Retired Educator Becomes Living Legend with Naming of Neal Grover Lab at SLCC

02/26/2024 by I-CAR

Retired educator and I-CAR instructor Neal Grover has always seen himself as an ordinary working man. So as accolades keep rolling in after retirement, you can imagine the depth of this modest man's astonishment. The most recent one makes him a living legend. How did this happen, the now 84-year-old Grover marvels. "I'm just a guy who did my job, and I loved doing it."

The latest honor was announced with much fanfare in August 2023. The Salt Lake Community College (SLCC) lab where Grover launched the collision repair careers of students for 52 years was named the Neal Grover Auto Collision Repair Training Lab. SLCC came up with the idea to honor Grover, as its longest-serving staff member, as part of its 75th anniversary. Previously, the school honored Grover at his 2017 retirement with the distinction of a professor emeritus title.

grover next to plaque

Grover's post-retirement honors include a second emeritus title recognizing the 42 years he taught for I-CAR. He was the first to achieve this honor. Serving I-CAR since its start in 1979 until he retired in 2021, Grover championed I-CAR's mission as a volunteer and was a popular instructor and welding certification tester. His dedication to I-CAR runs so deep, this is the second I-CAR blog to feature his many accomplishments. The first is here.

“I-CAR is so grateful for Neal's passion to help students learn and grow,” says Lori Barrington, I-CAR's Vice President of Delivery. “His impact in the industry and with his students is difficult to match. We were so excited to recognize him with I-CAR instructor emeritus status.” She added that Grover's commitment, especially in I-CAR's early days, “cannot be understated. Instructors like Neal and partnerships with schools like SLCC are what I-CAR has been built upon. Neal is truly an I-CAR legend. I was honored to attend the dedication of the SLCC lab to an individual so well deserving.”

Grover may have been too immersed in his daily routines to recognize the specialness of what he was doing day in and day out. At the end of the school day, he switched to his I-CAR instructor lab coat to teach an evening or weekend I-CAR class. He also managed to run an automotive business out of his garage for many years. Over the course of a half-century-plus career, there naturally were high and low points. The tough times that tested his dedication - like the time deep budget cuts by the school shut down collision repair and Grover kept it going as a volunteer - speak as loudly as the many SKILLS USA medals and other successes achieved by his students.

Grover was renowned for his dedication. He once neglected a skiing injury; and when he finally got an X-ray, he learned he had been teaching all week with a broken leg. A few years before retirement, when his doctor told him he needed a heart bypass and urged him to take the first opening for surgery, Grover found a conflict on his I-CAR schedule and delayed the surgery to another day. “I had some guys coming up from southern Utah for a class,” he explains. “I wasn't going to let heart surgery get in the way of my I-CAR class.”

Over the decades, Grover's devotion to teaching collision repair while building the skills and confidence of his school and industry students grew into a commitment of epic proportions few will ever match.

Happiest in a Classroom

Most of his Grover's career took place where he was happiest, in a classroom. A battered 1941 Chevy, his first car, was his motivation to study collision repair at a predecessor institution to SLCC. He graduated in 1960 and immediately went to work as an assistant to his teacher. In 1963, he pursued a new opportunity teaching collision repair to adults under the Manpower Development & Training Act (MDTA) of 1962.

A couple years later, the MDTA program moved and eventually was absorbed into Grover's alma mater. Grover was now reunited with his former teacher, a master technician who rarely gave positive feedback and expected a lot of his students. While a student, Grover recognized he could gain a lot from this knowledgeable teacher and worked hard to earn his respect. “I felt it was an honor to work with him, and I took the best I could from him.”

Grover also recognized the failings of his teacher, who like others from the school of hard knocks did not take time to nurture students. Grover was driven to do his best for his students. Early in his career, he earned a bachelor's and master's degree in trade and industrial education.

Kaleb and Adan outside a collision repair center

“I told my students, I'm here for you. You're not here for me.'” Over the course of an 18-month program, “we'd all get to know one another and took care of each other. We were all family.” Long before the school reform legislation, “no student was left behind” in Grover's classroom. He took extra time with students with low confidence. “I'd tell them we're all different. You have potential. Don't put yourself down. Better yourself.” His biggest reward was “watching my students progress.”

Similarly, when teaching I-CAR courses to working professionals, there was nothing Grover liked more than “a student with the attitude, Grover, there's nothing you're going to be able to teach me,' and then at the end of class, they'd tell me they learned something and enjoyed the class.”

The I-CAR Lifeline

In 1977, Grover was moved to a school administrative post in the midst of major budget cuts that closed down a number of technical programs including collision repair. The collision lab was already dismantled, with equipment and materials on pallets, ready to be shipped out. Yet Grover continued to plead with the administration. He made an offer they couldn't refuse. In addition to performing all his administrative duties, he would teach collision repair as a volunteer, without compensation for this additional work.

“You don't bail out,” Grover says. “You stick it out.” After single-handedly keeping the program afloat for two years, he was thrown a lifeline from a start-up, not-for-profit, I-CAR. “It was the 1970s. There was a gas crunch, and foreign-made fuel-efficient cars were in demand. We needed new curriculum. We were sinking until I-CAR came along. Without I-CAR, we'd have been gone.”

The fate of the college's collision repair program was intertwined with I-CAR's acceptance. Grover joined I-CAR's planning committee to get body shops and insurers in the state to buy into I-CAR's initial eight units of training. He was the first in Utah to qualify as an I-CAR instructor and for many years was a “one-man show,” teaching for I-CAR in the Salt Lake City area. He served on the Utah state I-CAR committee and contributed his expertise to developing I-CAR's curriculum. He was recognized for outstanding service with top I-CAR honors, the Founders Award and induction into I-CAR's Hall of Fame.

Kaleb and Adan outside a collision repair center

Introducing I-CAR curriculum to the school's collision repair program was one of two critical transitions Grover oversaw at SLCC. The other was recruiting and grooming his former star student Kirk Miller as his replacement. The industry was being transformed by sweeping technological advances, and Grover saw “it was time to get new blood in here from industry.”

“We had equipment in the lab that was five or six years old, but it was already obsolete,” Grover says. “Kirk stepped things up. He comes from the industry and knows what equipment students need to train on. Anything you can imagine is in the lab now. It's all state-of-the-art equipment including welders, aluminum repair equipment, structural repair equipment, straightening and aligning systems, metal fabrication equipment…..thousands and thousands of dollars of equipment.”

Miller was among those who spoke at the lab naming ceremony. “Everyone wore lab coats,” Grover recalls. “A sign (reading 'Neal Grover Collision Repair Lab') was made from a hood custom painted by 'Hondo' John Espil, a renowned artist and the college's painting professor. It was overwhelming. This was the first time the college had ever done something like this. As part of its 75th anniversary, they wanted to honor the person with the longest service; and no one's been there longer than me.”

It'd be hard to top the exhilaration of that day, but Grover looks forward to many things. He hears regularly from former students and work colleagues who drop in, call, and email. He enjoys reminiscing and catching up. “A lot of my students have done well. Some became millionaires,” he says with a smile, “and they did it with their bare hands and a good wife.” He also keeps busy with projects, which will give him a reason to use his recently-acquired TIG welder. “It’s a toy with every bell and whistle. I also want to build a small power hammer.” And just a 30-minute drive away, there’s a school lab with his name on it full of collision repair students who are always ready for a visit from a living legend.