Woodworking teacher takes time to shape young lives

Keith Yow doesn't mind pulling long hours, because his students are doing more than just building dining tables.

With his guidance and high expectations, they're constructing their futures.

That's why Yow, 42, puts in 60 hours or more each week as a woodworking teacher at Cedar Ridge High School. At a time when emphasis is placed on computer learning and advanced placement courses, Yow has created a dynasty at Orange County Schools. Between his time at Cedar Ridge and at Orange High School before that, he has sent more than 40 students to national woodworking competitions in the past 10 years.

Just last month two of his graduating seniors, Andrew Prioli and Tim Keating, won big prizes at the Association of Woodworking & Furnishing Suppliers Fresh Wood competition in Las Vegas, beating out college and industry professionals.

"There's no magic formula. I try to be devoted and dedicated to my students," Yow says. "I want them to come home as tired as I am."

Yow attended Chapel Hill High School. There he met David Kenealy, a young woodworking teacher who fostered Yow's talent through competition and inspired him to go to college -- something Yow hadn't seen in his future.

"He was my mentor, and I owe him for where I am today," Yow says. "I kind of followed his career path."

Like Kenealy, Yow says it's important for him to take students on college visits and encourage them to enter the industry. Yow and his mentor have stayed in touch, and even had their students compete against each other.

"He's honest, hardworking and caring," Kenealy says . "He has a lot of passion for the process, and I am continually impressed by him."

Yow sees about 150 students each year in his classes at Cedar Ridge, where he has been since the school opened in 2002. They're consistently over-enrolled.

"Mr. Yow" runs a tight ship, past and present students agree.

"A loose shop can quickly get of out control," says Prioli, who is attending the Rhode Island School of Design for furniture design in the fall.

Even Yow will say that he's demanding.

"If you're going to be here, you have to produce," he says with a Southern drawl. "I say, 'Treat this as your job.' If we were a company, we wouldn't make a profit with second-rate quality, so I won't accept it in class, either."

He keeps the door open when class is in session so passers-by can see how productive the students are.

For his students in competition, he expects work after school and on the weekends on projects that can last over a year.

"The shop opens at 8 a.m. I'll say, 'Do you want to go home, or do you want to go to Las Vegas?'" Yow explains. "Don't work this hard, this long to come up short."

Students say they welcome the pressure. "There's no instant gratification here," says Keating. "But you want to stay the extra hours."

Safety is also paramount. Yow keeps a picture of bloodied safety goggles on the outside of his classroom door. The workshop hasn't had so much as a single stitch in three years.

"I try to teach kids that you can't hit the back button here," he exclaims. "This is not a video game -- you don't get blowed up and start over."

That doesn't mean he's not playful. Former student Thomas Tuck remembers how Yow used to handle beginning students who cut boards too short and had to start over.

"He used to tell the freshmen to go across the hall to the construction teacher and ask them for a board stretcher," Tuck recalls. "It was always funny as a senior to watch freshmen go over there and ask."

Tuck, who now works at an industrial machinery company in Virginia, says that Yow was tough "but after you left, you appreciate everything he did."

For Tuck, that included posting on his door a list of industrial jobs a student could get after college.

"That one piece of paper Mr. Yow posted was the biggest single motivator in me knowing what I wanted to do," Tuck says. "It allowed me to focus."

Yow keeps a Rolodex with contact information on many of his former students."He calls just to see how you're doing," Tuck says. "He's a friend."

They're also industry peers -- Tuck's company donated a piece of machinery in December to the school's shop.

"He doesn't give himself enough credit. This program changes lives and starts careers for students," Tuck says. "If this were a winning football team, I bet he'd get more attention."

Yow is modest. He looks uncomfortable when asked to talk about his success. He'd rather talk about the students, he says.

"I thought I'd be building custom furniture for rich people," he says. "This is better."