One of North Platte, NE, Community College’s longest-serving instructors will retire this month.
Don Wilson has worked at the college for almost 45 years. There will be a retirement celebration for him at 4 p.m. Monday, Aug. 12 in the NPCC North Campus student lounge.
“I never thought I would go into auto body, but then I never thought I would be a teacher either,” said Wilson with a laugh. “Look how that turned out.”
Wilson has spent all but one year of his life in North Platte. He became interested in working on cars when he was in high school.
“I had some friends whose dads were body men at Shrake Body Shop,” Wilson said. “I would walk home from school with my friends and stop at the shop. We would visit with the men and watch them work on vehicles. It looked like fun.”
At that time, however, Wilson already had a job.
“I worked at the Hinky Dinky grocery store my last three years of high school and was going to be the assistant manager,” said Wilson. “At the last minute, I decided to go to auto body school in Denver instead.”
The year was 1966. Wilson packed up his belongings and left for Denver the day he graduated from high school.
“I returned home a year later but didn’t come back wanting to be a body man,” Wilson said. “I thought I was going to be a cowboy. Then a horse fell on me and broke my foot. I decided being a cowboy wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.”
Instead, Wilson became a milk deliveryman for Fairacres Dairy.
“I did that for six months until I spun out coming down a hill by the lake and spilled all the milk in the truck,” Wilson said. “I drove straight into town to Don Reese’s body shop and told Don I needed a job. I was hired on the spot.”
After a year at Reese’s, Wilson was hired by John Hurt Chevrolet. He spent eight years doing body work there – the last three as shop foreman.
He also started teaching auto body classes at the college on Saturday’s beginning in 1972. They were full of Kearney State students who commuted, and two sessions were offered – one during the day and one at night. Eventually, demand increased to the point that there was a waiting list for the night class.
“Ginger Snodgrass and Jim Doyle would come to the Chevrolet dealership once a week begging me to start an auto body program at the college,” Wilson said. “One day, I got into an argument with John Hurt, so I took Doyle and Snodgrass up on their offer, and here I am.”
That was 1975. Wilson has witnessed a lot of changes in the program since then – everything from the materials used to the facilities and the people who have come and gone through NPCC’s hallways.
“Everything has evolved,” said Wilson. “We used to paint with lacquer, and now it’s polyurethane basecoats and topcoats. There are high strength metals. You really have to keep up on things to know what’s happening.”
As enrollment and equipment needs changed, so did the location of the auto body program.
“The first year, I was in the auto mechanics shop. The next year, I was teaching in the sheet metal shop. Then I was moved to the maintenance building. At one point, I was in the electrical shop. The building the auto body program is currently in was constructed in 1993,” Wilson said.
The program, itself, has also evolved. One of the biggest changes was the start of the car raffle 16 years ago. Every year, the college’s auto body technology and automotive technology students build a car that is raffled to raise money for transportation program scholarships.
Wilson’s favorite was a 1939 Studebaker.
“It was the first fiberglass raffle car we did,” Wilson said. “It had an S-10 chassis. One student, in particular, and I put a lot of time into that car. I’ve found that you really have to teach auto body to know it. It’s amazing all the things you do differently when you’re teaching as opposed to working in the field. Actions aren’t just automatic.”
He still keeps in contact with many of his former students, as well as many of his colleagues who are also now retired.
“I’m definitely going to miss the people,” Wilson said. “I’ve worked with some really great people over the years. And the students – even if they didn’t become body techs, they grew up a lot in here.”
Wilson isn’t much of a traveler, but he does have some plans for keeping busy during retirement. Those include running his used car business, helping his wife with her antique shop, attending car shows and restoring his own vehicles at home.
He’s also not planning on walking away from NPCC entirely. Wilson will be among the attendees when one lucky winner’s name is drawn for this year’s raffle car, a 1969 Ford Mustang Convertible, on Sept. 7 at Memorial Park in Omaha, NE.
“This college and this program have been my life for the past 40-plus years,” Wilson said. “It doesn’t matter what courses you take. The college is the best opportunity for North Platte and the surrounding area. Students here don’t have to travel to get an affordable, yet high-class education. Sometimes I think this area doesn’t realize what it has in NPCC. I’m going to miss it.”