FORT MOHAVE — About 15 years ago, Coy O’Kelley was a former business owner in Arkansas with a desire to move west.
He was, he would insist, no teacher. So when his uncle told him of a job opening at a new building trades-focused high school, he dismissed it at first.
“How many people did you teach in your business,” a friend asked.
With that to think about, O’Kelley decided to apply. The match with Academy of Building Industries High School has proven to be a good one.
O’Kelley said his experience colors much of what he hopes to impart to his students. That starts with work ethic and accountability, he said.
“I try to operate the class more like a business,” O’Kelley said. “You’re not tardy, you’re late for work. You’re not absent, you just didn’t show up for work.”
The students will get the advantage of his having learned self-employed automotive machinist specializing in engine rebuilding.
“There were no schools to teach me,” he said. “I just bought a piece of equipment and learned how to use it.”
One project that O’Kelley is excited about is getting an AOBI drag racing team going. He was involved in the sport for 14 years, and planned to acquire a car for the team over winter break.
“This is something I’ve tried to put together,” he said. “It’s taken four or five years; finally, I made the decision that this was something I was gonna do. I had a talk with (AOBI Principal) Jean (Thomas) and we make it a class project.”
The students will work on getting the car ready for competition — including building an engine — serve as a pit crew, and likely drive it.
O’Kelley said he sees the team competing in several events a year around the Southwest.
“Six races a year will give us something to talk about,” he said.
O’Kelley said that the lower cost and more ready availability of parts make it possible for the school to have a team.
The race team is a carrot that can be used to keep team members’ grades up, he said.
“They’re gonna be the cream of the crop,” O’Kelley said. “I’m very stubborn that way.”
O’Kelley said that if his students go into careers in racing, they will face high expectations.
“It’s really strict out there,” he said. “They might as well start learning that now.”
O’Kelley said he’s also hoping to get students who are interested in racing to develop a depth of knowledge of the mechanics involved.
“It’s real easy to buy stuff and bolt it on the car Friday night, and Saturday afternoon you’re calling a wrecker.”
O’Kelley said he hopes to be able to keep the race team going at no cost to taxpayers, and that other schools get involved in racing.
One key to achieving the former is a state tax credit that allows taxpayers to donate up to $200 ($400 for married couples filing jointly) to a public school, and then deduct that entire amount come tax time.
Taxpayers’ amount owed is reduced by (or refund is increased by) the amount of their tax-credit donations.
Thomas said that O’Kelley is vital to the school’s program.
“Coy’s pretty amazing,” she said. “He’s definitely raised some of our great citizens out of the shop.”
Thomas said O’Kelley’s experience benefits a school with the mission of preparing students for careers in the building trades.
“We call him the dad of the school,” she said. “He takes kids under his wings and gives them an education that they definitely need to be successful after high school.”
Junior Braidyn Johnson would agree.
“In all my years of going to high school, he’s the most hands-on and the best I can think of,” Johnson said.
Senior Larry Wyegele said that he has learned about more from O’Kelley than tools and engine components.
“I would like to believe that I learned work ethic from Coy,” he said.
Wyegele also said that O’Kelley is prompt with good answers to students’ questions.
“He’s a pretty knowledgeable man and a great teacher,” Wyegele said.
O’Kelley said his course offerings vary with student tastes.
“I ride the wave out,” he said. “I teach them whatever they want to learn.”
Being able to direct the shop curriculum is one of the benefits to teaching at AOBI, O’Kelley said.
O’Kelley said he wants the students to graduate not just with diplomas and vocational certificates, but also with a sense of pride and accomplishment.
“The hardest thing to teach these guys is patience and to always give it your 150 percent every time,” he said.