May 20, 2024

After-school tractor program teaches more than tractor repair

WASHINGTON, Mo. — In the Night Shift program at Four Rivers Career Center, Dan Brinkmann is teaching young people more than nuts and bolts and crankshafts and carburetors.

“When we go to shows, people come up to me and say, ‘You’re the guy who builds tractors,’ and I tell them all the time, ‘I don’t build tractors; I build kids,’” he said.

Brinkmann is an automotive technology instructor at Four Rivers Career Center in Washington, a city on the south banks of the Missouri River, 50 miles west of St. Louis.

He has taught at the career center, where he also attended classes when he was in high school, since 2004.

Prior to teaching at Four Rivers, he worked as an automotive service technician at a local Chrysler dealership for 12 years.

In 2018, Brinkmann was awarded the Outstanding Teacher of the Year award in the Washington School District.

The Night Shift program started in 2008 when Brinkmann was asked to fix a vintage tractor.

“You always have people needing help with something. A project came in that was not part of our regular curriculum. So, I decided to have some of these kids learn how to do what I do,” he said.

Ever since, students in the program have been meeting after school on Tuesdays and Thursdays. They work from around 2:15 p.m., when school dismisses, to around 8 p.m.

“We work on whatever Mr. Brinkmann wants to work on. It’s pretty much exclusively been old farm tractors,” Brinkmann said.

“We will take a dilapidated old piece that’s been sitting out in a fencerow or somewhere. It may or may not run. Most of them don’t.

“It has to be evaluated. If there’s any way we can do testing on it, any kind of mechanical tests, such as compression tests, we do that. Then we formulate a plan.”

Brinkmann leads the students through taking the tractors completely apart.

“When they are apart, we put a little extra time into it. This is how I keep 10 to 12 kids ridiculously busy on a tractor. I will have them polish the casting out of the entire tractor. We put as much effort into sanding a motor down as we do to sheet metal,” he said.

The one step that Brinkmann and his students do not do is painting. That is done by Brinkmann’s son, Ryan, who owns and operates RestoHouse, an automotive body shop and restoration business in Augusta.

“He can get it in one and done and it turns out much better,” Brinkmann said.

The tractors are fitted out with Firestone tires. When they are finished, the students and the tractors are photographed by a professional photographer.

Several of the Night Shift tractors have been featured on the Firestone corporate calendar.

The tractors that come into the program are privately owned.

“I have never had trouble trying to find one — they all find me,” Brinkmann said.

The expense for the parts and whatever else may be needed is taken care of by the tractor’s owner.

“I don’t want the school to have anything vested into the machine itself, so I try to stay as light on the taxpayers as I can. The owners of the tractors are funding the repairs. That way, I don’t put a dent in our supply budget,” Brinkmann said.

He said the tractors that come in fall into two classes — “show ponies” and “work horses.”

“We have ones we call show ponies. Those are the ones we take completely apart and polish everything down and put them back together. Those tractors only have to do two things anymore — get on a trailer and get off a trailer,” he said.

The work horses are tractors that will continue to be used around the farm in some capacity.

“Our work horses are the ones where we might have done one section of mechanical repair. We have one in right now where we are going to overhaul the motor and paint it and it will be a very, very nice tractor, but it will still hook a plow, it will still rake hay and it will still do tractor cruises,” Brinkmann said.

The Night Shift program starts when school starts and continues through the school year. Brinkmann said he and the students average around 3,500 hours of work into a tractor.

The relationship with the tractors they have spent so much time on doesn’t end when the school year ends.

“The first summer that we are done with the tractors, we load them up on semi trucks and I will take the tractors and the kids to local thresher shows. If there are any parades, the kids take them,” Brinkmann said.

“I load them and unload them, but the kids are the ones who get them in the parade, and if they are at a show with the tractor, they are responsible for the tractor.”

Brinkmann and a group of former students will be bringing samples of their work to the Half Century of Progress Show. Since school starts the week of the show, no current students will be along for the trip.

The program typically has eight to 12 students in it and is open to students from the career center.

“We used to mostly focus on auto tech kids, but we started having an interest from kids in other classes. They bring different skill sets, so you might have some welders in there, you might have some collision kids in there and they can learn from each other,” Brinkmann said.

In the last four years, Brinkmann further opened the program to any student who is in any of the high schools that feed into the career center.

“Last year, I had five freshmen in the program and I was happy to have them because these kids, they want to learn and they want to work,” he said.

Brinkmann sets ground rules for students in the program.

“They have to maintain their grades. They have to maintain their attendance and their attitude. You can’t upset the boss, and that means anybody, including me, inside the career center. You can’t miss homework assignments. You can’t fail another class,” he said. “Just do what you are supposed to do — that’s all I’m asking.”

As part of the class, Brinkmann also has a couple of other lessons for his students.

“We are there until 8 p.m. so somebody has to cook because you can’t feed enough to a 16-year-old or a 17-year-old. They each take a turn cooking and I take my turn. Everybody puts their name down on the calendar and you take a day and you cook dinner. That’s on Tuesdays and Thursdays,” he said.

The shop has a grill, slow cookers and electric skillets and Brinkmann said the menu has to be more than basics.

“They want to get by with making hamburgers all the time and usually, after about two times of doing that, I tell them that’s done. You have to learn to make something else,” he said.

Even as he is preparing them with technical and job skills, Brinkmann wants his students to have the necessary skills for life beyond high school.

“What I want for them, if they are going on to college, which some of them do, you can’t depend on Subway or McDonald’s to eat every day,” he said.

After dinner on Thursday nights, Brinkmann adds another skill to the learning list.

“On Thursday nights, typically, after dinner, we have dance lessons,” he said.

The dance lessons come from Brinkmann’s own experiences.

“That’s how I met my wife. I stepped out of my comfort zone and took dance lessons, ballroom, line dancing, Western, stuff like that. I did it because my grandparents knew how to dance and I always saw them having fun dancing,” he said.

“I got shook up in life a little bit and I decided it was time to learn. Then one of my students asked if I could teach them how to dance.”

Brinkmann looks on the dancing like the cooking and the tractor work — as one more step in building kids.

“It broadens the kids out and it builds their confidence. I tell them, ‘You have to be more than your occupation. You can’t just walk into a room and say I’m a welder or I’m a mechanic or I’m a body man or I’m a service technician. You have to be more than that,’” he said.

Jeannine Otto

Jeannine Otto

Field Editor