
"It was a pretty big adjustment," she admits. "Last year - my first -- was a real transition. It wasn't so much being a student, since I had taken classes at OU. It was the fact that I was giving up my previous position and making the transition from quite a visible leadership position to being just another student."
If everything goes as planned, Flemming will graduate in summer 2008 and be ordained as an Episcopal priest.
"The Diocese and I will figure out where I am going to serve," she says. That opportunity could be anywhere in the United States, which could lead to another family decision.
"We haven't mapped out the next step yet," Flemming says. "I'm not sure yet what the possibilities in this part of the state are, so the decision-making process is an evolving one."
But she remains undaunted.
"My advice to people considering a change is to seize the day," Flemming says. "If you really want to do this, if this is what your heart is telling you, then you need to do it."