When experience counts for more than a credential

Flickr/Melinda Stuart
Flickr/Melinda Stuart

I was the youngest of three brothers and only five years old when my oldest brother left Auburn after his junior year and married. His dream was to become an aerospace engineer, and even without a college degree, he did.

In his first engineering job at Hayes International Corporation in Birmingham, he helped design the components of aircraft and space vehicles. Those years of experience led him to Huntsville, where he became a chief test stand engineer for the Redstone project, the program that would launch the first Americans into space.

We have a photo of President Kennedy shaking his hand when Kennedy toured Redstone Arsenal in 1963.

My brother was soft spoken and gentle, a good father to his two sons, and an active member of his church and community. He also loved to fly, and when he got his pilot’s license, he took our father up in a private plane for the only flight dad would ever experience.

My brother even began building a private plane of his own in his garage.

But after the Apollo mission landed astronauts on the moon, expenditures in the federal budget for space exploration took a drastic cut. My brother saw what was happening, so he quit and found a secure job as plant engineer for a company that made trailers for long-haul trucks.

He fell into a deep depression. He also suffered a heart attack. Doctors put him on heart medications and antidepressants, and forbid him to fly. He abandoned that project in his garage.

I’m not a pilot myself, but I love flying to different parts of the world, and like my brother, I suffer from severe depression. Perhaps travel and adventure were the things that best enabled us to feel free of worldly concerns.

One Saturday, his usual day off, my brother was inspecting an enormous oven-like piece of equipment that melted aluminum so it could be formed into the appropriate shape for the sides of tractor trailer rigs. Somehow the oven’s heavy steel door disengaged and fell on his head, killing him instantly. When my sister was alive, we often wondered aloud whether the accident had been an accident at all.

Just as my brother pursued his career without a college degree in engineering, I became a full professor in English without a Ph.D. Although I’d never taken a journalism course or been the full-time employee of a news-gathering organization, I was able to cover crime stories in the American South and foreign wars in Central America and the Middle East. I was once injured doing that, but of course survived.

I suppose freelance journalism without a degree is similar to engineering without a degree. Both proved dangerous for my brother and me. We were proud of what we had been able to do, but maybe going off on our own was a mistake.

My brother died doing a job he hadn’t wanted to take. And my own family might be left with nothing but bylines and funeral expenses. Even so, there’s a power and a freedom to be found in making it on your own—something my brother and I can lay claim to, despite the costs.

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Dennis Covington, who died in April 2024, was the author of six books, including Salvation on Sand Mountain, a finalist for the National Book Award. His final book was Revelation: A Search for Faith in a Violent Religious World.


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