Cowley graduate credits school
for his successful career
It has been 37 years since Robert Sommerhauser attended Cowley College. However, he has not forgotten what the school did for him.
As a student in Cowley College’s automotive program, Sommerhauser was encouraged to get into VICA by former Cowley instructor Charles White. He competed in the VICA state competition at Wichita East High School and won first place.
Focusing on getting married soon, and already employed at the International Harvester in Winfield, Sommerhauser was not really interested in attending the VICA national competition in Indianapolis, Ind.
“I didn’t think it was that big of a deal,” Sommerhauser said.
However, when Mr. White told him that he was the only representative from Kansas that would get the opportunity to compete at nationals he changed his mind.
Representing Cowley at the national competition, Sommerhauser left as the VICA national champion automotive mechanic.
“It was a surprise to win, but I had been working on cars since I was 12 or 13 years old and my instructors had prepared me well,” Sommerhauser said.
The competition included a 200 question written test. Participants named different car parts and their purpose on the vehicle. Proficiency reading micrometers, calipers, dial indicators, and other measuring instruments were tested. Contestants operated test equipment and assembled electrical, fuel, and brake components. The final event required contestants to install the distributor and spark plug wiring, observing correct firing order and proper ignition timing, and have the engine running in less than 10 minutes.
Chevrolet was his favorite brand so he didn’t need a service manual for specs and firing order.
Looking back, Sommerhauser thinks it took him about three minutes to have the engine running and the ignition timing set.
Sommerhauser said former Cowley instructors Gordon Hawk and Lester Griffith were also instrumental in his success in his automotive career.
A few years after graduating from Cowley, Sommerhauser landed a job working for the Air Force. He is currently a civilian heavy equipment and special purpose vehicle technician at McConnell Air Force Base in Wichita and will celebrate his 32nd year in that position this August.
His job consists of working on fire trucks and specialized vehicles. One of the vehicles he maintains is a 1979 Oshkosh P15 crash fire truck, powered by two turbocharged 8V92 Detroit diesel engines, with 475-horse power each. The fire truck is eight-wheel drive, carries 6,000 gallons of water, 600 gallons of foam, and has two turrets that discharge water 170 feet at 1,400 gallons per minute from each turret. The truck will place its load of 6,000 gallons of water/foam mixture on a burning aircraft in 2 1/2 minutes. He is also responsible for maintenance and repairs on a truck that is specially designed to transport explosive ordinance.
Another fire truck has a large boom, enabling it to penetrate the side of a burning aircraft and spray extinguishing agent inside the aircraft. Maintenance includes every thing from changing light bulbs to complete engine overhaul. He also maintained the mobile cranes that lifted the Titan Minuteman Missiles from their silos when McConnell was a missile base.
“I have to give 100 percent credit to my schooling at Cowley and my experience with the VICA competition,” Sommerhauser said. “Without the credentials I gained at the school I probably would not have got the job. I was able to come in and do things that other guys did not have the training to do.”
Sommerhauser also farms part-time and has his own repair business he runs from his home near Rose Hill. He and his wife, Sylvia, have 10 kids. His daughter, Michelle, recently graduated from Kapaun Mount Carmel High School in Wichita and will be attending Cowley in the fall.
Michelle was the top award winner in the creative writing category at Cowley’s Fine Arts Day held in February. She submitted five of her poems into the competition and left with a Creative Writing Scholarship.
Cowley College instructor Marlys Cervantes awarded Sommerhauser the scholarship.
“I am delighted to have her coming to Cowley as part of that program,” Cervantes said. “Her interests and talents are numerous, and so I know she’ll be active in several areas here at the College.”
Robert had not set foot on the Cowley College campus since he graduated from the school in 1971. The family had just gotten back from taking Michelle on a tour of the University of Kansas when they visited Cowley. After touring the campus, they decided this was exactly where Michelle needed to be.
“I was really impressed with Cowley and the changes that had been made to the campus since I went to school there,” Sommerhauser said. “There is quite a bit of difference in the facilities Cowley has compared to other junior colleges in the area.”
Michelle, who has been writing poetry since the eighth grade, is excited about coming to Cowley.
“I am really looking forward to it,” Michelle said. “Every time I visited the campus I felt very welcomed. It just feels right, I feel they want me there.”
Michelle is the youngest girl in the family and was the eighth child born. Her oldest sibling is 34, while the youngest is 12 years old.
“I love having a big family because we all have different creative parts that make up our family,” Michelle said.
The two oldest children, Brent, and Christy, have each obtained Master’s degrees. Tony is an independent contractor, while John and Tammy have Bachelors degrees. Julie, is currently a student at the University of Kansas, and Theresa attended Johnson County Community College and is a massage therapist in Lawrence, Kansas. Robert Jr., 15, helps his father with farm duties and repair work. and Joseph, 12, is starting his own lawn mowing business.
With a wonderful family life and a successful career, Robert looks back fondly on his time at Cowley.
“My High School counselor told me I had the grades for a four-year college and I wouldn’t be able to make a good living as an automotive mechanic,” Sommerhauser said. “I don’t feel I could make the kind of money I do and have the benefits I have without the training I received at Cowley. I tell my kids our class motto, “I will prepare myself and my chance will come.”