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Remembering Dr. Byrl Shoemaker, Ph.D.: A Lifelong Learner

This year marks 70 years since the start of the SkillsUSA Ohio division. An idea and a passion for empowering our skilled trade youth developed into an inspiring program helping to bridge the skills gap existing within our communities. With the help of our sponsors, industry partners, and educators, SkillsUSA Ohio ignites passions within our students and helps them to develop those interests into careers.

The story of SkillsUSA Ohio is a successful one with impressive outcomes. We are the third-largest state association with 32,000+ members, we serve six regions in the state, dozens of chapters and are home to 51 elected student officers. There are so many people that have helped get us to where we are today, and we want to share about an amazing man, our first Executive Director, Dr. Byrl Shoemaker, Ph.D.

In the Beginning

The first sign of interest in creating a national organization for trade and industrial education was introduced in the 1920s as “The Future Craftsmen of America.” Unfortunately, the organization could not survive the Great Depression due to a lack of industry and labor support. In 1960, there was a building interest in bringing this idea back into the forefront for young trade-focused Americans. Dr. Byrl Shoemaker, Ph.D. was among a roster of innovative state supervisors and teacher trainers who dedicated their time, resources, and vision to make this a reality.

Throughout the early 1960s, Dr. Shoemaker, Ph.D., and the AVA (American Vocational Association) built interest throughout the labor force, students, and educators to form the Vocational Industrial Clubs of America (VICA, now SkillsUSA) in 1965. From there, Dr. Shoemaker Ph.D.'s contributions would help mold the program into what it is today. By 1973, the VICA membership had exceeded 150,000, and industry partners, Government officials, sponsors, and educators were all contributing to host competitions, create curriculums, and recruit more members.

Dr. Byrl Shoemaker, Ph.D. was an instrumental part in the development of SkillsUSA and SkillsUSA Ohio. His passion for Vocational Skills and teaching pushed him to make a difference and create change for those who had dreams of entering the skilled trades industry. Without his dedication, direction, and unfaltering determination, we would not have accomplished all that we have today.

To learn more about this accomplished man, we reached out to his granddaughter, Lisa Ponziani, who gladly spent time reminiscing about her grandfather to give us insight into who he was.

Dr. Byrl Shoemaker, Ph.D. October 1918 —March 2012

Byrl was born in Columbus, Ohio on October 5, 1918. He was one of three children and showed an interest in learning at an early age. He was motivated by finding answers to questions and exploring the world around him. He got married at 18, right out of high school, to his lifelong companion, Dorothy. After graduation, he went in search of a job and quickly felt as though his diploma alone was not going to provide the future that he wanted for his family. This was Byrl’s first indication of the growing skilled trade gap in America. This setback motivated him to go to college. It was not easy with a new wife and baby on the way, but he enrolled in The Ohio State University. During his years as a college student, he helped support his family by working in a bakery. Lisa reflects that he despised that bakery job, but he turned that hate into motivation to keep going and graduate from college so he could do something more enjoyable and meaningful. That motivation proved valuable, as Byrl graduated and became an industrial arts teacher.

Q&A About the Life of Byrl

What Motivated Dr. Byrl Shoemaker, Ph.D.?

My Grandfather was a lifelong learner. I think that is what motivated him. He always wanted to know and learn more. Whether it was formal education, books, travel, he wanted to know everything about everything.

Dr. Byrl Shoemaker, Ph.D. was the recipient of the Governers’ award for Excellence of Achievement Benefiting Mankind several times. In what ways do you, as his family, believe he benefited mankind?

He went to work for the state department under Governor Rhodes. He and the governor had shared a passion about giving students, that maybe aren’t able to go to college, a marketable trade. Under the governor, he helped create joint vocational schools. He traveled around the state and helped school principals understand the programs and what they were trying to achieve. I think that is the way he benefited mankind. Because of my grandfather's work and vision, there are joint vocational schools in every county in the state. He saw a need to give students marketable skills, and he created the path to help them do that. His goal was zero reject, zero dropouts, and 100% placement. I am so proud to call him my grandfather. He definitely is the smartest person I have ever met.

What were some of his hobbies outside of his career in education?

His number one passion was his family. He would have done anything and everything for his family. He created team bonding activities for the grandkids to complete together. Some of those included math riddles to solve so we could figure out how much money our Christmas gifts were, a treasure hunt that we would have to solve and dig up for little trinkets, or games that everyone would play during the holidays. He had a cottage at Lakeside and a boat he docked nearby. He loved to take people fishing. He enjoyed playing tennis and riding his bike. He really enjoyed playing cards. He would have Euchre tournaments and was a part of a bridge club for a while.

Tell us about a time that Byrl inspired you or someone in your family and how.

He was a world traveler. This was another one of his passions. He would travel with my grandmother, and then his children started to retire, and they would all travel with him. One of my favorite stories of him was when he went to China and his tour bus stopped at a park. He and my grandmother were sitting on a bench and a Chinese man came over to talk to him so that he could practice his English. My grandfather was very impressed with him, and they exchanged addresses. They became pen pals (1980, before cell phones and email). The Chinese man, Wilson, expressed interest in studying in the United States, and Wilson’s grandfather offered to pay for his education if he found a sponsor. And he did. My grandfather offered to sponsor him. Wilson came over here in the early 1980s—maybe 1982 and stayed at my grandparents' house in Clintonville and rode his bike to OSU. Wilson became one of my grandfather’s bonus children. He continued to come to all the holidays and visited with my grandfather often. My grandfather even asked him to eulogize at his funeral.

What contributions did he make to your life personally?

Teaching was a passion of my grandfather’s and that is probably why three out of the four grandchildren that went to college became teachers (middle school science, elementary, and special ed). He would come into my classroom and read books to my students when I first started teaching. He always talked passionately about teaching and teachers, and I think we all fell in love with his profession.

Can you share any insights you may have on his time with SkillsUSA Ohio?

My grandfather had great vision and could see a project completed and map out the steps on how to get to that completion. SkillsUSA was one of those projects. He was proud of vocational programs and really enjoyed watching the students showcase their knowledge and have pride in their learning. Aside from his family, the Ohio Vocational system was his proudest accomplishment.

Celebrating 70 years also means celebrating where it all began. Dr. Byrl Shoemaker, Ph.D. was an amazing educator who used his experiences—failures or triumphs, to benefit and help others. The legacy he leaves behind is profound and inspiring and we are so grateful for his ideas, actions, and accomplishments that began this amazing program that we have today.

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