Retired Sultan mechanic passes on experience to students

SULTAN — When 79-year-old Bernie Swanson heard Sultan High School was losing a shop teacher, he decided to step in.

The retired mechanic and former owner of Sky Valley Automotive started volunteering more than four years ago to teach small engine repair, welding and wood shop.

Because the school district wanted to implement more elective opportunities with a shrinking budget, district administrators turned to the community.

“We just tried to get people involved in their area of expertise,” Superintendent Dan Chaplik said. “Bernie has been a tremendous help.”

Swanson now is volunteering about three hours a day at the high school.

“I help out where I can,” Swanson said. “I’m not a teacher by any means.”

Still, he has lent his hands and more than three decades of industry experience.

“He’s really good at transferring the knowledge he has through years of experience,” said Sultan shop teacher Dave Cavanaugh, noting Swanson teaches students through demonstration. “He doesn’t stand up and lecture. He’s with them all the way.”

Without Swanson’s help, Cavanaugh said, Sultan’s shop programs would be severely curtailed.

In addition to increasing the variety of projects students can take on, two adults makes it easier to supervise the use of dangerous equipment.

Whether students want to join the automotive industry or go on to other careers, Swanson said, they should all have a few life skills learned in shop class.

“They love working with him,” Cavanaugh said. He’s very easy to get along with.”

Swanson tries to impart in his students a sense of work ethic and responsibility.

“They learn to finish the job,” he said. “They treat me with a great deal of respect. And I don’t give them a hard time.”

Swanson began his career as an automotive mechanic in 1959. He owned and operated Sky Valley Automotive for 22 years before he retired in 1996.

Now, Swanson said the students keep him busy as his two daughters are grown. His wife of 56 years, Berline, encouraged him to volunteer in the schools initially.

“The pay is really good too,” he joked. “I do enjoy the kids and they seem to enjoy me.”

Amy Nile: 425-339-3192;

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