Kilgore College Auto Body Expert Gears Students for Success

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On any given morning, it’s not uncommon for auto body expert Joel Laws to be up hours before first light.

It’s apparently difficult to relax when there are so many opportunities to create, and so few hours in a day.

Laws, 67, leads Kilgore College’s automotive body repair program, serving as instructor, mentor and cheerleader to students of his craft.

He also owns Laws Collision Repair, a decades-old business in Gladewater that specializes in restorations and auto re-dos.

His casual, laid-back appearance -- a long ponytail, paint speckled leather loafers and comfortable jeans – seems a direct contradiction to his level of enthusiasm: full throttle.

“Sometimes I wake up at 2 or 3 a.m., thinking up what I’m going to do, especially art work,” he said. “I guess I’m in my element. I like to work on things. … I’m driven to do this.”

SCIENCE AND ART

Laws, the private guy, started painting motorcycles in the 1960s, spending time in California then Hawaii before returning to East Texas where he’s worked on boats, cars and gadgets of all sorts.

He shares the lessons gleaned from those experiences with students, pointing out that certain shop skills – such as welding – can transcend the automotive industry and carry over into other career fields such as aviation.

There’s a big demand for skilled shop workers and the future of the industry looks bright, he said, adding, “This is a science and it is an art.”

Laws ventured into instruction side of the auto body business more than a decade ago at the urging of area educators, who saw the benefit of sharing his knowledge with a new generation of workers.

Today, Kilgore College enjoys the elite status as being among a handful of Texas shops certified by the National Automotive Technician’s Education Foundation.

It costs roughly $3,900 to attend Kilgore College’s program, a bargain compared to similar programs found in other areas, officials said.

Coursework ranges from working with vehicle trim and hardware to collision repair welding with strict standards on safety and quality.

College officials are happy to sing praises for the auto body program and its unique leader.

“We are extraordinarily lucky to have him,” said Kilgore College President Dr. Brenda Kays. “This program is top notch. I may not have any specific data but the fact of the matter is, if you look around … this is top of the line.”

There are career opportunities for well-trained technicians, she said, adding, “Students will be able to make a living and provide for their families. That’s important.”

Student James Harris, 55, a career truck driver, is banking that his planned career change will pay off.

He’s worked on old cars, but he’s looking to Laws for best practices on body and detail work.

“It’s been 37 years since I’ve had school of any kind,” he said. “It’s been a challenge, but everybody here seems to work together. It was enjoyable, to come in and learn the secrets. I’ve got a long way to go, but I’m starting to get there.”

WORKS IN PROGRESS

During a recent visit to the shop, students had several works in process: a 1959 Edsel, a 2007 Chevrolet and a 2002 Dodge Dakota, plus a couple of special projects.

A recent venture included the revival of a 1951 Chevy Deluxe for the Gladewater Police Department.

The shop features a special, enclosed paint area outfitted with high-tech safety features.

There are areas for classroom instruction and various types of bodywork, from repairing dents and scratches to analyzing damages and welding.

“They learn how to deal with all of this,” Laws said.

Students who are learning the repair trade seem as diverse as the vehicles they fix.

“I like the painting, the priming. I just love cars,” said Brittany Casanova, 23, of Hawkins. “Eventually, I would like to work in a parts shop or have one of my own.”

Her brother holds a degree in diesel mechanics, fueling her desire to find an automobile education program with similar potential.

“He (Laws) does really well about explaining things,” she said. “I’ve really learned a lot.”

Car enthusiast Humberto Delarosa, 19, of Turnertown, is following in his father’s footsteps. He’s been interested in cars since childhood and wants to work on them for a living.

“My dad worked for a body shop for over 20 years,” he said. “I was always taking things apart and putting them back together. … I like to be challenged.”

Lance Daniel, 19, of Longview, plans to work for his uncle when he finishes the program, following in the footsteps of other family members who completed the program and started successful careers.

“I’m comfortable in the paint job,” he said. “The matching takes a while, but I’m patient.”

This article originally appeared on tylerpaper.com

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