Photo by: Diego Barajas
As he stands tall wearing Celtic wristbands laid under his skin, grey facial hair, and brown leather work boots, he has returned to the campus with familiarity. Teaching on the Pierce College campus for nine years, Gary Wheeler, certified in L.A. city structural steel, L.A. city reinforcing steel, and California State certification, is a welding instructor teaching his class how to cut metal and weld.
Wheeler receives satisfaction from watching students understand the material by, “Turning lights on in people’s heads about what they can do with the welding, how they can do it and the different problems that they come up against,” Wheeler said. “With some students the light comes up quick, some students it takes a while.”
Pierce and current welding student, Jose Fernandez, 21, said Wheeler is strict but fair. “He’s very thorough, he doesn’t cut anyone slack,” Fernandez said. “It’s kind of like tough love just so everyone understands, everyone looks out for each other.”
A young pyromaniac attending Northridge Junior High, Wheeler first got his hands on a torch in 8th grade at his friend’s backyard being shown by his friend’s father. The flame went out and didn’t spark again until Wheeler enlisted in the United States Navy, where he served three years as a Crash Firefighter waiting for pilots coming in to hit the deck of the aircraft carrier and put out fires.
“A lot of times there was damage done to the flight deck and we had to repair it under adverse conditions of rain, wind, and everything else,” Wheeler said. “I went to a welding school while I was in the navy for a couple weeks.”
Following his service, Wheeler went on to welding school in the early 80’s, attending Simi Valley Adult School, where he went on to receive his welding certification. After four years in the industry, Wheeler decided to start his own business, where he was the sole employee of a mobile welding business that ran in Antelope Valley.
While working, Wheeler sustained injuries. “I got burnt all the time, eyes got burnt, head got burnt, feet got burnt, arms, chest, belly everywhere a spark can land.” Wheeler said.
While running his business Wheeler decided to go back to school, attending Pierce in the 80’s where he took a metallurgy class. He was able to find welding as a science and art, and learned about the inner workings of the metal. If you’re learning about the ins and outs of metalwork and welding, and like these students you’re exploring what you can do with metal, ask yourself what is the best tig welder for you and your uses.
After his time as a student, Wheeler fell into teaching. “Taught there for about 6 months then to a vocational school in East L.A. at night. I stayed at East L.A. for a year part-time and did his welding rig during the day,” It wasn’t until 2006 when Wheeler became a part-time teacher at Pierce. Since his return Wheeler has taught every semester up to date. Wheeler wants his students to become certified after taking his class.
“Most of the people are here for a job because if you get the certification the average union pay is about $45/ hour our minimum,” Wheeler said. “Two students received their certifications and got picked up for the pipe fitters last semester.”
Currently enrolled welding student, Jesse Padilla, 20, said, “He’s great, he seems like he knows what he’s doing. He has a lot of experience.”