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.

Sandi matts

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