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Veterans Flock To Boston School For Vocational Training06:31
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Brian Worley (right) works on the creation of a violin at the North Bennet Street School. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Brian Worley (right) works on the creation of a violin at the North Bennet Street School. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
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Veterans are flocking to the North Bennet Street School in Boston's North End.

Vets like Hal White: "I love it," he says. "I love coming here."

Veterans now make up 20 percent of the full-time students at North Bennet Street, which describes itself on its website as offering "intensive, hands-on training in traditional trades and fine craftsmanship."

North Bennet Street School is dedicated to the crafts. Its 150 full-time students are enrolled in eight professional programs training for careers in everything from bookbinding to violin-making and repair. And one in five students is a veteran. But three years ago, that was not the case.

Finding 'Something Else' To Do

"This is a great place for us, because a lot of us are technically minded people that like to use their hands, so we just don't adjust so well to cubicles and the regular workforce," says Brian Worley.

Worley is learning to make violins. He was a Navy helicopter aircrewman and a rescue swimmer in Afghanistan. Then, reconstructive knee surgery to repair the wear and tear from being in helicopters put him in a wheelchair for a year.

"I had to figure out something else I could do, instead of just sitting there losing my mind, so I started making guitars," Worley says. "I learned from a book how to make acoustic guitars. I made a bunch of guitars, a little over a dozen. They all sounded great. They've all been played and I know where most of them are."

Brian Worley shapes wood for the body of a violin at the North Bennet Street School. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Brian Worley shapes wood for the body of a violin at the North Bennet Street School. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Worley decided he wanted an even bigger challenge: to learn how to make violins.

"Once you get started making instruments, all roads lead to violin, because it's the top draw, it's the tough one," Worley says.

Worley used to play bass professionally. These days, he does not perform much. He spends 12 hours a day at North Bennet Street.

He says when he first showed up at the school, he had been suffering from anxiety attacks related to post-traumatic stress disorder. He finds that making a violin is a pretty good way to center yourself. He's working on his sixth one, scraping little burs off its surface until they disappear.

"You move very small amounts of material away, and it smooths things out," Worley says.

Above his work bench, he has a sign that says: "Lighten your touch."

"Yeah, I'm a big guy," he says when asked about the sign. "You know, I can do a 250-foot-pound torque on a helicopter blade all by myself in about two seconds. It takes four other guys to move the wrench. Transferring that kind of power into this field in particular has been difficult, so I keep the sign there because I'm not afraid to remove a lot of wood."

When he graduates, Worley wants to move to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where his family lives, to set up a shop, making guitars and violins.

Students With A Career In Mind

The veterans are good students.

"I think because the veterans are disciplined, they're self-motivated, self-reliant, I think faculty are very happy to have veterans here, because they'll work independently, they'll work as a team and they take orders pretty well." says Rob O'Dwyer, the school's admissions director.

Rob O'Dwyer, director of admissions at the Bennett Street School, stands in front of furniture leg examples at the school. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Rob O'Dwyer, director of admissions at the Bennett Street School, stands in front of furniture leg examples at the school. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

O'Dwyer says when he took the job as admissions director five years ago, the school's president, Miguel Gómez-Ibáñez, himself a Navy veteran, told him North Bennet Street wanted to get back to its roots. After World War I, many veterans learned a craft at the school. But when O'Dwyer started working at North Bennet Street, there were few veterans.

"In really a very short time, we've gone from say, five veterans two, three years ago to 30," O'Dwyer says.

O'Dwyer believes the veterans are drawn, in part, because there's work to be had when they graduate.

"Employment rates are fantastic," O'Dwyer says. "You really can't beat it."

Students Find Community And Healing

O'Dwyer says the veterans come for the camaraderie. And for another reason: "I think that it's cathartic to work with your hands, and I think it's therapeutic," he says.

O'Dwyer's father was a Vietnam veteran. He was disabled with PTSD.

"One of the smartest, funniest guys I ever met, but he never went back to work, and I always looked at him and thought: Here's a guy that has so much value, but he's a story in stunted potential," O'Dwyer laments.

O'Dwyer's father stays on his mind as he helps a new generation of veterans fulfill their potential.

Veterans like Mike Riley. A tour in Iraq led him to woodworking.

"Came back, I was pretty messed up, and for me, the woodworking's really therapeutic," Riley says. "I kinda fell into it by accident. It started off with me building a couple of conference room tables for my unit in my carports, and they didn't turn out very good. It was at that point where I realized I needed to start learning what I'm doing."

When Riley found out about North Bennet, he figured he'd never get in.

"I applied and got in and I am loving life," Riley says. "First of all, working with the wood, it's very organic and very healing, so there is something very good about doing work with your hands."

Veteran Grant Burger (right) at work in one of the woodwork rooms at the North Bennet Street School. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Veteran Grant Burger (right) at work in one of the woodwork rooms at the North Bennet Street School. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

When furniture-making student Grant Burger got out of the Marines, he did not have a lot of money.

"And I needed a table one time, and I just built a table, and I realized how terrible I was it, so I tried to build another table, and another table, and eventually, I realized that I needed to go to school for it," Burger recalls.

In the Marines, 51-year-old Hal White was a bomb squad technician.

"I spent 22 years destroying things, so I'm spending the next few years of my life creating things, if that makes any sense," White says.

White has been a hobbyist for decades. He likes furniture making because at the end of the day, he says, you've got something tangible.

"You get to clean up," White says. "You look back at your bench, and you go, 'I built that.' "

There's a bit of a snowball effect going on here now. Veterans come to be with other veterans. They make plans to start businesses together. One civilian enrolled because he wants to hire veterans.

Correction: An earlier web version of this story incorrectly attributed a quote made by Grant Burger to Mike Riley. The post has been updated. We regret the error.

This segment aired on November 11, 2015.

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Fred Thys reports on politics and higher education for WBUR.

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