Portrait: Ron of all trades

The typical resume of a student enrolled in a diesel hydraulics class does not include a Ph.D., a Doctorate in Osteopathy, a commercial pilot’s license and ownership of a grocery wholesale trucking company.

However, these accomplishments are those of 66-year-old Ronald Swanson, enrolled at Northern Maine Community College (NMCC), Presque Isle, ME.

Swanson’s first of many careers began after he earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of Chicago in 1968, spent two years as a post-doctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins University and then joined the faculty of the department of biology at the University of Virginia.

Five years later, in 1975, he ventured into trucking. “Since my great-grandfather was Claus Claussen, the founder of Claussen Pickles, I thought I’d like to work in the food industry, so I bought a wholesale trucking company in Florida and worked in that industry for 10 years,” Swanson said.

When asked what he learned from his time in trucking, Swanson said, “I should have learned how to be a technician then because I used all older trucks that required a lot of maintenance. So at one point I finally just leased trucks and had the service performed for me.

“I also learned that you have to be a big guy to survive. Eventually, competition with much larger companies forced me to look again for a new line of work.”

Swanson wanted a change and turned to a different mode of transportation, and in 1985, earned his commercial pilot’s license. He worked for two years as a flight instructor/commercial pilot.

Over the next 13 years, he graduated from medical school, worked as an emergency room physician and later opened his own practice. “I became so busy that I had no time off, and my wife insisted that I retire,” Swanson said.

So in August of 2000, he and his wife, Randi, moved to Aroostook County, ME.

“I lasted in retirement only seven months before I started looking for something more to do. Retirement is not what people think-if you don’t have something to occupy your time, time becomes your enemy,” Swanson said. So, in April of 2001, he began work as a general practice physician.

During that time, his wife started attending classes at NMCC, which prompted Swanson to look into the school. “I thought maybe I could use school as a transition to retirement, and I wanted to learn something that was different from anything I had done before.”

Swanson decided to enroll in Diesel Hydraulics Technology, a National Automotive Technicians Education Foundation (NATEF)-certified, two-year program emphasizing the basic principles of mechanics along with heavy equipment operation and the tuning-up of diesel engines in the first year.

Specialization in diesel hydraulics occurs in the second year. Hydraulics system repair, diesel engine rebuilding, heavy-duty drivetrain differentials and transmissions, heavy-duty welding and air conditioning are features of the program’s second phase.

“Although the original intent of the program was for the agricultural industry, now it is geared toward truck repair, with a full 90% of our graduates entering the trucking industry as technicians,” said Diesel Hydraulics Program Director Bob Rice.

“In class we partner with local fleets and businesses; they’ve been very supportive by bringing in trucks and equipment for the students to work on,” he said. However, even with the support of local businesses, “we’re forced to triple-up or even quadruple-up in class because we just don’t have enough space or pieces of equipment,” Swanson said.

“I think that the program would be able to do so much more if it had the financial backing to expand, obtain more equipment and admit more students,” he said. “Currently, there are plenty of jobs available in the trucking industry, but I think there is a shortage of the quality programs that are needed to train people.”

Rice added, “I’ve attempted to teach my students the need to continually learn. For example, although the program doesn’t cover issues like changing technology in the trucking industry and emissions regulations, I do bring them to the forefront in lectures and encourage further discussion on them.”

During such lectures Swanson “brings excellent questions and gets other students interested in asking questions as well,” Rice said. “He doesn’t have any mechanical experience, unlike many of the students entering the program who have worked in related fields or taken courses in this area at the high school level, but it’s not detrimental as he is interested and picks up quickly. He is a motivator,” he said.

With one semester already under his belt, Swanson is looking forward to the future and to the next career he will tackle. “I’ve begun to think about how I might use my diesel hydraulics training when I finish, and I am thinking about the possibility of buying an old piece of heavy equipment, refurbishing it, and then selling it for a profit,” he said.

Facts & Figures

  • Northern Maine Community College, Presque Isle, ME, was established in 1961.
  • Suspension & Steering Systems, Industrial Safety and Air Conditioning Systems/Transport Refrigeration are some of the courses offered in the diesel hydraulics associate degree-granting program.
  • Ronald Swanson’s time in medical school became a newsworthy event, when, during his final year, his son Don was accepted to the same school in the same program; it marked the first-time ever that a father-son duo were enrolled in medical program at the Southeastern University in Miami simultaneously.
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