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Holladay Journal

A legacy of dedication: SLCC names lab after longest-serving instructor Julie Slama

Nov 07, 2023 11:42AM ● By Julie Slama

This fall, SLCC’s auto collision repair and refinishing training lab was named after Neal Grover, who has been a part of the school for 65 of its 75 years. (Photo courtesy of Neal Grover)

As a student at Utah Technical College at Salt Lake, now Salt Lake Community College, Steve Mitchell learned how to solder rather than weld a pinhole closed in sheet metal, a technique he learned from his automotive instructor, Neal Grover.

“I’d show technicians and they’d say, ‘nobody does that,’” he said. “That’s one of the many things I learned from Mr. Grover. It’s the most efficient and best way to do it. I’ve never seen anybody else do it that way in 35-plus years. Now there’s a whole bunch of people who are using his knowledge in shops.”

Grover, at 84, is an adjunct professor at SLCC. He has been a student, instructor and administrator with the college for 65 years, just one decade shy of the school’s existence.

This fall, the auto collision repair and refinishing training lab was named after him. 

“Having Mr. Grover’s name on this lab shows the value of respect that he has earned,” Mitchell said. “I was there four years ago and went down to the school. Neal grabbed a torch and in minutes, he was welding. At 80 years old, he could do techniques that 30-year-olds couldn’t match his skill level.”

Grover’s relationship with the school began when he returned from active duty in the infantry.

“I didn’t have a car, didn’t have any money, didn’t have any education so I enrolled at Salt Lake Area Vocational School at 431 South 600 East,” he said. “It’s reputation was, ‘If you want to see the bad asses, go to the vocational school.’ But I wanted to learn how to build and customize a car. I was awarded a scholarship my second year. It was $86 for a full ride.”

In 1960, Grover earned his certificate of accomplishment from the school then known as Salt Lake Trade Technical Institute. He served on its automotive advisory committee and became an instructor for a salary of $575 per month.

“That included us cleaning the bathroom and the shop,” he remembered.

Grover taught classes for the Manpower Development and Training Act of 1962, a program “that Kennedy put together to train the guys coming back from the service in the trades and the hardcore unemployable. There were some rough guys in that class,” he said.

Technology and equipment were rudimentary.

“We put the car on jigs and held it in position while it was welded,” he said. “We had little technology to work with and the tools we used were handmade and primitive.”

He also ran his own shop, Grover’s Body and Fender Repair.

“We’d paint the whole car for 80 bucks. That’s when gasoline was 28 cents per gallon,” he said. 

Grover used his skills to build and customize his own cars, including a 1962 metallic midnight blue Corvette, which he sold for $1,800 and gave his dad the money. Even today, Grover has his shop set up in his garage in Holladay.

Mitchell remembered, “His command of the tools he has is unmatched. When you see somebody like Mr. Grover know what he’s doing, it doesn’t look the same as others who are just getting by.”

Grover taught the Vocational Improvement Program at the downtown campus. In 1967, the school, then known as Utah Tech, moved most programs to its current Redwood Campus. Grover followed one year later when the automotive trades center building was completed.

“I saw that building go up in 1968, and I saw it go down,” Grover said, in reference to the automotive building being torn down in 2010 after the program moved to the Larry H. Miller Campus in Sandy in 2001.

After the completion of Redwood automotive building, the school added an associate degree in applied science in auto collision repair and refinishing. Grover was the first to receive that distinction.

In the 1970s, he earned his bachelor’s and master’s degree in trade and industrial education from Utah State University.

Grover continued to teach collision repair, sharing his students with the paint instructor, Chuck Spainhower.

“I enjoyed working with Neal and Chuck,” said Larry Barlage, who was hired by Grover in 1983 and worked beside him for decades. “Many times, you’d see Neal bring his students into the paint shop to see something special before and after it was painted. Chuck would do the same thing with the paint students showing them something in Neal’s class. They worked together as a team.”

The bond of the instructors wasn’t lost on their students.

“I think of them as the dynamic duo. They did everything very well together,” Mitchell said.

Pete Hoffman admired his instructors.

“Neal has been my mentor and friend since early ’80s and Chuck was equally an amazing person,” he said. “They were like Tom and Jerry. There was a connection between them; they melded together.”

The two instructors educated about 150 Japanese students every summer in the 1990s.

“They came here wanting to learn automotive skills, so we’d find host homes around the college for them to stay and I taught welding and Chuck taught them paint,” Grover said about his late colleague and friend.

Mitchell said the program was amazing. 

“It seems unbelievable that this school in Japan sent their students to a specific university, a two-year college in Utah for training and then, Mr. Grover and Mr. Spainhower trained the students through an interpreter. It was remarkable,” he said.

Grover taught ICAR (Inter-Industry Conference on Auto Collision Repair) for decades. Amongst his numerous career awards, he received the ICAR Founders Award for the region and was inducted into its hall of fame.

“Back in 1979, we had the Detroit Iron. Our cars were selling, but there was no technology going into. The Europeans and Japanese had their cars, and they had a repair manual to follow. We had nothing. So, we got together and came up with ICAR. The idea was to train people on the curriculum that was necessary to repair a car. Now, it’s specific to the car,” he said, adding that there are more than 100 online ICAR classes. “Back then, we’d have all the parts, there would be a blueprint for it, and everything could be very specific to the way the car was designed.”

Hoffman also instructed ICAR. 

“Neal was an ICAR instructor at the concept of it and he got me into teaching. It’s been amazing to see ICAR evolve. Early on, he’d set up a slide carousel that would ding when it was time to advance the slides. One of his famous sayings before ICAR classes, was, ‘It’s time for The Gong Show.’ He has a wry sense of humor. He comes up with things off the cuff; his timing is impeccable.”

Barlage learned from Grover that humor is necessary in teaching.

“Neal can make a bad situation better and laugh along the way. I changed my teaching to model that after him. When I get a laugh or two in the beginning of the class, everything goes smoother,” he said. 

Mitchell said Grover interjected humor in class, but he also could take a joke.

“My first year, I went to his house with Oreo cookies and put them all over his car. When he came into class, I joked about him being late. He was eating an Oreo cookie, saying he went out to breakfast. For his 80th birthday, we went to his house and did the same thing. He still laughed at it,” he said, adding Grover always wore his white shop coat at school. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he wears his coat around his house.”

While instructing full-time, Grover guided students to their potential, helping many become state and national Skills USA/VICA (Vocational Industrial Clubs of America) winners.

“It was more hands-on than it is now. They don’t do stuff today like we did back then. You had to be a metal artist,” Grover said.

Hoffman, who placed second at state, joined Grover when SLCC student Joey Hatch won VICA nationals.

“That was one of the biggest experiences I’ve ever experienced. Joey was such a good learner and Neal put so much effort into teaching him to do things properly,” he said.

Grover said that was his goal.

“My biggest challenge is helping kids fulfill their potential, to give them everything they needed to be successful. I taught every kid like the kid was mine,” he said. 

Barlage said Grover often worked individually with students.

“Neal would take one or two students if they were having trouble doing something and he’d work on the problem to get the students up to industry standards, just polishing the rough spots. He got everybody to do their best. If students would say, ‘Hey, we messed up; What are we going to do?’ He’d go through a repair procedure with them and use it as a teaching experience so the whole class learned,” he said.

Hoffman remembers asking Grover for help.

“Neal always pushed you a little when you asked for help. He wouldn’t step in and take over the repair. He explained it and let you work it. If things started to go wrong, he’d say, ‘Get back to the basics.’ I used that through my whole career,” he said. 

Grover said the students are his favorite part of teaching. 

“I was with a bunch of kids, six hours every day for nine months. There’s an association there. If one kid is missing, that part of the recipe is gone. Everybody brought a piece of personality into class,” he said.

Mitchell came to the school from Chicago.

“Before I went back after my first year, the body and paint classes got together for a huge barbecue. I learned Mr. Grover could be strict on teaching and discipline, but there’s room to enjoy the day. He taught us to balance those two things. If it wasn’t him, I’m not sure that after the first year, I would have gone back. I made that connection with is imperative to being engaged. To this day, it’s 1,400 miles from Chicago at Salt Lake, but he’s still like a father,” he said. 

It’s something Hoffman learned as well.

“Neal taught me the reward of being able to do what you like and being happy while making a good living and to enjoy it with others,” he said. 

Grover said teaching “has been a great trip.”

“I taught all kinds of people and made all kinds of friends. I dearly love all those guys. We’re family,” he said. “I wanted to be a body man; teaching wasn’t my goal. But, it sure worked out for me.”  λ