By Todd Martin
Special to the Daily Herald
HARKER HEIGHTS - At Eastern Hills Middle School, woodworking is a tradition that continues to be a popular elective deep into the high technology era.
Though students in six classes of industrial technology do countless shop projects every year, one this semester pulled a little tighter at the heartstrings and stirred patriotic and community feelings.
Three seventh-grade industrial technology classes worked together for more than 30 hours to construct a solid red oak podium, which students donated in a ceremony Wednesday to the Central Texas State Veterans Cemetery.
Theron Johnson, volunteer coordinator for the cemetery in Killeen, praised the students' efforts as he picked up the completed project from the school.
The cemetery contacted the Killeen Independent School District about borrowing a podium. Those inquiries led to Eastern Hills Middle School and to teacher Bud Ross, who is in his 13th year teaching a class that continues to grow in popularity.
Eastern Hills has the only middle school woodworking program in the school district and principal Jamie Blassingame credits that to Ross, his skill as a contractor and his commitment to students.
On Wednesday during a brief ceremony inside the front of the school, Johnson praised the students' hard work and encouraged them to continue to work with wood, a trade he said is needed, even in the age of digital networking.
For the students, who are preparing for regional competition in industrial technology, the podium project was special.
Seventh-grader Emilee Cassidy said she worked on the podium for her great-grandparents who are buried in Central Texas State Veterans Cemetery.
"It was like doing it for them," Cassidy said. "It was bittersweet," she said of the ceremony. "It was sad they weren't here, but I was happy to give it to the veterans cemetery."
"Everything we make is special because it's all of us in different classes working together," said seventh-grader Brian McEwan. "When it goes to veterans, it feels special, like we're doing something good."
Their teacher deflected all praise to his students, who he said designed the podium, did the measuring, sanding and cutting, built a prototype to test their design and completed the piece of furniture.
Part of the support structure of the podium is a purple wood called purpleheart. Ross said the Army donated the exotic lumber to his program and that it seemed appropriate to utilize it in the special project for the veterans cemetery.
"The kids were honored to do it," Blassingame said. She said 35 percent of Eastern Hills students come from military families and pointed out the school's close relationship with Adopt-A-School partner, III Corps Headquarters.
She took the opportunity to praise her industrial technology teacher. His six classes include 145 seventh- and eighth-graders and there is a waiting list.
"It's a great skill to learn," the principal said. "Many of our students have found it's their niche and they get math and science skills and learn properties of wood. It's an elective we value.
"He inspires them far beyond what they think they can do," Blassingame said of Ross.
"It's my most fun class," said McEwan, one of the seventh-graders who took part in the ceremony and helped haul the podium to Johnson's car for transport to the cemetery.
"All these skills are useful and most people won't be able to do what we can do. Mr. Ross is a good teacher," he said.
"I like how there are girls in the class learning to build for themselves," said Cassidy, pointing out that her younger sister is hoping to get into the class next year.