PBL Hall of Fame inductees share stories, offer advice to students

PAXTON – When he was a business teacher in the spring of 2013, Paxton-Buckley-Loda High School Principal Travis Duley proposed the idea of having a hall of fame for former students of PBL, Paxton and Buckley-Loda High School.

When the idea came up, Duley said the idea also came up for the inductees to speak to the student body. That is what the inductees did Thursday during a school assembly held at the PBL High School gymnasium.

“Every single one of us is different,” Duley said to the students during the assembly. “Here’s the awesome part about all of this, and definitely the one thing I want you to walk away from this understanding: Every single one of you have something in common with these three inductees. That thing is where you are, where you go to school and where you are from.”

The three inductees Duley referred to are members of the first-ever PBL Hall of Fame class, all inducted this year: Frank Drendel (Paxton High School Class of 1963), Scott Garrelts (Buckley-Loda High School Class of 1979) and Sam Schweighart (PBL High School Class of 1995).

“Dr. Schweighart went to school in this very building, walked these hallways every day of his high school career,” Duley said. “All three of these men grew up in the communities where you are growing up in. Don’t underestimate yourself just because of where you’re from. It’s a great thing coming from our small, tight-knit communities. These three men sitting in front of me today all went on to accomplish amazing things just like each and every one of you can.”

Schweighart

As a member of the board of directors member and co-founder of Terrafugia, Schweighart has given himself the opportunity to develop a flying car called the TF-X.

He co-founded the company in 2006 after getting a Master’s of Science and Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Aerospace Engineering along with a colleague from the school.

“We said sure, why not? I knew nothing about business, and he knew nothing about business, but we met up with some MIT business students, put together a business plan, entered (the flying car) into a competition, and finished in second place,” Schweighart said.

Schweighart’s flying car went on its first test flight on a January day in what he called the “coldest place on earth” – Plattsburgh, N.Y.

“If you’ve ever been there, it’s right next to Canada,” Schweighart said.

Along with the cold temperatures, Schweighart said he was also uncomfortable with the flying car’s different takeoff techniques as opposed to an airplane.

“We were afraid of screaming down the runway -- that the flying car was going to stall and bad things were going to ensue,” Schweighart said.

After some failed tests at slower speeds, the flying car went up in the air after a drive of 65 miles per hour.

“It is amazing. It is breathtaking,” Schweighart said. “All I could think of is, ‘Land that plane right now.’ The rest is history.”

Schweighart described the experience as the best of his life. He has had many experiences to choose from, including trips to Alaskan glaciers, trips to Kenya and Ethiopia, sailboating in the Virgin Islands and sails with dolphins in Meditteranean Sea, among others.

Schweighart also was on a reality show called “Escape from Experiment Island” on the channel TLC that lasted one season.

“Life’s an adventure,” Schweighart said. “I really like that philosophy, and I’ve tried to live by it, and I’ve been pretty fortunate to have quite a few.”

Like the flying car, Schweighart’s career fight, he said, was a result of taking advantage of the following saying – sure, why not?

“I didn’t wake up one morning and say, ‘Today, I’m going to be on reality television.’ Life just doesn’t work that way. Instead, it’s always one small opportunity, one chance event, one little thing that came my way that I said yes to. That opportunity led to another opportunity, which one day led to some producer calling me up and saying, ‘You’re on. Let’s go.’”

At MIT, Schweighart helped to develop the Student Emergency Medical Society on the campus.

“I was extremely disappointed that they didn’t have an ambulance service,” Schweighart “It turned out to be an opportunity for us to come in there and say, ‘We’ll do it.’ So we created an ambulance service that we wanted the way we wanted to do it, and it was the best experience ever.”

The opportunity started on a fateful day as a lifeguard at the Paxton Pool in between his junior and senior years at PBL High School.

“Back then, we had a three-meter board and high-diving board. I don’t think they have it anymore. If you fall from the three-meter board into the water, it was no big deal. We’re lifeguards, and we know how to save them – but one didn’t. He fell onto the concrete,” Schweighart said. “We had no training to fall back on other than first aid. We called 911, made sure he didn’t move and just sat there.

“When the EMTs came, I asked them, ‘What more could we do? What could we have done better?’ He said, ‘By the way, there’s an EMT class coming up next week,’ and I said, ‘I should take it.’” I loved it. It was great – the flashing lights, driving fast, the sirens and helping people.”

After becoming a paramedic, the opportunity led to Schweighart joining the Paxton EMS ambulance service. Prior to developing the ambulance service, he was part of the Illini EMS at the University of Illinois, where he received his bachelor’s degree in Aerospace Engineering.

“I could have said no. It’s the summer. I’m a senior. I’m working on a tan, but I said, ‘Yes, I’ll take class at night,’” Schweighart said. “On that fateful day, I never thought, ‘I want to be a paramedic.’ I was like, ‘Math, science and physics all the way. Go nerds.’ I never thought I would do medicine. Saying no is easy, but saying yes is adventurous.”

Of course, not all opportunities have been so fruitful. He went to a kicking camp during high school years hoping to have a spot on the football team as its punter.

One fateful football game against Watseka ended that experiment, as a punt went straight up in the air and back down near him.

“That was the last time coach (Jerry Zimmerman) put me in as a punter. Not every opportunity is going to lead you somewhere, and that’s OK,” Schweighart said. “You just want to keep doing as many as you can. I’m not saying you have to wait for those opportunities to come your way, either. You can go after them.”

 No matter what opportunities came his way, Schweighart still remained a math geek at heart.

Schweighart worked at Charles Stark Draper Laboratory, where he was the primary investigator for an internal R&D project, and also contributed to major upgrades of the Trident missile guidance and navigation systems. In addition, he has worked at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where he designed and implemented a 6-DOF motion simulator for a satellite interferometer test bed.

Terrafugia is developing a  roadable aircraft called the Transition as well as its flying car. Both of these items are designed to be able to fold their wings, enabling the vehicles to also operate as street-legal road vehicles.

Schweighart’s mathematical prowess was evident even as a student at PBL. As a member of the math team, he won the ICTM state championship in Geometry in 1993 and in Algebra II in 1994

“I remember walking around the halls with my TI-85 calculator in my pocket,” Schweighart said. “I was hot stuff, and I thought that was cool – I’m sure it wasn’t.”

As he did, Schweighart implored PBL’s current students sitting Thursday in the high school gymnasium to “take advantage of all the opportunities that you have here.”

“From football to FFA to math team to Madrigals to show choir to basketball to band – you name it, it’s here,” Schweighart said. “The best part is PBL is small enough to where you could do anyone you want. I was 95 pounds or less when I played football, and I still played. You don’t have to be a math nerd to join the math team. You just have to join. Just say yes. I promise you that if you do that enough times, you’re going to come across opportunities that are going to lead to some amazing adventures for yourself.”

Garrelts

Like Schweighart, one opportunity led to more for Garrelts.

As a Buckley-Loda High School junior, Garrelts pitched in a fateful game against Wellington that would change his life forever.

“Wellington had a pitcher who was a good left-handed pitcher. Their coach had called scouts and colleges to come watch him watch. An Eastern Illinois scout and a Philadelphia Phillies scout showed up to watch that game,” Garrelts said. “In that game, we won 1-0. I struck out 22 in a seven-inning game. After the game, the Phillies scout came up to me and said, ‘One day, you’ll be in the big leagues and you’ll be a millionaire,’ and I’m thinking, ‘Huh?’”

After more scouts started to show up to his games during his junior and senior years, Garrelts graduated from B-L in 1979. That same year, he was made the No. 15 pick in the Major League Baseball Draft by the San Francisco Giants.

It was a far cry from his wildest dreams as a boy growing up in Buckley and, occasionally, being taken for a trip to Wrigley Field in Chicago for a Cubs game.

“Being down the left-field line, you’re always looking out in the stands and on the field seeing all your idols playing baseball, and then from there, to one day, you’re on that field pitching for the San Francisco Giants against the Cubs,” Garrelts said. “In little leagues, I guess I had dreams, but I never really had a dream that I would be in the big leagues.”

Regardless, Garrelts said he had high expectations to start in the major leagues right away after being selected 15th overall.

“Wrong,” Garrelts said.

Garrelts spent his first four professional baseball years with minor league clubs in Great Falls, Mont., Clinton, Iowa., Shreveport, La., and Phoenix, Ariz. He made $600 per month for his first two years.

“That meant a lot of sardines, crackers, water and No. 1s at McDonalds. I didn’t go anywhere to leave a tip because the waitress was going to get left out,” Garrelts said. “That was a lot of hard work, but you just work through the system. I think they do it in the minor leagues that way to give you more incentive to get out. I worked my way up and got into the big leagues.”

Garrelts’ big-league debut was held Oct. 2, 1982.

“It was the game of the week. All of a sudden, I go from pitching in front of anywhere from 200 people to maybe 1,500 on a good night to 45,000 people in the stands,” Garrelts said. “I still remember running out to the mound, and my legs were just shaking. Home plate looked like it was 150 feet away.

“My adrenaline was pumping, and I just thought, ‘There is no way I’m going to be able to throw a strike,’ but I was able to get through it and struck out the first three guys I faced. As I walked back into the dugout, everybody on the bench was giving me a standing ovation for that effort.”

Garrelts went on to have a solid career with the Giants, posting a 69-53 record with a 3.29 earned-run average and 703 strikeouts.

He played for the National League in the 1985 MLB All-Star Game and helped San Francisco reach the 1989 World Series with an NL-best 2.28 ERA and a 14-5 record. In 2008, he was honored by the Giants with a plaque outside of AT&T Park as one of 43 legends to be a part of the initial San Francisco Giants Wall of Fame.

Such success, Garrelts said, is possible for current youth in the Paxton-Buckley-Loda area.

“This area is big for baseball,” Garrelts said. “Do I believe there’s somebody in this area who can play Major League Baseball? Absolutely. Do I believe there’s more than one? Absolutely. I’ve seen the baseball in this area, and it’s good baseball.”

The first piece advice Garrelts gave to the students at Thursday’s ceremony is to work hard.

“I thought I worked hard when I was in school, but I didn’t work nearly as hard as I needed to physically or mentally. The physical side is easy,” Garrelts said. “It’s the mental side that’s hard – are you studying the other players? Do you know their strengths or weaknesses? Do you know your own mechanics? Are you able to spot your fastball in and out? That’s what’s going to separate you, but you’ve got to believe it.”

Making adjustments is key as well, Garrelts said.

“I remember in my first game in A ball, I walked four guys in a row,” Garrelts said. “Other guys on the bench would say, ‘Don’t be afraid to try something different.’ I didn’t know how to make the adjustments, so it was a long process, but once I learned how to make adjustments, I was setting hitters up. Now is the time to start learning how to make adjustments and power yourself in the classroom and on the athletic field. The more you know about what you’re doing, the more in charge you are.”

It is also important, Garrelts said, to try to uplift teammates with hard work and self-confidence.

“You’ve just got to start believing in yourself. Even at this age or younger, you’ve got to start realizing that if you work harder, you’re going to pull everybody else up who’s behind you,” Garrelts said. “Don’t try to beat somebody else down to lift yourself up. With an uplifting attitude, you’re going to improve your teammates and classsmates. You’re going to improve everybody around you.”

Lastly, Garrelts said to the students that they have to be accountable for their own successes and failures.

“It’s not your parents’ fault, your teachers’ fault or your coaches’ fault. You own it. It’s up to you. It’s not up to them,” Garrelts said. “They’re putting you in a situation. It’s up to you to put forth that effort.”

Drendel

Having been a C student from a not-so-wealthy family who built a multi-billion dollar industry, Drendel had some advice for the PBL students as well.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re a C student,” Drendel said. “Whatever you do, do it the best you can and do it with gusto.”

As a student at Paxton High School, Drendel said his interests were never academic.

“All I wanted to do was play football, look at the cheerleaders and drive the hot cars,” Drendel said.

He went to Northern Illinois University on a football scholarship.

“I was so fortunate. I made the team and played football my freshman and sophomore,” Drendel said.

During that time, Drendel “had to work” to pay his way through. He did so at a local television station.

With his knowledge of designing systems, Drendel got a job with Superior Continental in Hickory, N.C., in 1972.

There, as he lived in a trailer with his wife with $5,000 in life saving, he showed his gusto by acquiring CommScope from his employer, paying for it with his life savings.

Drendel launched Comm-Scope as a stand-alone company in 1976. Today, it is worth $4 billion, and he serves as a non-executive chairman of the board.

The company played a key role in creation of C-SPAN in 1979, and he won an Emmy in 1986 for his role in developing VideoCipher, a signal-scrambling technology for the cable television industry.

Drendel was inducted into the Cable Center Hall of Fame in 2002

Although he was not an honors student, he has some advice – go to college in accounting. For C students, technology is a place in which they need to consider a career.

“The only place to make money in this country is Wall Street. We need a lot of engineering majors and technicians,” Drendel said.  People who have experience in technologies get hired.”

Giving back

At the end of the ceremony, Drendel said the Drendel Family Foundation will donate $10,000 to the PBL Education Foundation. If the Education Foundation can match the money through its own donation efforts in one year’s time, Drendel will donate another $10,000.

 "We're hoping to give everybody iPads," Drendel said.

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