Durham Tech director transforms lives in Triangle’s automotive industry

Nate Smith (right) instructs students on oil changing basics.

On a Wednesday morning in early June, Nate Smith hopped in his Ford truck, flipped the A/C on full blast, and set out for Holloway Street. He’s meeting with the owner of AutoSense Service Center to discuss an opening for a mechanic.

He has a student in mind.

It’s a routine visit for Smith, a Durham native, who goes out of his way to help his students secure jobs.

AutoSense is almost 100 percent employed by Durham Tech graduates, much, in part, because of Smith’s unwavering support for his students. According to Smith, most dealerships, garages, or automotive retailers in the area have vehicle bays chocked full of Durham Tech alumni.

“I can look my students in the eye and promise them a job,” Smith said. “It’s such a guarantee, that if you came through the program, got ASE Certified, and threw a dart at a map of the U.S. from across the room, you could get a job wherever it landed. I can’t say that for any other career other than nursing because everywhere you go, you’ve got broke down cars and broke down bodies.”

Smith has seen the fruit of his labor since he started teaching in 2001.

“There are some dealerships in this town where more than 60 percent of their mechanics came out of Durham Tech,” Smith said. “When you teach a student how to fix a car and then you walk through a dealership two years later and they call out your name. There they are. They’re making $40,000 to $60,000 per year. They’re feeding their families. They’re doing well – and to know you had a little part to play in that – it feels good to know you made a difference in those folk’s lives.”

‘You light up when you teach’

Once the owner of AutoSmith Garage, Smith transitioned to teaching after a conversation in the fall of 2000. A student at Durham Tech, who worked under Smith, told him he had a knack for it.

“When he graduated from Durham Tech and got ready to go to NC State, he looked at me and said, ‘You really need to consider closing your garage and start teaching full-time at Durham Tech. I came here knowing nothing and I’ve watched you take two hours to show me how to fix something and I knew you weren’t getting paid for it. You have lost money to teach me and you love it. You light up when you teach.’ ”

Smith thought about that conversation for the next several months.

“I was driving home from dropping my kids off at church camp that following summer and kept running his words through my head,” Smith said. “You lost money to teach me, you light up when you teach. I wondered if it was true. I think he’s crazy, but what if he’s right?”

Nate Smith (right) meets with Xun Qian (left), owner of Autosense Garage, to talk about employing one of his students after graduation.

His next stop was Durham Tech.

“I knew Durham Tech was off of Highway 147 somewhere so I thought, I’ll just find Durham Tech, I’ll roll up in there and I’ll let them know I have my Bachelor’s degree in education, another Bachelor’s degree in theology, I’m Master ASE Certified, and I run a shop,” Smith said. “I talked to someone in the automotive program and got a call from the director the next day. He said, ‘We’ve been looking for someone. You’d be perfect. We want you, we need you.’ ”

Robert Ballard, automotive instructor at Chapel Hill High School, was 17 when he enrolled in Smith’s program. He was an AutoSmith Scholarship recipient and originally just wanted a certificate or diploma, but Smith pushed him to get a degree.

Afterward, Smith helped him get a job as a continuing education instructor at the College.

“I don’t think he loves anything more than teaching and he loves impacting people’s lives. I wouldn’t be where I’m at right now if it wasn’t for Nate,” Ballard said. “He got me my start in automotive, a career, and now teaching so he’s really led the path for me to have financial security. I don’t have to worry or rely on anyone else. He helped me establish my life.”

Walking in father’s footsteps

Smith is a family man. It’s a legacy in his family.

“Dad was very gracious, benevolent, and driven. He didn’t know any enemies,” Smith said. “He was just a great guy and I wish I could be more like him.”

The late Glen Loy Smith, Sr. was a business man, minister, and former adjunct instructor at Durham Tech that placed high value on equality and helping others.

“He was a big believer in Durham Rescue Mission. He liked changing people’s lives,” Smith said.

In 2006, Smith started the AutoSmith Scholarship with the Durham Tech Foundation, which offsets the cost of one introductory automotive course, to serve as a starting point for a college career.

“I wanted to do something big, something that counted for something,” Smith said. “I saw the need of giving a percentage of your paycheck back to help students. It’s my way of honoring my dad, honoring Durham Tech, and helping automotive students who wouldn’t have the funds otherwise.”

When his dad passed away in 2008, Smith altered the scholarship to give priority to individuals in the homeless community by way of Durham Rescue Mission.

“I wanted to tailor the scholarship to the homeless to honor my dad,” Smith said. “The inspiration for what I do comes from Dad’s commitment. In some ways, he’s still having an effect on this earth.”

The AutoSmith Scholarship has been awarded to 16 students since its inception.

Smith’s dream for the automotive department at Durham Tech grew last year when Marc Pons, owner of Chapel Hill Tire, also started an automotive scholarship at the College.

Pons, who has brought on a number of Durham Tech students for work experience at his business’ locations, said Smith’s passion is an inspiration.

“Nate cares deeply for his students. That’s what makes him a great leader,” Pons said. “Nate takes a keen interest in his students’ well-being and that leaves a lasting impact.”

A family tradition

The Smith family has a rich Durham Tech heritage. All five of his children have attended or will attend Durham Tech.

His three oldest children attended the College before joining the Navy, pursing business, and becoming a nurse, while his fourth child is a current student in the Architectural Technology program. His youngest will start Middle College High School on Durham Tech’s campus this year.

“You could say Durham Tech is a Nathan Smith family tradition,” Smith said. “We believe in Durham Tech.”

Smith said he has no plans on slowing down anytime soon.

“As long as Durham Tech will have me, I’m here,” Smith said. “This is not a job. I love it. There are some aspects, like paperwork, that is not my forte, but I endure the paperwork to watch people learn to do something they didn’t think they could do.”

Nate Smith