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Retiring Ronnie Miller has taught more than masonry

Over 42 years, Ronnie Miller has built many a brick wall. For the past 17 years, the masonry instructor has built strong relationships with his students at South Rowan High School.
Miller retires at the end of the school year, and is certainly ending his career on a positive note. Two of his students, Blake Hodge and Juan Saucedo, placed first and second, respectively, in state masonry competition through SkillsUSA in April. Blake advances to national competition in Kansas City later this month.
SkillsUSA promotes leadership and skills assessments for students in vocational classes. There are some 100 categories offered in SkillsUSA competitions — everything from masonry and construction to fire safety, cosmetology, automotive technology and much more.
Miller has taken up to six students to previous competitions, but for the state competition — his last — “I took my best two students.”
Blake, a junior, has taken four masonry classes in the past two years.
“My dad was a brick mason,” he says. “When I got into the class, I found out I liked it.”
Juan’s father also does construction work, and Juan, a senior, has taken Masonry 1, 2 and 3, and advanced studies under Miller. Both young men discovered they had a natural ability for masonry.
“You’ve got to have good hand-eye coordination to do this,” Miller points out.
Last year, Andrew Mullis, a senior, also won the national masonry competition, and that served as a good incentive for Blake, Miller says. It’s the first time, however, that he had students take first and second place in state competition.
The two beat out 55 other schools from across North Carolina. At the national competition, more than 30 states will be represented.
For the state competition, the two students had to build a small brick and block wall, 3 feet tall and 3 feet wide. They had a three-hour time limit.
“They really had to work hard at it,” Miller says.
Blake finished in just 2˝ hours. Juan admits he got a slow start because of his nerves and found himself rushing to beat the time limit. The young men were judged on the walls for the straightness both plumb (vertically) and level (horizontally). Neatness also counted. As did accuracy.
“You build it exactly how they say,” Juan says.
“It’s real nerve-wracking on the students,” Miller says.
“There were 54 other people doing the same thing,” Juan says, plus other competitions taking place in the same area.
“I was nervous until I got started,” Blake says. “When I got started, it just all fell into place. When the time started, everything else just disappeared.”
Blake and Juan were working in spaces that were 8 feet by 8 feet. They had a stack of materials on one side, and their tools on the other, with about 2 feet of work space in the middle.
“It was tight,” Juan says.
“When they came back to re-check our work, I knew we’d done good,” Blake says.
Blake plans masonry as a career. He’s done small jobs with his dad, but eventually hopes to work with a construction company.
He is the son of Rodney and Kelly Hodge. He has a sister, Michelle, an elementary education student at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College.
After graduation, Juan will go straight to work with one of his brothers. He is the son of Manuel and Guillermina Saucedo, and has two brothers and five sisters.
Right now, Blake is focusing on national competition, practicing for what will be a six-hour project.
“It’s a lot harder,” he says.
For each course or row of brick that’s laid, you must then stop and measure. Every single time, Miller says.
“It has to be right,” Juan says.
“If you get it close, all you have to do is mess with it for a second, and then it’s right,” Blake says.
The masonry shop is now neat, the materials all put away as the school year winds down. Miller says the area is usually full of projects.
“We get a lot of help with donations from Chandler Concrete with brick and block, Taylor Clay with brick, Johnson Concrete with block and United Rental with tools and equipment,” Miller says. “If I call and need something, they’ve been great.”
Miller graduated from South in 1970. His masonry instructor was Perry Upright.
“My uncle laid brick and got me started,” Miller says. “I went right to work.”
He worked for several construction companies, and had an eight-year stint in the warehouse at Food Lion as well, ending up as a superintendent for Crescent Construction.
He taught masonry at Salisbury High School for two years, with the understanding he’d take Upright’s place once the older man retired. That’s exactly what happened 15 years ago.
Besides teaching his students how to lay brick, Miller also teaches respect, and to be on time — for class and on the job.
“You gotta be early,” Blake chimes in. “If you’re early, you’re on time. That’s what he teaches.”
“And do the best at whatever you do,” Miller adds. “All these students won’t be bricklayers, but they can do things around their house.”
Miller says that bricklayers can make anywhere from $20 to $25 an hour, with a starting salary of $10 an hour.
“They’ll have you making mortar,” Blake says of the apprenticeship process.
Miller teaches about 60 students a year. He’s proud that six of his former students now have their own businesses.
Miller continues to do brickwork with Rodney Harrington, who teaches masonry at West Rowan High School, after school and on Saturdays. He says he’ll continue that work full-time once he retires.
“I’ll stay busy,” he says.
Miller and his wife, Kathy, a custodian at South, have been married 42 years. They have two sons, Todd, who owns a racing engine business, and Jody, who works with Todd and with UPS.
Miller adds, “I’ve got a plan. I tell my students to plan what you want out of life, and work on it day by day.”
“He’s the best teacher,” Blake says. “He is my favorite teacher. He’s taught me more than anybody else.”
Miller’s students are ready to enter the workforce when they graduate, says Amy Wise, assistant principal. “He definitely prepares them for careers in today’s world. He just makes connections with students and builds a rapport. The work ethic he instills in them is amazing. Those shoes will be hard to fill.”

Freelance writer Susan Shinn lives in Salisbury.

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