Secret Lives of Staff – Jerry Magraw, Hot Rod Restoration

By Heather Cass

Publications manager, Penn State Behrend

There’s much more to Penn State Behrend’s faculty and staff members than what you see on campus. In this occasional series, we’ll take a look at some of the interesting, unconventional, and inspiring things that members of our Behrend community do in their free time.

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Back in the era of Atari, stonewashed jeans, and Members Only jackets, Jerry Magraw ’87, a Physical Science major, commuted to his classes at Penn State Behrend in a 1964 Chevy Impala he had bought when he was 18.

Today, Magraw is a few years older, but he still occasionally rolls up in that Impala to the School of Science building where he has been a senior laboratory technician for twenty-plus years.

“I hung around a lot of old car guys when I was a kid, and every one of them said they wished they’d kept their first car,” he said, “So I decided to keep mine. It’s moved around with me from garage to garage to garage.”

A born mechanic

The Impala runs like a champ because Magraw is a born mechanic. He was the kid tearing apart toasters, fixing his buddy’s bikes, and taking a blowtorch to his mom’s car.

“When I was 15, my mom bought her first new car, a Dodge Aries, and I talked her into letting me put a sunroof in it,” he said. “It was pretty awesome. Can you imagine trusting your kid do that?”

Magraw can. He and his 15-year-old son, Mitchell, are currently rebuilding Magraw’s late father’s ’79 Chevy pickup truck, resurrecting the boxy two-tone with a small-block Chevy engine that he pulled out of a 1988 Camaro a few decades ago.

“It was the last vehicle my father ever owned, and it will be Mitchell’s when we’re done,” he said.

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Mitchell, 15, in his grandfather’s ’79 Chevy pickup.

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The same truck today!

Magraw enjoys working on engines, transmissions, suspensions, and electrical systems. He prefers GM products, but he has worked on Fords and Chryslers, too. He likes old cars.

“Everything today is function over form,” he said. “In the ‘50s and ‘60s a lot of cars were built for style. They weren’t always practical, but they were cool. And loud. They were made to draw attention.”

Magraw said the only part of auto restoration he doesn’t like is body work.

“I’d much rather weld a new frame or rebuild an entire engine than do body work,” he said. “I just prefer the mechanical side of things.”

Applied science

Magraw’s mechanical aptitude comes in handy in his role as a senior laboratory technician in the School of Science. He has responsibility for the physics and chemistry departments, ordering lab supplies, stocking the labs, preparing solutions, serving as a laboratory safety adviser, assisting in designing experiments, and maintaining scientific instruments. He also sets up—and occasionally builds—necessary apparatus.

As you might imagine, Magraw loves nothing more than when a faculty member or student asks him to put his mechanical mind, creativity, and ingenuity to work designing a piece of equipment to assist them in their research work.

“Many times, professors or students will thank me up and down, and I’ll just say, ‘This is my job. I get paid to help you,’’’ Magraw said. “It is pretty cool, though. I’m treated as a colleague, and I get to have wonderful conversations about interesting topics.”

That willingness to help and share his knowledge with others extends to his garage where he often helps friends—and sometimes complete strangers—solve their most puzzling mechanical problems.

“There aren’t that many people who do this kind of work anymore,” he said, “so people come to me when they need help making their old car run.” (See some of the cars he’s worked on in the photo slideshow at the end of this post.)

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Roses, shmoses… How about a car?

Magraw’s wife, Candace, has a 1977 Camaro that he restored (above). Their daughters, Marie, 20, a Software Engineering student at Behrend, and Julie, 18, both have cars carefully chosen and inspected by their father.

“I express my love for people in cars,” Magraw said.

Fortunately, he has a wife who understands and supports his hobby.

“It helps that she can see how vehicles appreciate over time,” he said. “My Impala that I bought for $3,500 in the 1980s is now valued at $35,000.”

It’s worth noting that Magraw arrived to pick up his wife for their first date in that Impala.

“In fact, if you look in the glovebox, there’s still a map she drew me to find her house for our first date,” he said.

And with that, Magraw reveals that for all his manly mechanical aptitude and macho hotrods, he is at heart a sentimental guy.

To that end, he does not part with the cars he has rebuilt. There are currently five in his 2,400-square-foot, heated-and air-conditioned garage. One more car will fill the spots available. Magraw is saving that space for his dream car—a 1957 Corvette.

“Completely junked and stripped, a ’57 Corvette is still $25,000, but once I restore it, it will be worth as much at $125,000,” he said.

What happens when he fills the garage?

“I’ll have to build another garage,” he said, completely seriously.

You won’t find him in the garage much this time of year, though.

“We work on the cars in the winter,” he said. “Summer is driving time!”

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Secret lives of staff members – Nate Magee, yoga instructor in training

By Heather Cass

Publications Manager, Office of Strategic Communications, Penn State Behrend

There’s much more to Penn State Behrend’s faculty and staff members than what you see on campus. In this occasional series, we’ll take a look at some of the interesting, unconventional, and inspiring things that members of our Behrend community do in their free time.

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Nate Magee, research technologist at the Susan Hirt Hagen Center for Community Outreach, Research, and Evaluation (CORE), was stressed out and nursing a mild back injury when he stumbled upon an ancient Indian remedy for what ailed him—yoga.

“Penn State Behrend offers free yoga and Pilates classes for faculty and staff twice a week at lunchtime and I had heard that yoga was good for recovering from injuries and decided to give it a try,” Magee said.

Bearded and a little burly, Magee doesn’t fit the stereotypical image of a yoga enthusiast. But he said he was sold from the first downward dog.

“From the very beginning, I enjoyed the peacefulness of the practice,” Magee said. “I learned that I held a lot of stress in my chest and many yoga poses help to open your chest and release it. I also gained flexibility and strength fairly quickly while also noticing a reduction in back pain. It just made me feel great, both physically and mentally.”

Magee found yoga to be so rewarding that he is now studying to be an instructor.

“Practicing yoga is the best thing that I have ever done for myself and I want to be able to share that with others,” he said.

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Becoming a certified yoga teacher is not an easy process. Magee has been training through Soma Movement Arts, an Erie yoga studio, twice a week for a year and has attended several intensive training weekends. In addition to putting in plenty of time on the mat, he has had to hit the books, too, studying the philosophy and language of yoga.

“Even though everything has been translated into English, some Sanskrit terms do not have precise translations, so it’s helpful to know more about the original language.” Magee said. “Also, while yoga poses may have several English names depending on the style of yoga or who is teaching, there is usually only one Sanskrit name for each pose so it’s a more consistent language. It is a hard language to learn though.”

He will have a chance to practice his Sanskrit with other yoga devotees at the end of March when he travels to Canada for the Toronto Yoga Show, a conference and expo that draws participants from around the world.

“I’m registered for thirty hours of workshops over the four days I’ll be there,” he said. “I’ll be learning from some of the best and well-known yoga instructors in the world.”

When asked to name his favorite yoga pose, Magee names most of them.

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“I enjoy inversions, twists, headstands, and backbends…I guess I like them all,” he said with a laugh. “I’m currently trying to master handstands. Even though many poses look relatively simple, there are a lot of details in each one and it takes every part of your body working together with your mind to master the pose.”

Magee is currently teaching portions of classes at Soma and will be required to teach some full classes before he can be certified through Yoga Alliance, the professional organization for yoga teachers in the United States.

He encourages people of all ages, body types, and physical ability to try yoga.

“It’s very accessible and there are always modifications for those who need them,” he said. “Yoga will make you feel better physically and mentally. It is great for stress relief, improving focus, and boosting confidence. I really can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t benefit from the practice.”

Want to give yoga a try? Penn State Behrend offers free yoga classes for faculty and staff on Tuesdays and Thursdays in Erie Hall at 12:10 p.m. The college also offers yoga as a physical education credit for students. Or check out a class at Magee’s fav studio, Soma Movement Arts, or any one of a dozen other studios in the Erie area. Not in the Erie area? Search online for studios in your area.

 

Secret Lives of Staff: Dave Lesher—Beekeeper (and much more)

By Heather Cass
Publications & Design Coordinator, Penn State Behrend

There’s much more to Penn State Behrend’s faculty and staff members than what you see on campus. In this occasional series, we’ll take a look at some of the interesting, unconventional, and inspiring things that members of our Behrend community do in their free time.

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Give me a half hour with anyone and I’ll come away with a story. Every person has one. Some have more than a few. Take Dave Lesher, for example.

This piece was supposed to be about Lesher’s beekeeping hobby, but his activities, interests and talents—his “secret lives”—are many.

In addition to being a police services officer at Penn State Behrend and a beekeeper, Lesher is also a professional photographer, distance trail runner, cyclist, gardener, home brewer, clean-eater, and a website programmer/designer. Oh, and he’s also a veteran, husband, and father.

Clearly, when Lesher is interested in something, he goes all in. But serendipity plays a role in most of his ventures, too.

Twenty-five years ago, when he was working at a grocery store after having completed basic training in the U.S. Army Reserves, a coworker mentioned she was attending a municipal police training academy. Lesher enrolled a week later.

After graduation, he was hired at Behrend. It’s a job he said he has enjoyed since day one.

“I really like the people here,” he said. “In my role, I come in contact with a wide variety of people and I enjoy interacting with everyone from the janitorial staff to the Chancellor.”

He even likes educating students who have gotten themselves into a bit of trouble.

“Often, the student has just been misguided or made a mistake and the incident can be turned into a learning experience,” he said. “I’d say we can do that 95 percent of the time.”

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Honey habit leads to hobby

A serious health scare a decade ago inspired Lesher to begin exercising and taking a closer look at the foods he was putting into his body. He eats clean now, avoiding processed foods, meat, caffeine, artificial dyes and additives, and most forms of sugar, with one sweet and all-natural exception—honey.

“It’s expensive, though, and I was eating a lot of it,” he said. “So I started doing some research on beekeeping and got some bee boxes.”

He found his first set of bees on Craigslist.

“This guy was tearing a house down and found the walls were full of honey-bees, so he offered them up to anyone who would come take them,” Lesher said.

“Cut-outs,” as such bee acquisitions are called, are tougher than simply scooping up a homeless swarm and encouraging them into a new home.

“With a cut-out, you’re invading their territory and they will defend it,” Lesher said. “Swarming bees are actually safer to collect. They swarm when they are looking for a new home, so they have nothing to protect and are usually happy to climb right into a bee box.”

Lesher is pleased to offer them a home, and the college’s maintenance and operations staff are just as thrilled to have someone nearby to call when swarms are found on campus.

Except for the occasional replacement queen, Lesher doesn’t buy bees. He prefers to collect native bees since they are used to Erie’s climate.

Lesher has a beekeeper’s hat, but doesn’t wear a full suit because honey-bees are rarely aggressive. He’s been stung only twice.

The average hive makes sixty to eighty pounds of honey a year, which is harvested in the fall. Only a portion of the honey is taken, however, as the bees have to have food for the winter.

“My hives are new this year, so I won’t take any honey,” he said. “I want to keep them happy so they’ll stay and produce more next year and then I can take some.”

From programming to photography to political science 101

A different kind of buzz—talk about the then-new World Wide Web—caught Lesher’s attention twenty-plus years ago. He began reading about, then dabbling in, website programming and design. He soon had paying clients (he still has some today) and a concern about finding adequate photography for their sites.

So he began reading about photography. You see where this is going, right? Today Lesher also works as a professional photographer. He shoots family portraits, senior pictures, and weddings.

Another hat he wears? College student. This fall he’ll complete his degree in General Arts and Sciences with an emphasis in Political Science.

Man in motion

You may wonder where Lesher gets the stamina to keep up all of his hobbies, jobs, and activities. It’s a strength that is, no doubt, hard earned on the trails and roads around Penn State Behrend where he’s logged thousands of miles.

Last summer, he did his first ultra run, the Megatransect, a formidable thirty-mile race up, on, and around Bald Eagle Mountain, just south of Lock Haven—with former Behrend engineering professor and trail-runner Dr. Chris Colston.

“The funny thing is that when I was in the Army, I hated running,” he said. “I never thought I’d start doing it competitively. But then I got interested in it and ended up buying the gear and doing some races and… you know, how it goes.”

Yes, with Lesher, we do know how it goes now—all the way.

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8 fun honey-bee facts

  1. Honey-bees are not native to the United States. They were imported by European settlers.
  2. Honey-bees, while instinctual, aren’t very smart. “I have to have different landing strips on my hives or the bees will go in the wrong hive and be killed as invaders,” Lesher said.
  3. Honey-bees use dances to communicate. For example, when honey-bees find food, they do a choreographed “waggle” dance that instructs the rest of the hive where to find a food source.
  4. Honey-bees keep each other warm and fed over winter. Honey-bees keep the hive at about 92 degrees in winter, feasting on the honey they have collected all summer.
  5. Honey is harvested in the fall. Hives typically contain about sixty to eighty pounds of honey; some must be left for the bees to eat.
  6. Unhappy honey-bees will leave. If conditions in the hive are not suitable, the queen will call for a swarm and they’ll swarm and depart.
  7. The honey-bee queen is the sole reproductive female in the colony. She lays 1,000-to-3,000 eggs per day. Female worker bees perform all other colony duties. Male drones exist only to mate with a virgin queen.
  8. Drones are dead before winter. Drones are a liability to the wintering hive and are not allowed in after fall, so they die outside.

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Collecting a swarm

Lesher provided this video of a swarm he collected:

 

Secret Lives of Staff Members: Sandi Matts – Prison Ministry

By Heather Cass
Publications & Design Coordinator, Penn State Behrend

There’s much more to Penn State Behrend’s faculty and staff members than what you see on campus. In this occasional series, we’ll take a look at some of the interesting, unconventional, and inspiring things that members of our Behrend community do in their free time.

 

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Sandi Matts was terrified the first time the prison doors rumbled shut behind her. As she stood in the secured holding area between freedom and hundreds of men incarcerated for who-knows-what, she tried to quell her rising fear by calling on the Holy Spirit.

Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and enkindle in us the fire of your love…

Matts was at the Erie County prison with a group of volunteers who were leading a four-day spiritual retreat called Metanoia (a Greek word that means “change of heart”).

She’ll tell you now, 15 years later, that her presence there at that time was not entirely voluntary. It was more out of a sense of obligation—a favor returned to a kind-hearted priest who gently reminded her of a promise she had made in a hospital bed a few months prior.

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As Matts, a mother of two, lay in a hospital bed weak and suffering from a 104-degree temperature that doctors could not explain, she was visited by Monsignor James Peterson, an Erie-area Catholic priest. Matts knew of Father Pete, as he was affectionately known, but she was puzzled as to why he was visiting her. He was not the priest at Matts’ church. (She learned later that a friend had sent him.)

“He said, ‘I hear you need a healing,’ and he laid his hands on my head and asked my family to join hands and pray with him,” Matts said.

When he was done, he had a private talk with Matts and her husband, John, and asked them a question.

“He said ‘When you are healed, do you promise to dedicate your life to God?’”

Matts said she would.

The next morning, her fever broke, and she was able to have the surgery she needed. The cysts removed were benign.

She spent six weeks at home recovering. On the last day, there was a knock at her door. Father Pete announced that he’d come to remind her of her promise.

“He said, ‘I come to invite you to join us in prison ministry,’” Matts said. “I said, ‘No, Father, anything but that’ and he said: ‘No is not an acceptable answer.’”

Father Pete had a passion for helping the poor and marginalized, especially men struggling to recover from addiction, mental illness and criminal pasts. He founded the Maria House Project, a 90-day program that helps men in recovery make a smooth transition back into society. Metanoia was his way of reaching those still imprisoned.

At the time, Matts didn’t share fondness for the men most fear, but it wasn’t long before she did.

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One of the first prisoners she encountered was Ronnie, a large African-American man with a rugged and threatening outward appearance.

But Matts soon discovered a “teddy bear” under Ronnie’s tough exterior. He was jovial, cheerful by nature, and fun to be around.

“At one point in the retreat, the men are given letters of support written by members of local churches,” Matts said. “When Ronnie received his letter, I saw him tuck it away without opening it.”

When she asked him why, he confessed that he couldn’t read.

“He said, ‘Would you read it to me?’ and my heart was transformed,” Matts said. “Imagine having the courage to admit that you can’t read and the humbleness to ask a virtual stranger for help?”

Matts said all her fear of prison ministry was gone after that.

“I no longer identified these men by their crime,” she said. “Instead I recognized them as men of God. They are people, just like you and me. The mistakes they made may have been bigger, or perhaps they just got caught. Nonetheless, they all want and need what we all want or need—someone to care about them and believe in them, someone to talk to, someone to listen to their stories without judgment.”

Matts’ personal Metanoia led to decades more.

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Though Matts wouldn’t call herself religious (“I’d say that I’m more spiritual than religious,” she said), she and her husband became part of the team of spiritual leaders — originally organized by the now deceased Father Pete—who have been guiding prisoners through four-day retreats at area correctional institutions for the past fifteen years.

I sat down to talk with Matts, an administrative assistant in the Office of Student Affairs, about her experiences with prison ministry and the book she is writing about her spiritual journey.

Tell me about the prison ministry work you do.

It’s a four-day spiritual retreat. There’s a team of twelve volunteer presenters who lead the retreats twice a year at SCI Albion. It runs from Thursday to Sunday evening and about forty men participate in it each time. My husband, John, and I have been part of the team for about 15 years now.

Were you frightened the first time you went?

Definitely. I was very intimidated, but soon you realize the inmates are just people who made a mistake. Who among us hasn’t made a bad choice? Not that it’s an excuse, but some of these men really are a victim of their upbringing. One man, Ronnie, grew up in a dirt-floor shack with multiple siblings. He never got past the third grade. From a very young age, his mother would wake them up in the middle of the night and send them out to steal food and other supplies. What chance did Ronnie ever really have?

How do you get prisoners to participate?

Well, we are there as mentors and to help guide the talks, but a handful of long-term inmates pretty much run the retreat and do all the recruiting. For the “lifers,” Metanoia is like their family. They (the inmates) meet weekly after the retreat.

When they are recruiting other inmates to attend Metanoia, they tell them to come and surround themselves with positive people. Also, participants get cookies and other desserts they otherwise never get. A lot of them come for the cookies (laughs), but as the retreat goes on, they are moved and they end up inspired by the experience.

What do they learn?

Every message, every activity, everything we do is focused on the messages of love and forgiveness. We tell them that peace can only be found through forgiveness – of themselves, of others who have hurt them. Many of them grew up without love and they are amazed that strangers can show them this kind of unconditional love.

Has your experience with prison ministry changed how you feel about crime and punishment?

Well, you learn there are two sides to every story, and things are never as black and white, or right and wrong, as they might seem. I’d like to see more of a focus on rehabilitation than punishment.

Why do you enjoy prison ministry?

Its life giving. It’s the community that keeps me going. Where do I get nourished and uplifted? At SCI Albion. It’s very rewarding “work,” and it gives me hope.

Has the experience changed you in any way? How so?

It’s helped me to recognize the good in every person. It’s there if you look for it.

At one of our Metanoias, I mentioned that I could use some prayers for my daughter who was going through a difficult time. A year later, I returned to that prison and one of the men asked about my daughter. I said she was fine and, honestly, I’d forgotten I even asked them to pray for her. But, he didn’t forget. He told me that every day that year – 365 days — he knelt on the concrete floor of his cell for 45 minutes and prayed for my daughter – someone he didn’t even know. That just blew me away.

Are there any other inmates who have stood out to you over the years?

Ed, who is in for life, for a murder he committed 30 years ago. It was so hard to believe he took a life because I know him to be very gentle, kind and happy. He was a model inmate. He had never once been reprimanded or been in “the hole.” He was up for commutation and everyone from the prison warden to the prison guards recommended him for commutation.

While his recommendation sat on the Governor’s desk, a law was passed prohibiting commutation for those sentenced to life in prison.

The next time I visited the prison, I expected Ed to be sad, but he was as happy and upbeat as ever. I said, “Ed, how can you be so happy?” He looked at me and smiled and said, “Sandi, how can I not? Obviously God needs me here, more than he needs me on the outside.”

Tell me about your book.

It’s titled Listen to the Whisper and it’s about my spiritual journey. Life is relational, so it’s full of stories about the people who have come in and out of my life and the influence they had on my journey.

I finished writing a couple weeks ago and now I’m working with an editor at Balboa Press, which is the self-publishing arm of Hay House. I hope to have it out by February, but I am actually entering a contest run by Hay House for a traditional publishing package. I have to turn in my proposal by December 15. That’s part of why I’m retiring at the end of the month. I need time to complete the proposal and to build a platform.

Did you always want to write a book? Do you have writing experience?

No and no! I never planned to write a book, but I had all these great stories in my head and one day I sat down and my hands just flew over the keyboard. You know it’s something you were meant to do when it comes out that easily.

You’re retiring at the end of September. What will you miss about Behrend?

The students. There are 47 Resident Assistants who come in every day to check their mailboxes. I love talking with them! We end up building relationships; they are such great young people. I am still in touch with some students I met the first year I worked here.

Do you ever think about how students who get in trouble could learn from the men you interact with in the prisons?

Sometimes. When students repeatedly end up in the Office of Student Conduct, I wish I could take them to SCI Albion so they could see where breaking rules can eventually lead them.

What do you wish people knew about inmates?

That they are just people who made mistakes. But, ultimately, they are all searching for the same things that we all are – love, peace, and happiness.

What one thing could everyone do to make the world a better place?

Find out what your spiritual DNA is. Who are you? What are your gifts? Share them with the world.

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Sandi Matts, administrative support assistant, Office of Student Affairs

Vital statistics

Position at Behrend: Administrative Assistant, Office of Student Affairs

Years at Behrend: Three

Family: Husband, John; children, Jeff and Kelly, and three grandchildren

Home: Millcreek

Church: Our Lady of Mercy, Harborcreek

Volunteer work: Maria House Project, Prison Ministry, Discover the Woman Within, Healing Ministry

Book: Listen to the Whisper, to be self-published in 2015