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Education reporter

Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

Lincoln East's Jeff McCabe Retiring, 5.10

Jeff McCabe, a Lincoln East High School woodworking teacher -- and musician -- retiring from the classroom after 40 years, sits in the school wood shop with a curly maple and walnut electric guitar he created and will donate for a school fundraiser. 

Jeff McCabe is hanging up his table saw at East High after four decades.

The veteran teacher — whose students have remodeled 23 kitchens over the past 40 years — leaves behind one of the best woodworking programs in Lincoln Public Schools.

Those students’ millworking skills were not confined to the kitchen: they’ve built all manner of cabinets, clubhouse serving stations, bookshelves, cash register counters and display cases. They made many of the kiddie-sized tables and adult-sized counters and cabinets for a new day care. They constructed high school trophy cases and sound boards for high schools and community theater.

And hundreds of students who signed up for woodworking have created tables and chairs and guitars, beautiful pieces, many of which have been selected for national competitions.

“The inlay work they do is just incredible,” said Stan Haas, who oversees skilled and technical sciences for the district.

McCabe has loved woodworking since he was a kid helping his dad, a dentist who loved to make things with wood in his spare time. He was a student at East High from 1968-74 — in the days when it was a junior high and high school — and took every shop class he could.

The teachers there built a strong program, he said, starting the first double-class period in the district for advanced students, which McCabe would later inherit as a teacher.

After high school he earned a teaching degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and then studied at an elite graduate level guitar-making program at Western Kentucky University.

He’d been selected as an alternate for the scholarship program, so he called the program director and made an appeal: He was a musician as well as a woodworker and being able to fuse those two passions was a dream he desperately wanted to make a reality.

When one of the 12 students chosen couldn’t make it, he got in, the youngest student in the program. He ultimately spent two summers learning specialized decorative and detailing: inlay and solid wood steam-bending and the sorts of skills artisans did by hand before the days of computerized design and manufacturing.

“That set me up for my whole life, my whole woodworking professional life,” he said.

The musician has built many guitars over the years, but made teaching his profession, landing his first job in Conestoga Public Schools. He spent a year there before returning to his alma mater.

When he leaves, he'll be joined by six other retiring East teachers. McCabe was there the longest, but their combined years of service total 194 years.

Two of them are also East High grads: 29-year veteran Jane Raglin Holt, who built a strong journalism program before becoming a media specialist; and 33-year-veteran Ken Flowerday, a mainstay of the school's stellar English department. 

They are among 138 people (64 of them teachers) retiring from LPS at the end of the year, and they illustrate a reality for the district: it's getting younger. A decade ago, the average teacher at East had 20 years of experience. Today, it's about 5 years.

McCabe, 62, is looking forward to spending more time on another longtime avocation: competitive water-skiing.

He said he's confident his department is in good hands, and will continue to be an important part of the the career and technical education field he's advocated for over the past 40 years. 

He's fought the stigma of career and technical education being a lesser-than area of study, arguing that such work is creative and challenging, that it can lead to college degrees and good jobs and all sorts of careers.

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“I’ve been fighting that fight every day for my entire career, trying to change perceptions,” he said.

Those perceptions have ebbed and flowed, but the pendulum seems to be swinging back.

The focus nationally — and locally — on the need for skilled workers to fill jobs in fields ranging from manufacturing to construction to welding helped spur the creation of LPS’s career academy in 2015.

While there aren’t the number of career and technical education teachers in schools like there once were, the district has added robotics classes to all the high schools, renovated the well-established welding and automotive programs at Northeast and Lincoln High and is adding small engine and aviation classes at North Star.

And there are a growing number of partnerships with local industries, said Haas.

At Northeast, Bob Freese, who has been helping kids build houses for 25 years in collaboration with the Lincoln Housing Authority, launched many students into construction-related careers.

At East, McCabe’s students have gone on to study woodworking in college, at least 20 of them build airplane interiors at Duncan Aviation and others have started their own businesses.

Lots of others landed elsewhere but have some really great pieces they made in high school.

“I challenge kids to rise to a really, really high level of performance,” he said. “And kids have done well by that.”

Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSreist.

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