Ephrata man, 47, overcomes hurdles to graduate from Thaddeus Stevens, starts new career

LancasterOnline.com | Cathy Molitoris | LNP Correspondent – Steve Nunemaker knows what it’s like to have to start over.

He’s done it more than once.

Nunemaker, 47, graduated from Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology in May with a degree in engineering computer aided drafting.

But that was neither his first foray into college life or his first focus on a career.

Nunemaker, who grew up in Parkesburg, graduated from Octorara High School in 1988.

After graduation, the Ephrata resident started training to become an auto mechanic but his life took an unexpected turn.

“In 1989, I was in a car accident and I crushed my spine,” he says, noting that he had to have spinal fusion surgery to recover. He was left with severe pain in his lower back and legs.

He also had a decision to make. He knew he didn’t have the stamina to work as an auto mechanic.

“After the accident, I had to reexamine what I was going to do with myself,” he says. “I was 19 years old and I had to figure out my life.”

He enrolled in Thaddeus Stevens and graduated as a machinist in 1992.

For close to two decades, he worked in the industry for various companies and even operated his own machine shop, Pork Chops Customs, out of his home in Paradise.

“I specialized in custom machine parts,” he says. “I did repairs and did a lot of work on motorcycles and street rods. It was custom work that was too small for a bigger machine shop to take on.”

Then, in 2010, tragedy struck again.

An industrial accident left Nunemaker with a crushed spine again — and this one disturbed his original spinal fusion.

“I had to learn to walk again,” he says.

And, he had to put his career as a machinist on hold while he worked on getting well.

At the advice of his then-wife, he decided to re-enroll in school and started again at Thaddeus Stevens in the mechanical engineering program in 2013.

“The first year, I did fantastic,” he says. “In the second year, when we got into the higher math, I wasn’t able to complete the high-level math portion of the program and I ended up dropping out.”

Third effort

It was time once again for Nunemaker to re-evaluate his life.

In 2015, he enrolled in Thaddeus Stevens for a third time, this time in its engineering computer aided drafting program.

Nunemaker soon found that he not only had a knack for the program, but he also had much to offer his fellow students.

His age and experience provided opportunities for Nunemaker to contribute to the class in unique ways.

“I was able to help a lot of the guys in the class,” he says. “I would bring some of them to my house and help them complete their projects in my shop. I was like an off-site tutor.”

Nunemaker helped his fellow students gain hands-on experience using milling and tooling machines, while providing real-life knowledge and experience of the industry.

Last year, Nunemaker decided he wanted to make a change in his life.

“I wanted to leave the machine technology portion of my life behind and I decided I was going to sell my machine shop,” he says.

One of his professors, Jim Knapp, learned of Nunemaker’s plans and helped arrange a deal.

“I sold my machinery to the drafting department and they installed it in one of their labs,” he says.

“I helped them get it all set up and spoke to them at length about designing a program with more hands-on opportunities for the students. One of the biggest problems designers face is that they don’t understand the actual process involved in producing the parts they are designing. Now they have the ability to do so.”

Additionally, Nunemaker donated close to $7,000 worth of equipment to the department to get the hands-on program up and running immediately.

Nunemaker says he wouldn’t trade his days at Thaddeus Stevens for anything.

“Everything I am, I owe to Thaddeus Stevens,” he says.

Being significantly older than his fellow students also didn’t deter him.

“I absolutely loved it,” he says. “It was amazing to me how fascinated the other guys in the class were with me. I think they were able to learn things from me. I always had an answer if they didn’t understand how something worked. Being a machinist, I had a unique perspective on things and thinking about things in a different way.”

He says he often stepped in if his professors couldn’t answer a question.

“There’d be a lot of times when they’d say, ‘Hey, ask Steve’ if they didn’t have an answer or had an answer but wondered if they were quite right about it,” he says. “They were extremely knowledgeable professors, but sometimes, I was able to contribute something new.”

Forming friendships

He really bonded with Knapp, his freshman professor, and Donald Hart, his sophomore professor.

“I formed a great friendship with my professors,” he says. “They are head and shoulders above other people as far as wanting their students to succeed. That’s what I loved most about the time I spent at Stevens.”

He also bonded with his fellow students — even though he was old enough to be their father.

“I was going through a lot of dark things in my life during my time at school and the nicest thing that happened to me this past year was my professors and my classmates taking an interest in me and making sure I was OK,” he says.

Knapp calls Nunemaker an inspiration to other students — and to himself.

“He’s a great example of when life knocks you down, you get up and you keep going,” he says.

Knapp says Nunemaker was able to contribute to the class in a way that traditional-age students couldn’t.

“He was able to bring his experience in machining into the class and share that with the other students,” he says. “The other students respected him and his knowledge from being in the field. They saw him as somebody who had already been out there working in the world and who could say, ‘Listen up. The instructor knows what he’s talking about.’”

Hart describes Nunemaker as a “team player” and says he appreciated what Nunemaker brought to his classes.

“He has more of a machining background that I ever did, so he could talk in detail to the students about that,” Hart says.

Hart also dedicates a portion of his class time to “real life” subjects including 401(k) plans, mortgages and more.

“Steve would chime in and had a lot to offer about these topics, too,” he says.

He says Nunemaker proved to be a great student, and a generous one.

“He sold us his equipment for under market value and that legacy is going to be at Stevens for years to come,” he says. “Our students are going to be able to learn on that machinery for years. I really can’t say enough good things about Steve.”

Nunemaker, who is employed by engineering firm EASi Technologies in Lancaster, says he wouldn’t change a thing about the route he took to where he is today.

“You have to reinvent yourself every once in a while,” he says. “Sometimes, the best thing in life is the chance to start over.”

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