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For education sake. Find a mentor.

Updated: 4 days ago


One of my first mentors in my professional career was Norman Manns. He is not famous and was not overwhelmingly known in the industry that he worked in for more than 40 years. If you took the time to Google his name, you will not find details regarding his career. However, from my point of view, it is rare to go a week and not think about how he impacted me more than 20 years ago. He remains one of the most influential people I have known, yet I have known him for less than five years. I was lucky.


What does a mentor look like?


Standing no taller than five foot five inches, he always had the face that shouted I am grumpy, so leave me alone. Between each cigarette he smoked or chewed on, Norman was a teacher. This is the physique of a mentor.


Mentors have routines


He got to his office at 6:10 am each morning via his Cadillac, as predictable as the sun coming up. He would then drive his Cushman, labeled with a C2, to the motor room of the 6-Stand Cold Reduction Mill (Cold Mill). Walking in with just his white and blue Reeboks, he would grab a cup of coffee with the better of his two hands and stare deeply into the eyes of the Cold Mill through the lens of its HMIs. Silently, he would study the loads, speeds, and torques as if the mill leaned on him as its psychologist.


After his cup of coffee and in transit to get his second, he directed his day-shift electricians (John, Keith, John) work list. In between staring at the HMIs, twice per day, he would drive his Cushman to our receiving clerk's office to get a cup of coffee, see what spare parts showed up for projects, and what invoices were received. Simultaneously, he accomplished this while smoking a cigarette and leaning on a homemade gas space heater. 


Mentors have habits


At precisely 11:30, he would drive his Cushman to his office and shut his door. With his blinds down and the door locked, he would call his grandson, eat his lunch, prop his feet up, and nap. Not many things made him happier than his grandson, and not many things motivated him better than this daily conversation.


He would drive his buggy back to the motor room at 1:00 pm, check on the status of jobs, and deliver motivation verbally where needed to ensure the completeness of the assignments given earlier in the day. At 4:40 pm, he returned to his office and left at 5:10 pm to get 2.5 hours of overtime each day. This was Norman’s day, and he was the best at it. In between all of this, he taught me.


As the saying goes, he knew the Cold Mill better than the back of his hand. This was a Cold Mill made by Blaw-Knox and had its capabilities shown on an internal drawing labeled D86001. Self-proclaimed, it had been the home of the professionals since its commissioning in 1963 and had people that had worked there for more than 40 years.


A mentor teaches through experience


Find your


It was a Cold Mill, the first of its kind with mechanical screw-downs and accompanied by hydraulic self-leveling. It was originally designed to have a back tension with entry end stub mandrels, but they never worked as intended. To overcome this inability, it dropped 22-ton coils into a box, somewhat of a catcher’s mitt, to bounce around to simulate back tension. If you know Cold Mills, you can imagine the chaos, the oil, the smells, and the wrecks that occurred. And, man, did I love it. Like Norman, it was not perfect. Like Norman, it had flaws, but it gave more than it asked for with all that it had.


Norman had worked on the mill for 20 years and knew the ins and outs. He knew where the bodies were buried, as the saying goes. Norman, pushing 62 when I met him in 2001, was an individual who struggled to walk. He sure as heck never ran towards a problem. Due to his inability to walk steps up to an overhead crane or down the basement stairs to the solution basement, I was his runner. I knew when I met him that this was an opportunity to learn. I believe he knew this was an opportunity to teach. We never discussed this agreement, but instead, it was just known.


If there was a problem, he would ask me to see and report back to him what I saw. I did not have the ability to take pictures with a phone nor the ability to Facetime him from the basement with a question. Instead, I had to learn to craft into words what I saw and report back to him. He had to interpret my chaotic linguistics describing things along with an unintentional negligence in getting all of the necessary information due to my inexperience. As I dug into the oily bowels of the Cold Mill, he would waddle through my muddy sentences and irrelevant observations. He was teaching me, and I was willing to learn.


There would be a problem in the basement, and I would run the steps to investigate, sometimes skipping two or three steps at a time. Not skipping steps going up the 47 steps to report back what I saw, he would redirect me back to the problem to gather more evidence. This repeated, day after day, over and over again. We solved the Cold Mills problems together. My steps, his brains. My willingness to learn and his willingness to teach.


Reflecting on these memories, the repetition taught me how to ask questions and to provide specific details to answers. It taught me not to give an unfounded answer and instead forced me to go get the evidence. It taught me to notice more than the obvious attributes and look deeper into the energy that contributed to the failure modes of a problem. It taught me the importance to be taught.


Looking back, I trust that Norman knew this style of teaching, so he played along to give me just enough not to hurt myself and just enough to keep me busy. He taught me to learn through experience. He taught me to ask questions and be curious. He pushed me into experiences that forced me to learn. He never complimented me nor thanked me for anything I had done, but instead awarded me a prompt to solve the next problem. Like the Cold Mill, Norman gave gifted an opportunity to learn if you were willing to learn.


Find your mentor


As we are evolving the method of learning, we are quickly revising the definition of experiencing in education. I beg you, find a Norman. Be curious to learn from them, but more importantly, I beg you to be open to being taught. I do not know why Norman chose me and why I chose him. Maybe it was simply that I was willing to learn, and he was willing to teach.


Thanks Norman. I strive to teach as well as


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