Rebuilding an Opel Cadet engine

Machinist to ME – An Unplanned Life Change

A Different Path

Moody Blues, Seventh Soujourn

"It's hard to believe Jeff did that."

"Did what?" I replied.

It was 1975 and I had just started at Iowa State. Reb's mom and I were were standing by the fence, watching Saydel play their first home football game of the season.

"You didn't know ... Jeff committed suicide."

Reb, Jeff, and I had graduated the year before in '74. With my parents divorced and me out on my own, it looked like life after graduation was destined to be working at a machine shop. Jeff – my best friend since Cornell Elementary – headed off to Iowa State.

He came home for Christmas break that first year. One snowy night Jeff changed my life. He convinced me to turn everything upside down and try going to college. Broke, I owed money on my car, and every pair of jeans in my closet had holes (before it was fashionable). I'd given up on much of a future for me. Jeff hadn't.

Now I was his pall-bearer. Lost in a Lost World by the Moody Blues played at his service. That day I lowered a close friend into the ground.

The Machine Shop

Townsend Products was small (50 employees) and sat in a cornfield outside Altoona Iowa. Bob Townsend (rolly-polly, always chuckling) owned the shop. Bob's nephew Don (the joking magician) managed it. Everyone was like family.

I was not an apprenticed machinist, however after years of high-shool shop I could run anything from a lathe to a CNC machine. Tonwnsend was a great place ... but I learned that making the same part every day, for weeks and weeks ... wasn't a great career.

The fringe benefits were good (a yearly fishing trip to Canada), the pay was not. I could make my rent and eat but not much else. I could use the shop on weekends to keep my Opel running, but my career options were pretty limited.

Off to Iowa State

As a junior in high school I had good grades. When my parents divorced, my senior year went into the dumper. I spent a month in the hospital with asthma, had several incomplete classes – I shouldn't have graduated. I was not prepared for college.

But I borrowed money from Dad and the bank, sold/gave away everything I owned, then piled the rest into my Opel and headed up to Iowa State. A year older than other Freshmen, I had learned what Dad meant when he said "Sometimes you don't learn what TO do, you learn what NOT to do."

My Freshman engineering competition was a blast. Our team won first place for a project on CB radio security systems. We had working products and a detailed report, but most importantly we filled Marston Hall with our multi-media presentation. Color photos on a huge screen, trucker music (Breaker, breaker 1-9) blaring, live scenario based demonstrations; when we finished the whole room was clapping and laughing. That was a great feeling.

Back to Math 36

My non-college credit, Math36 textbook

What was NOT a great feeling was realizing how totally ignorant I was at math. I was supposed to take Calculus my first quarter, but I hadn't even had Trigonometry in high school!

I decided to fall behind a quarter: take Algebra II to brush up then come back and tackle Calc 120.

It was one of the lowest points in my life was when I realized I couldn't understand Algebra II. I got scared. I mean really scared. I had no money, no home to go back to, and no Plan B if I failed college.

I thought seriously about quitting, but I made a decision. Several times when Bob Townsend had given me a $0.25-$0.50/hr raise at the machine shop, he'd written on the back of his business card to "keep pushing". I took his words to heart and dropped all the way back to Math 36. It was Algebra I, no engineering credit, no college credit, and it put me 2/3 of a year out of sequence for most of my engineering classes.

Conquering Calculus

My Calculus textbook

Stepping WAY back to go forward turned out to be the best decision I could have made. I aced Math 36, then finished off Math 101 (Algebra II) Winter quarter with a strong C.

That spring I picked up Calc 120, and for the following three quarters I pushed through all my remaining math classes. I had to juggle my schedule like a circus acrobat, and often take prerequisites at the same time as core classes, but I made it.

If dropping back to Math 36 was an all-time low, then the final exam for my last quarter of Calculus put me on top of the world. I spent weeks studying at the library. When the instructor placed it on my desk, I looked over every page before I lifted my pencil. I literally knew the answer to every problem on that test! One silly mistake, but I SCORED 96 on the hardest 2-hour final I took in college. Knocked it out of the park!

Five Elements of a Story

Me, Inc. presentation for indieConf 2012

There are lots more stories about college, but here's the best one: I graduated in four years and one quarter. My job offer from John Deere Dubuque was the highest paying in my class. When I walked across the stage at graduation, and that diploma landed in my left hand, I looked up and said a silent "Thank you Jeff."

So why tell this story?

  • It speaks to who I am. I always keep pushing.
  • It's part of a talk called Me, Inc. Dan Metz & I did for IndieConf 2012.
  • It has all five STORY elements:
    • S – Situation, what is the backstory?
    • T – Trouble, what adversity did you confront?
    • O – Obstacles overcome, how did you conquer your problem?
    • R – Results, what did you accomplish?
    • Y – You, why should you care about my story?

If you wanted someone to remember you for a story that spoke about who you are, what you had done, and what you could do ... what would it be?

Category: Stories
Topics: Life Lessons, Work & Career
Tags: Doug Foster


  1. Kirk on 2012-10-18 at 1:43 pm

    Nice story. I liked math, thanks to our math teacher, Mr. Poyzer, and others, but I did not like calculus at Iowa State. Of course, I made it through differential equations as required for engineering, but I don’t think I could do that kind of math now!

    • Doug Foster on 2012-10-19 at 2:34 pm

      Good heavens … I forgot all about Mr. Poyzer! He was a good guy. He taught math because he wanted to make the world a better place. He certainly didn’t do it for money. You’re not alone Kirk. But you know, it wasn’t always the WHAT that we learned in college, I’ve found over the years that the HOW I learned has been irreplaceable.

  2. Amber on 2012-10-18 at 1:48 pm

    What an awesome story! A very important man in my life once told me that you can accomplish anything you set your mind to. Just put your whole heart into it and take that leap of faith and never look back. Can’t wait to read your next stories!

    • Doug Foster on 2012-10-19 at 2:40 pm

      Now who taught you that Amber? Oh … I remember … it was my Dad ;-). Sometimes you succeed and sometimes you fall short, but you always learn. A favorite Jimmy Buffett quote: Breath in, Breath out, move on.

  3. L.E. Foster on 2012-10-18 at 11:24 pm

    Doug: May God bless you real good for the rest of your life. I read your story with a big lump in my throat, and so much pride in my heart. You never shared those heartaches and tribulations, just kept pushing ahead. I’m not sure what I could have done to help, perhaps that’s the way the Lord wanted it to work out, but it leaves me feeling I stood short in helping you over those rocks and for that, please accept my from the heart apology.

    Your ever-lovin’ Dad

    • Doug Foster on 2012-10-19 at 2:52 pm

      Dad ‑ Bob Townsend told me to keep pushing but you taught me to never give up. I’ve said it before: I’ll never catch up to you for all the ways you helped me as a kid. Thank you. You will always have all my love and respect.

  4. Bob Metz on 2012-10-20 at 10:03 am

    Doug, I loved the story the “Machinist to M.E.” and learned more about you. You have come a long way and I respect your accomplishments. I think our successes in life come from how we have faced adversity and overcome them. You have done a great job and your positive attitude never shows the difficult challenges you have faced.

    Bob Metz

    PS…We worked together at Progress Energy and now you are working with my son, Dan Metz, at the IndieConf 2012. Small world!

    • Doug Foster on 2012-10-20 at 5:19 pm

      Thanks Bob. Life sure has it’s ups and downs, but when you learn to ride them, respect them, and learn from them – I think it makes life so much more rewarding. And the book you recommended “The Road Less Traveled” by Scott Peck a while ago? … on my Christmas list!

  5. David Lewis on 2012-10-21 at 11:21 pm

    This is not only a great story; it’s very well written to boot, grabbing our attention right from the start. It reminds us how just a few words from one person, or one seemingly small decision, can change the course of a life in a major way. Each person we meet has something to teach us – and vice versa – but we must be aware and engage to make that happen. I’m looking forward to future installments, Doug. BTW: Scott Peck’s books are wonderful.

    And Kirk: I share your thoughts on differential equations. It’s been over 35 years and there’s no way I could touch one.

    • Doug Foster on 2012-10-22 at 3:20 pm

      You’re too kind Dave, thanks. Very wise words … no wonder I always thought you were one of the best Consulting SEs at Cisco!

  6. Cindy on 2012-10-23 at 12:31 pm

    Is chapter 2 about Physics? That’s where the romance begins!

    • Doug Foster on 2012-10-24 at 6:23 pm

      Shhh … you’re giving away the plot 😉

  7. Larry McManus on 2012-10-29 at 2:28 pm

    Doug, What a great story and very timely for me personally. Mike is struggling in high school but is acing Auto Mechanics, Wood shop and enjoys rebuilding a car we bought in September. He will find his way, it’s just painful as a parent watching the process. One of my life core beliefs is it is more important to know what you do NOT want to do, than to know what you DO. I learned that after a summer flipping burgers and cleaning fryer vats at Hardee’s in high school. Mike is just trying to do the same. Thanks for the story.

    • Doug Foster on 2012-10-31 at 4:42 pm

      So where is the manual that helps us be the perfect parent? I looked around for it when the girls were born. You’re right, the best we can do is to share what we’ve learned, listen, and trust.

  8. Michael Langston on 2012-11-03 at 11:41 pm

    Amazing story and victory! My story is similar with a good friend of mine that also took his life and changed my life in the process. Out of the storm comes bright sunny days. You stuck it out through the hard times and it has paid off for you. I can only hope that my hard work and devotion will have the same return.

    • Doug Foster on 2012-11-04 at 11:36 am

      It will Michael. Like we talked about last night, we were both angry with our friends for doing what they did. You wish you could have said or done something that would have stopped them. But in the end, the one person you can control is you. So, like Jimmy Buffett says “Breath in, breath out, move on.” Think back, but look ahead; (your) life goes on.