Electrical, mechanical and computer wants and woes… Who ya gonna call? Engineering Technical Services.
Engineering Technical Services (ETS) has been serving the computing, mechanical and electrical needs of the College of Engineering since 2001. Engineering Lab Manager Mike Klote serves as head of the department that has the distinction of operating as a re-charge center, responsible for billing departments and research entities for the work they do.
Comprised of 10 staff members, ETS is largely responsible for making possible the daily undertakings of the rest of the staff, faculty researchers and engineering students. The group’s influence reaches to every corner of the College of Engineering and their impact, though nearly immeasurable, is so steady and unassuming it’s easy to overlook the major role they play in making the place tick. And because much of their support truly does occur behind-the-scenes, directed from an office in the basement of Lafferre Hall (fondly called “the cave”), it’s not easy to get to know this diverse and interesting group of dedicated people.
Historically, each of engineering’s divisions had their own technicians, but in the face of tough economic times, Dean Anthony Hines restructured the technical staff in 1991. They were consolidated into three groups: machinists headed up by Rex Gish, IT under the old Engineering Computer Network, and electronics with Klote at the helm.
The IT and electronics groups were combined in 2000 under Klote, and under the current administration, the two groups were merged together along with the Engineering Computer Network in 2001. Further layoffs occurred to streamline the now lone technical department, and the re-charge system was initiated.
“We’d been keeping track of what we were doing since the original consolidation, so it was a pretty small transition,” said Klote of the new fiscal structure.
“All of the techs are in three distinct units — IT, mechanical and electronics — with three in each group. You can do more with fewer if you’re consolidated. Currently, the combined knowledge pool in ETS is more than it will ever be again. They’re all specialists in their fields and they’re all really good,” Klote said of his staff.
“Rich Oberto can summarize in 10 minutes what it could take someone else six months to figure out. With our backgrounds in microcontrollers and instrumentation, we foresaw the need for data acquisition systems and were some of the first in the College that utilized them, and Rich has now become an expert building them.
“Rex Gish is one of the premiere machinists in the state and Mike Absheer has 25 years of hands-on, applied electrical work. And no one knows welding like Brian Samuels,” Klote said.
“Greg Emanuel is the best hire I ever made. We have the most complex undergraduate lab software image on campus, but students can just log in and get software sets they need. Greg designed that system and made it happen.
“In the undergraduate labs, an instructor should ideally be able to look at anyone’s monitor and show it to others through a touch-screen function. Greg embedded a microcontroller and taught himself enough code that he got that working. That exists nowhere else in the country,” Klote said.
The department is pulled in so many directions, and the addition of new facilities like the undergraduate labs — which yield 10 to 20 service calls a day from academics — has sometimes stretched them to their limits and beyond.
“We’ve built a TV station-on-a-bench that serves as a security system in the labs, a server for all of engineering’s closed-circuit video screens and a video-scheduling system. It’s true multi-media. We’re working with faculty to record labs so that students can go back and review them if they need to, among other projects. It’s totally unique. There’s nothing like it anywhere,” Klote said.
“And we’re starting to pick up more and more work on campus and from outside requests for our rapid prototyping,” Klote said.
“This is me. I couldn’t make a better job for myself. I’m consumed with this stuff. Sometimes I go home at night sad because I can’t wait to get back to work to solve the problems I couldn’t solve the day before. And it’s a good thing,” said Klote, who typically works 60 hours each week, oftentimes more.
“When I was a kid, we were so far on the other side of the tracks we didn’t know there was a train. I got my first taste of electronics going with my grandfather on his wiring jobs,” Klote said.
Originally he wanted to go to Hollywood to do animatronics, but found himself married with a son and a job at Frito-Lay. He soon landed a job with MU Engineering but after three years his marriage dissolved, and Klote was suddenly a single father with six- and two-year-old sons. He said the support he received from the people he worked with in the college helped him make it through some really tough times.
“It’s so much different than industry. Put your hand against the wall and you can almost feel the heartbeat of the school and generations of engineering students, Klote said.
“This is more than a job. It’s a mission and I was lucky to come upon it when I did.”
If not the face of ETS, Tracy Lee is at least the voice and structural brawn of the division, and has been for six years. For anyone and everyone in need of technical help with everything from a printer connection failure to a mechanical or electronic set-up in a lab, Lee is first responder to telephone calls and e-mails for help. She is in charge of authorizing requests and adding them to the work queue. She also shuts the books on completed projects as she oversees billing for the recharge center.
“We are reimbursed from the departments and from grants. Techs submit their productivity reports and I do billing, entering it in the database. There are also fees for students to use the machine and wood shops for capstone projects that get charged to departments,” Lee said.
“I work with Mike Klote to provide security cards. Because he is the building coordinator, he also gets online requests for keys, which I take care of. And I’m in charge of scheduling the use of engineering’s seven vehicles.
“IT gets more job requests, but they’re shorter than the machinist and electronics jobs, so there are more of them to process.”
Lee and her husband live on 30 acres northeast of Columbia with their 12-year-old daughter and nine-year-old son. They farm 82 acres, raising cattle and chickens. They also own and manage a storage facility business with three locations. Their children are involved in 4-H and show steers and rabbits.
“Show steers are a lot of work, but we like it. When they get a steer to show, the kids have to halter break it. We comb them to get them tame. The actual judging is based on muscle, shape and how the steer is finished out. There are different weight classes,” she said.
“We show at the Callaway County Fair. Last year, our daughter showed for the fourth year and won her weight class. She has won two out of her three previous shows, too. The kids are saving the money that they earn from selling their steers.”
With three lakes on their 30 acres, the family does a lot of fishing for bass and crappie and also puts their pack of coonhounds to good use thinning the overpopulation of raccoons. The family hunts deer as well.
“We put out a garden, too. It used to be better before we had kids and our storage shed business. It gets away from us. I like to can green beans. My parents have concord grapes, so we make jelly, too.”
When Mike Absheer was hired in 1986, he came in as a half-time entry-level electronics employee and has worked his way up to a senior electronics position. He said he has most enjoyed the projects that really honed his electrical craft, like building equipment for faculty research projects, though most of what he does is less original.
“I feel fairly confident that I can do anything because we do something different every day. We are multi-disciplinary people. It’s an awesome place to learn new things, which makes it about the best job. I try to excel in all of the electronics/component work that gets thrown at me,” Absheer said.
“I’ve been hanging video panels, installing flat screens. I learned video from Mike, which is really cool. I’ve filmed lab experiments, one step at a time, that can be spliced together to use as a tutorial.
“This is where our shop could be headed, toward the media part of electronics. Mike has the ability to anticipate what will come up so we can try to work ahead. He’s always been right on the money, like with the prototyping. He was already working on that a couple of years ago.
“With video, I’ll be the person who does the filming and some directing. Journalism students have been helping with editing. I would like to learn how to do the editing, too. Students come and go,” he said.
Absheer and his wife have a 19-year-old son studying art at Moberly Area Community College. In his spare time, Absheer has run a stage production company for 18 years and recently teamed up with a friend in the same business to form B&M Stage Productions.
“We kept bumping into each other, so we just teamed up. We do lighting, sound and theater production work. Our clients include the Blue Note’s Summerfests and Columbia’s Roots, Blues and Barbeque Festival — three stages with 25 crew people. We do smaller indoor events, too,” Absheer said.
While attending a microcontroller class, Rich Oberto bumped into an old friend who was working as an electronics tech at MU in the College of Engineering who encouraged him to apply at the college. Oberto had been working as a technician at Cal-Type, an office machine company, for seven years when he landed a position in what is now ETS. That was 24 years ago.
“I like this job more than I’ve ever liked any job. I like the challenge. If things need to be done, we figure out how to do them. It’s a constant learning curve. Engineering is a language, and applied engineering is another language. We’re people with a lot of skills and experience,” said Oberto.
“In my work, I follow what I call Richard’s Three Rules for Equipment Design or Writing Programs, and I share it with students: Your first idea is the quickest and the easiest and is probably incorrect. Think of a second approach. It’s probably pretty good and fairly reliable. It’s the beginning of what will be the best and most reliable. The third idea starts out being abstract, but is the most efficient and has the least physical parts and/or the simplest program. This is the one that you can depend on.
“I have the absolute highest regard for Rex Gish and Mike Klote. Mike is the most amazing guy you’ll ever meet. He can do my job better than me and can also do all the fiscal stuff.
“When we became a recharge center, Klote set up a really good system. We have run it like a business.
“In the past few years, I’ve built a lot of data acquisition systems and programmed the software to collect the data and control test equipment. Frequently, I teach students how to create these programs with a development environment called Labview, saving them time and illustrating good programming practice.
“Out at the remote testing facility [a college test facility at Discovery Ridge], there are three hydraulic test stations and a vacuum chamber all with data acquisition capabilities that I built, with the help of students. The steel and concrete floor is five to six feet thick and can handle more than a million pounds of load,” he said.
Evenings and weekends, Oberto wears another hat, playing drums with a number of area bands. He sometimes has worked full time as a musician.
“Playing drums is not a hobby, but a major part of my life.
“The summer before my sophomore year at Macon High School, I practiced the snare drum every day. I knew the two seniors who played drums had graduated. I really surprised the bandleader when I went in to try out in the fall. My parents bought me a drum set later that year,” Oberto said.
Oberto played snare drum for Marching Mizzou when he was in college, making a trip to the Orange Bowl in 1969. Until recently, he played regularly with jazz clarinetist Lynn Zimmer, and still travels to Kansas City occasionally to play engagements with the musician he likens to Pete Fountain, along with other top musicians in the KC area.
Growing up on a farm and working with his father and his dad’s many tools, Oberto picked up skills that he uses every day in his work.
Along the way, Oberto was drafted into the Army Special Forces and served three years as a Morse Code operator with the Green Berets in Thailand and also operated a small military amateur radio station (MARS).
Oberto and his wife have three sons, the youngest of whom just graduated from high school.
“He’s interested in theatre teching, but he loved marching band. He was voted a leader in the trumpet section. Playing in a group is more important than playing alone,” said Oberto.
The newest IT tech also is the only other woman in the ETS Department. Jessica Jacobi, who has been with the college for almost three years, said she enjoys her work in engineering and that Mike Klote is one of the best bosses she’s ever had.
“We support faculty and staff computer use, anything from installing printers, cleaning up malware and viruses, to setting up new systems, hardware and troubleshooting. I have three or four things going on every day,” Jacobi said.
“Usually, I come in and check my e-mail to see if there’s anything new there and check Track-it, the helpdesk software. I try to prioritize and make a list before I go home. We have to be accountable for every minute of every day.
“Mike [Carraher] and I do the inbox stuff. I’m in charge of maintaining the IMSE lab — ten computers and a server. Mike is more familiar with the MAE lab’s software. Greg [Emanuel] does the new undergraduate lab stuff,” she said.
About nine months ago, Jacobi’s life changed dramatically when she and her husband added a baby to their family. She said her two teenage stepsons love their little brother and that being a new mother is great. Besides her family, Jacobi’s other passion is softball.
“I met my husband playing softball. He and I play slow-pitch on a co-ed team called the Swingers. We don’t play in Columbia because the economy has made it harder to find sponsors here. We play in Mexico on Sunday nights. I fill in for another women’s team, too.”
Jacobi has lived her entire life in the area “All my siblings and parents live within 25 miles of us. My family used to farm, and my father is back to farming. I wish I had that for my son. I wish he could grow up on a farm,” said Jacobi.
Mike Carraher started working part time for ETS in 2007 and eventually went to full time. Earlier this year, his job and his personal life crossed paths when he and Melanie Gerlach, an administrative associate in mechanical engineering, married. The couple lives in the little river town of Lupus.
“With IT, we each have our own specialties, but we all take care of computer networking. Recently, we saw three or four viruses in the same week and have even branched out to looking at phone viruses. I do things like set up Wi-Fi and e-mail,” Carraher said.
“When I first came here, I thought the building was a maze, but I’ve gotten used to it. I like it that I get to meet everybody, and when I’m finished I get to leave people with a good feeling because I fixed their problem and they can get back to work.
“I wrote a program that will bring up a whole bunch of software programs. You can click a box and it will install them. It used to take three hours to install the software, but now it takes almost no time at all.
“I’m hoping to get more into the electronics — interfacing lab equipment with computers, helping grad students and faculty,” he said.
Carraher also is a student at MU, studying toward a degree in electrical and computer engineering.
“I like the idea of a project with scope — creating something from inception to implementation. I tinker a lot with electronic stuff, repurposing things. I have been writing my own programs for the Game Cube.
“I also have a motorcycle that I like to ride, though it’s not as practical as it was when I was living in Columbia.
I’m adjusting to life as a step-parent of 13- and 14-year-old sons, trying to spend time with them doing things like playing basketball, Frisbee and games. I’m not the plant guy, but Melanie and I are doing some gardening. Lupus is lovely,” said Carraher.
In the past two of the five years that Greg Emanuel has worked in engineering, his job has transitioned from the desktop support that Jacobi and Carraher tend to on a daily basis, to server and lab support, mostly in the recently added undergraduate labs.
“So much stuff changes in the labs, almost daily: new software, hardware requirements, new classes. Sometimes it’s pretty drastic,” said Emanuel.
“Sometimes we are doing in-house ad hoc creations. There may be something we want to do and we can’t just go buy a piece of equipment. We’ll just make it. Other times, it’s taking a piece of equipment and making the kinds of changes for what a professor wants to do for his course.
“I like the creative aspects of my job, taking a problem and creating a solution, writing a program or fixing hardware. There’s not much redundancy.
“As the lead IT guy, I’m responsible for seeing that the jobs are getting done and helping with problems the other techs are having. When I’m not at work, I thinking about what I’m going to do when I get there.
“I actually like the pressure of, ‘We want this. Can you get it installed in two days?’ However, there is some misconception that you can put something in place and it will function with one click.
“Mike Klote is doing something right. He has a bunch of loyal employees. He’s wonderful to work for. He’s what keeps the ship afloat,” he said.
Emanuel and his wife have a new daughter, their first child, who has turned his 60-hour work weeks back into 40 hours and cut into his camping, fishing and hunting hobbies, but he doesn’t mind.
“She’s wonderful. My wife and I also enjoy road trips, and driving is a great remedy for a crying baby,” Emanuel said.
“I’m earning an MS in IT management from Webster University. I should finish in the fall. I’m considering pursuing a degree in electrical and computer engineering from MU after I graduate,” he added.
Gissan Al Bahhash is the newest member of the ETS team. He has worked in the machine shop for a year-and-a-half on a part-time basis but would not be averse to his position becoming full time.
The milling and lathe work Al Bahhash is doing for the college is the same work he was doing in Iraq and Libya before he came to this country. He landed in Columbia after serving as an interpreter for the American forces in Iraq. When his situation there became dangerous, an Army officer from Wentzville sponsored his participation in a program that provided him with a special immigration visa. He came to this country with his wife and two young daughters.
“I have a cousin in Nashville, but we liked Columbia more. For a family, this is the best place — quiet, clean. It’s really nice,” Al Bahhash said.
“One of my friends, a doctor, asked me what kind of work I could do, and he introduced me to Marty Walker [the college’s director of administrative services] in February 2010. I’m so happy to find a job. I really like it here.”
Al Bahash said the biggest continuing problems in Iraq are corruption, along with a lack of electricity and good drinking water.
“I talk to my family in Iraq every day. It’s a lot better now than it was before 2003.
“There are many different people from different places in Columbia who are very nice. My daughters go to Grant school. They didn’t speak English when we came but are picking it up fast.
“We are getting ready to buy a house. Everything is going OK,” said Al Bahhash.
Brian Samuels has been with the machine shop side of ETS for 16 years. His expertise in Tungstun Inert Gas (TIG) welding — a welding process that is difficult to master but that allows the welder more control and produces strong, high-quality welds — is utilized frequently for faculty and student research and in support of class projects.
“I end up teaching students enough about the machine work to do their projects and if they stay here long enough, they get pretty good at it. If you see how things are made, it helps you with the design,” Samuels said.
“It’s prototype work, one of something or a few of something. It’s the least efficient but is the most fun to do — new things rather than large quantities of the same thing.
“This is an environment of above-average intelligence. I learn something new from students every day. It’s great working with them. It keeps you young.
“I learned this stuff through the school of hard knocks — learning by doing. When I was a kid, anything that I could drive interested me and to be able to do that, I had to be able to make parts,” he said.
Samuels grew up in Columbia. He worked as an auto mechanic, taught himself welding and at one time, owned his own specialty welding shop. “I learned a lot from other people along the way. I learned quite a few different tricks from Rex [Gish].”
In his spare time, Samuels hunts for arrowheads and makes recreational use of the Missouri River with his unsinkable Boston Whaler boat, inspired by his fly-fisherman grandfather.
When Rex Gish started at the College of Engineering in 1987, each department had its own machine shop; he was hired to work for civil engineering, and then moved by Dean Hines in 1988 to Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering.
“Each department had its own techs, but everybody used mechanical. We were on a roll, doing work from every department. When people started to leave, just through attrition, they weren’t replaced and eventually the only shops left were civil and mechanical. I had the same title as Mike Klote, but he was over electrical and I was over mechanical,” Gish said.
“Later on, under Dean Thompson, everything was consolidated along with the Engineering Computer Network. I was told my job would be ending in June of 2003, the following year. That’s when ETS became a recharge center.
“I took early retirement in December 2002, but they asked if I could come back for a month and train two techs on hydraulics and vacuum systems,” he said.
Gish has signed a one-year contract every year since August 2003 to work 1,500 hours annually.
“The people in ETS are here because they want to be here, and they want to do a good job. The work is fun, the students are fun and most professors are great to deal with. If someone asks me to do something, I do it, but I do expect respect.
“I work with hydraulics, and design, build and maintain research and lab equipment. When students design something, a lot of them bring it to me. I give them every idea I have. If they don’t use any of it, that’s fine. But if they use everything I tell them, I say, ‘You’re going backwards. What I told you was something to stand on until you find a better way.’ I have a rock in my head and those students have sponges,” Gish said.
“I like hydraulics. Oil doesn’t compress. It will flow into any crevice or crack. With hydraulics, you’re in total control. It’s an easy thing not to like because you will get oily. It washes off. If you want to move something, especially if you want to move it in a controlled fashion, use oil.
“I’ve been in machine shops since I started walking. I grew up in Quincy, Ill., and you couldn’t walk six blocks in any direction without finding a mom and pop machine shop. I was thrown out of more shops before I was 16 than most people have ever been in.
“When I was nine years old, I was threading bar stock [continuous strips of raw, purified metal] on a lathe. My uncle built a bench so I could walk back and forth to do it.
“When I was 14, I cut grass to pay the rent on a garage so when I was 16, I’d have the car I wanted. It was a hangout — hot and cold running people. Several of my buddies met their wives there,” Gish said.
In 1968, Gish started working at Gardener Denver Co. in Illinois — a manufacturer of industrial compressors, blowers, pumps, loading arms and fuel systems. But in 1981, he said, oil drilling declined and he went back down the ladder he had climbed at the company.
In 1977, one of Gish’s friends who owned a machine shop was in an automobile accident and was laid up for six months. Gish offered to run the shop. After his friend recovered, he continued to supply Gish with work.
“I built a shop and moved my machines in, and then bought more machines. I had more work than I could do. I hired someone to help out and taught him a lot about machining and took on more work. But in 1986, everything crashed,” he said.
That’s when he came to the university.
Gish’s personal life has been as full and busy as his career, with nine children, seven of whom are stepchildren. His oldest stepson told him that he was sure glad Gish came along. Gish and the second oldest stepson built race engines together. After he came to Columbia five of the kids joined him, over time.
Gish remarried just over two years ago. Several of his children are in the area, and some mornings he takes one of his grandkids fishing before he comes to work. His youngest son is the IT director for Boone County and lives right next door with his family.
“I’ve had 24 great years in Columbia,” said Gish.