McGavock High School aviation maintenance teacher Derek Rowe received a big surprise when a Harbor Freight representative came to the school Thursday and announced Rowe won second place for teaching excellence. 

The award was for $50,000, with $35,000 for McGavock’s skilled trades program and $15,000 directly to Rowe, who is also a pilot.

The hefty chunk of change was part of Harbor Freight’s annual $1 million shared across the nation to schools that show excellence in skilled trades teaching.

Rowe was in the cavernous aviation classroom as usual Thursday morning. 

A large contingent of people converged in the office of principal Robbin Wall’s office as they prepared to surprise Rowe who resurrected the nearly defunct aviation program that serves about 150 low-income students each year. 

Rowe said he comes from a similar background in rural Wales, Great Britian as part of a family of nine. 

He said when he was a child, he rode in a helicopter and “knew ever since” he wanted a career working on planes.

“It seemed an impossible dream for a child from a low-income background,” he said.

However, he defied the odds when he joined the British Army and worked to become a mechanic and helicopter pilot. After 17 years, he moved to the United States, where he suffered a heart attack and underwent bypass surgery.

This brush with near death put him on a path to “pay if forward,” reach out to young students to help them achieve their life goals in their field of choice – aviation.

It was full circle Thursday for Rowe. 

“Skilled trades educators are crucial to helping students stay engaged and motivated in high school,” said Danny Corwin, executive director of Harbor Freight Tools for Schools. “These amazing teachers connect students to promising careers, show them how to apply academics to the real world and help them feel pride and accomplishment, something might not experience in all their classes.”

Three first-place $100,000 awards were given to a manufacturing teacher in Arizona, a landscape operations teacher in Florida and a welding teacher from Missouri. There were 15 second-place winners. Harbor Freight also donated $32,000 to 32 semifinalists. 

Harbor Freight tools Midwest regional manager Kevin Hungate did the honors at McGavock. As part of the special presentation to Rowe, local luminaries such as state Rep. Darren Jernigan, Metro-Nashville councilmembers Jeff Syracuse and Steve Glover and Metro-Nashville school board member Anna Shephard joined the presentation.

McGavock Aviation and Transportation Academy principal David Hubbel said the application Rowe turned in for consideration for the award was a month’s long process.

“There were more than three hoops to jump through and a lot of work,” Hubbel said. “[Rowe] stuck with it.”

Wall also expressed delight and admiration for all of Rowe’s work to showcase the skilled trade program at McGavock. 

“The aviation program here at the school is unlike any others in this area,” Wall said. “We are a benchmark.”

Rowe was humbled at the surprise and praised the students and school officials. 

He talked of their partnership with Southwest Airlines and other businesses in the field. 

“While we are training future pilots and maintenance workers, the real purpose is not to train, because if they can pass this program, they can do anything they want to do,” said Rowe. 

He said the biggest challenge is some students already have a mindset that they won’t have the finances to carry on after they graduate.

“This is so not true,” said Rowe. “Some get scholarships. Eric Smith, owner of Harbor Freight, didn’t even graduate.”

Smith started Prize for Teaching Excellence in 2017 to recognize extraordinary public high school skilled trades teachers and programs.

Rowe’s first program students graduated in May. Of 32 seniors, 14 chose the workforce or military. Six enrolled in technical colleges, and 12 enrolled in four-year universities.

Rowe said they earned $1.7 million in scholarships.

“The blossoming talent I’ve witnessed in our young men and women has been life-changing,” he said. “For me, it’s a reminder of the time in my life when someone believed in me, when I was told I could succeed and was given the tools to do so.”

Rowe said the entry was based on the aviation maintenance pathway. They are building a Van’s RV-12 aircraft.

“The goal for the students is to have it completed by the summer of 2021 and fly it into Airventure Oshkosh, the biggest and most famous of the general aviation festivals in the world,” he said. “Secondly, there’s our restoration of the Royal Canadian Air Force Harvard mark 4, a five-year project where the students are restoring a Second World War fighter trainer. The goal here is to have the aircraft completely restored to its original condition and fly it into Airventure in the summer of 2023.”

Also, his students have the opportunity to get their pilot certificate.

“So, they build them and fly them,” he said. “I am merely a facilitator of their opportunity to achieve great things and make their dreams come true.”

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