It's not uncommon to hear welding students talking about the stock market, classical music or healthy habits in Thomas Lyles' class at Augusta Technical College.
With some welding students coming from low-income or single-parent homes, Mr. Lyles tries to introduce them to topics they might not have been exposed to. In turn, he tries to learn from his students.
Six years ago, it was an older welding student who introduced Mr. Lyles to something that has changed his life: blacksmithing. The student, a retired military man, was an amateur blacksmith and he gave his teacher a book on the art of shaping iron. Mr. Lyles couldn't put it down.
Within a year, Mr. Lyles had persuaded the college to fund a blacksmith shop, where students are also exposed to ornamental iron and metal art. Today, Mr. Lyles has his own studio in Columbia County, producing metal art and sculptures that bring enough profit to match his college salary.
He said he hopes to enlarge his sculpture Orbitz to 20 or 30 feet and display it locally, possibly in front of the Columbia County Library. He has sold several other pieces to buyers in surrounding states.
And although he could leave the college and make good money, he enjoys influencing students.
"As much as I love this, I love working with my students and seeing my students do this more," he said. "I don't think I could walk away from students at Augusta Tech because it is such a part of me."
That dedication helped get Mr. Lyles named the college's teacher of the year, his colleagues said.
"He represents what could be to his students. He dreams with them and shows them how to act upon their dreams," said Sherrie Rowe, a graphics instructor.
Counselors at Augusta Tech frequently place at-risk students in Mr. Lyles' classes.
They know the time and attention he will give to them, the employers who respect him and the positive student evaluations he earns year after year, said Dr. Alice Frye, the vice president of instructional and student services.
While producing welding graduates who can immediately find employment, Mr. Lyles also hooks many of them on metal art.
"Ultimately, our goal is to teach the students to go out and make a living in welding. We teach students to read blueprints. We teach them to weld joints, and we do that well," he said.
"To throw in something like this is extra."
After they finish their regular work, students are allowed to tinker with their art in the metal shop. Many work through their breaks to have extra time.
They find confidence through the art, something welding instructor Tommy Greer credits to Mr. Lyles.
"Some people don't realize they can do it until they get through with it," Mr. Greer said. "He sees it in them and brings it out of them."
Mr. Lyles and students have produced metal sculptures that decorate the campus, including one titled Gilbert. It honors the memory of Carswell Gilbert, who was dean of the industrial technology division.
Mr. Lyles said combining welding and art gives his students a chance to be creative.
"If you are never exposed to something like this, how will you know?" he said. "My dream down the road would be that I did produce an artist along the way, and that they were very successful."
Occupation: Welding director at Augusta Technical College, artist
Family: Wife, Leesa Lyles, Warren Road Elementary teacher; daughters, Savanna Ray, 14, Hanna Morgan, 11
Professional involvement: Chairman of Augusta Tech United Way Campaign; East Central Consortium president; American Welding Society member; Gertrude Herbert Institute of Art member; Columbia County Art Association member; Augusta Ballet volunteer and contributor
Quote: "It's all about trying different techniques with students to keep them motivated, to keep them interested and to keep the program exciting. Lord knows, we have done a lot of different things in here over the years."
Reach Greg Rickabaugh at (706) 828-3851 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Do you have an unheralded person you would like to nominate for our weekly Homefront? Call Weekend Editor Bill Norton at (706) 823-3341.