138. Hero – Mary Bruce Clemons, Industrial Control Technician at TW Controls Transcript

Mary: 00:00 

My boss Tim, any door that I want to walk through, he’s like, let me open it. Let’s find out what do you want to do? And so that has been absolutely miraculous in trying to learn an entirely new field that I never could have guessed that I’d be doing what I’ve been doing since the beginning of January, being able to go into plants, being able to build, being able to use power tools every day. I couldn’t ask for a more dream scenario. 

Chris: 00:23 

Welcome to EECO Asks Why a podcast that dives into industrial manufacturing topics, spotlights the heroes that keep America running. I’m your host, Chris Grainger. And on this podcast, we do not cover the latest features and benefits on products that come to market, instead, we focus on advice and insight from the top minds of industry because people and ideas will be how America remains number one in manufacturing in the world. 

Welcome to EECO Asks Why. Today we have a hero conversation. I’m excited to have with me, Ms. Mary Bruce Clemons. And she is the Industrial Control Technician at TW Controls as well as an alternative education enthusiast. So welcome Mary. 

Mary: 01:16 

Hi, how are you? 

Chris: 01:17 

I’m good. Hope you’re doing well today. 

Mary: 01:20 

I am. Thank you.

Chris: 01:20 

Awesome. Awesome. Now we love these conversations to get started by learning about your journey. So I’m excited to hear about yours, Mary. 

Mary: 01:28 

Absolutely. It’s been vast and varied. When I was a kid, I had always had a pretty incredible interest in things that seemed like they were not for me. An interest in the underbelly of pretty much all objects and how they functioned and why they functioned and who brought it up and who made all those things go into a path where we now have the things that make our lives easier.

 I was not a great test taker. I was not great at sitting still. It was not great at school. I was not really great at any of the stuff that a young kid was supposed to be doing, but I was great at finding things that were not for my age group yet. So taking things apart was always something that I enjoyed. When you see kids doing that, you’re like, “Okay, that’s great. Let’s get them in some classes about math and science and technology.” And it just didn’t capture enough for me, which kept my interest. So I just assumed that I was bad at it. As I get older I wanted very much to be involved in science, but I was not very good at math and science and math are very closely related. I found art seem to be the best possible scenario for me because science happens through art also, it’s kind of a tattletale type situation. If it can’t be solved with science, it can be solved with art and vice versa.

So chose that, thinking that I could avoid having to do calculations or measuring of any kind. And I was completely wrong. Every project that I did require a lot of explanation, a lot of backtracking, a lot of math. And I was like, dang, I could’ve just could have just gone for what I really wanted to do and saw this as an after story.

Part of that relationship was basically just thinking if you’re good at something or bad at something, you know, we choose the things that we’re good at because doing things that we’re bad at feels awful. And it’s hard to think about getting better at those things as you get older.

 In my art career, studying pretty much how other people did it, how other people got there. We’ve got Michelangelo and Leonardo DaVinci and things like that popping off. Those are exciting to learn. Those guys straddled the fence between art and science from the very beginning, you know, we don’t think about that when we’re young, as we get older, we’re like that’s all they were doing was just trying to find a way to communicate how intense their brains work. 

How do I tell somebody what I’m thinking? How are they going to believe it? I got to draw it out. I have to show someone. So someone else in the group that also has a mechanical mind can say, “No, that’s going to work. Let’s do it.” And then you get a party together and then you build the thing. 

Chris: 03:47 

I think you’re all over it. So what were your next steps? Maybe what were some career spots that you that you stopped at that led you to, now you’re in TW controls, you’re in the manufacturing automation support type of role. 

Mary: 04:01 

Went to school to be a teacher, realized that I was not able to teach. I was not able to teach in an effective manner that what I wanted to do, wasn’t related to teaching art. I’m not passionate about art, I’m passionate about the science part of it. And to teach art, you have to really not think in a binary fashion. So it was still a reach. Art was still a reach, more of a reach than probably science would have been to begin with. 

The first job I could get out of school was selling motorcycles. At a local Harley Davidson dealership. And I realized how much I love learning about machines and how much I knew already, how much they worked. Like I didn’t have to study it. It just made sense. I mean, that’s a huge breakthrough, you know, to figure out at 21 that you love machines and you can guess how they work. That’s pretty incredible. And I didn’t have time to consume that information had to get a job that paid more consistently than selling motorcycles and ended up in the insurance and finance industry, which is math all day long.

It is math nonstop. And so in doing math and realizing that I’m not actually bad at math, I just don’t like tests because someone else is telling me what to do. I realize, “Okay, I don’t need to be scared of math. I can lean into that.” You know, I’m, good at it. There’s another way we can do this. It’s a whole story to try to find, and this is one of your questions is coming up, but how do you change fields?

And so that’s pretty much where I was. I needed to change fields. I was not where I had already learned everything that I needed to know about insurance. It’s not going to change for another a hundred years. So I’m done on that. I have to stay mentally engaged. I have to keep learning. What do I do now? So in between there trying to find a way to get out of the insurance industry, but still bring what I had as far as a stepping stone, because that’s a lot of information that nobody wants to learn.

And I already know, and I can speak pretty enthusiastically about. I drove past the nonprofit that was already functioning. It was called Maker Mart. And I could tell by the hand-painted sign on the window that whatever’s in there is for me. It was the font really feels back to S.T.E.A.M., the art and the communication. So I find out, I do a reverse search on Google with the address, find out what’s going on in there. And basically, it’s a nonprofit that’s dedicated to teaching kids as early as eight years old about manual literacy, so I became involved there and eventually got hired on to work full-time there as programming and doing all kinds of stuff, educating, fundraising, keeping volunteers together, all of these different facets. And through that, I became introduced to TW Controls.

TW controls is pretty dedicated to outreach and help with their community. And so I was drowning in work. I did not know how to fix machines, but I had them, I needed the machine so I could teach the kids how to cut stuff. And I was able to call TW Controls to pretty much come. If I had a band saw down within 10 minutes, a bearing would be in front of me to repair the bandsaw and it would be replaced like no problem. See you later, bye. COVID hits and that whole nonprofit ended up having to go through a terminal change. And through that, I’m sitting there commiserating with my friends, Tim and Amber, and I’m like, I need a job. Like, let’s talk really seriously. I love this stuff. And I want to learn, I love anything having to do with how things operate.

I’m good at keeping information in my brain for long periods of time about machines. What can I do? Like you want me to take trash out? Like what can we do? And pretty much my boss, Tim, any door that I want to walk through, he’s like, “Let me open it, let’s find out what do you want to do.” And so that has been absolutely miraculous and trying to learn an entirely new field that I was not, I never could have guessed that I’d be doing what I’ve been doing since the beginning of January.

Being able to go into plants, being able to build, being able to use power tools every day. I couldn’t ask for more dreams in areas, also working essentially alone. Are you kidding me? I don’t have a team of people I have to communicate with? Yes, please. That’s great. You’re your own, you’re effective, you’re in charge of making sure that you do what you need to do and that you do it correctly. And that’s a fantastic thing to do. 

Chris: 08:03 

Well, I mean , first of all, hats off, that’s a lot to unpack. Your story is amazing. You’re following your passion. Love Tim and Amber, by the way, for our listeners out there, be sure to go back and check out Tim’s hero as well as his idea episodes. He’s just phenomenal. Love what they’re doing. Just trying to build up the next generation. And it just sounds like, you’ve landed into just a dream scenario for you. It’s just wonderful. I mean, I can tell you a lot of the heroes we talked to had that engineering or that passion for electrical, the whole time. I love your story because you just took a completely different path. We have not heard a journey like this ever. So it’s been, it’s a really neat one for me, personally, just to hear, “Hey, I was going down this path, but I learned my passion was over here. So how do I get over there? I need to do things intentionally to get there,” and hats off to you for doing that.

Mary: 08:56

Thank you. There was one step that I forgot that was actually, it was absolutely crucial. And that was prior to, to really diving into insurance, which was a family-related thing, which is the only reason I got there was because I have a lot of insurance people in my family, but there was a job that I had for about a year and a half where I was a compounding pharmacy technician.

And basically, I was in charge of an entire lab where I made medicines testosterone, progesterone and all these different types of medicines for animals. And basically you are guesstimating materials and how they’ll mix together and how they’ll suspend in each other. Doing a lot of math, a lot of measuring a lot of do-overs, checking it, if it’s not right, is this thing that I make and it gives somebody some extra hairs. I don’t know. Maybe we should start over that kind of stuff. Yeah. So that tactile destination of being in a scientific environment realizing that about six months in that the pharmacist knows that you’re going to do it correctly because that’s what time has told. You started to get a little bit nervous. You’re like, “I don’t even know. I was never told that I could do this stuff. I was never told that I can do. I don’t know if I’m right.” So a lot of that self-doubt, but that self-discovery happens with just by getting out of your comfort zone. And just existing out of it for long periods of time. 

Chris: 10:08 

So far as getting out of your comfort zone, maybe speak to the listener out there who maybe they’re where you were when you were getting ready to go to college and they’re trying to figure out that next step, any advice? What would you tell someone to really help them figure out their personal path?

Mary: 10:24 

Volunteer. If somebody says, I have a project this weekend, and you don’t know how to do what they’re doing and say, “Hey, can I come by and just hold a shovel for you or something,” and just watch how they’re doing it. There’s a bunch of industries in the area that not industry, but a bunch of initiatives that need physical help and you learn by proxy. So it’s not that you’re volunteering, you’re doing a barter. So you’re bartering information that someone else can teach you in a fun way, that is not staring at a YouTube screen. You’re being involved in the community. You’re helping a local effort, but you’re also being taught by a leading contractor what to do with what? And just by showing up, you’ll end up with something because a lot of people don’t show up at all. And so just by existing in space, you’re going to receive something, 

Chris: 11:07 

How about just like getting into volunteering for sure, but just talking to people too? Be intentional about, learning, what people do and what they’re passionate about. You may find your passion through a conversation with someone at a church or someone at the grocery store. You just never know, but if you’re intentional about asking questions and I guess humble yourself enough to ask the question. So you go in actually wanting to learn that could be a path there as well.

Mary: 11:30 

I’m assuming everybody you talk to, you probably knows something that you don’t. So we’re asking smart people, just in that, asking anybody any kind of question it’s probably going to get you somewhere with it, for sure. My favorite slogan is ass smart people dumb questions, which is great. 

Chris: 11:44 

That’s it and make sure you’re never the smartest person in the room. If you are, find another room, right? You know,  there’s all sorts of things to think about, but I mean, just being intentional. I love your advice on that for sure. And you know, when you think about the industry that you’re in, sometimes the hardest part about getting people excited about the industry, in general, is they have this perception of what it is. So if you want it to just take something right now and just say, “Hey, this is completely wrong.” I’m sure you probably can hang on the rim on this one. So what would you say to people there? 

Mary: 12:15 

It is it’s wrong, whatever you’re thinking, it’s wrong until you get in there, it’s completely different. I thought it was going to be a pretty uncomfortable space. I guess what I’m thinking about is inside an actual plant, what it looks like. I think that’s a huge barrier when my dad would come home and tell me stories about the plant that he worked in. I had at a whole configuration of how that thing was set up and what it would do and everything completely off, not even close. Even the social culture within a factory seems to be something. I’m coming from a female perspective, but It’s a thought, you know, what’s it going to be like in there for me? And it’s completely not what I thought it was going to be less contentious than walking down the street in DC or, you know, in rural America. 

It’s an incredible thing to actually see how those things function. On a personal level, seeing how other people have set up extremely efficient systems by just moving one thing from one place to another let’s say this machine works better. If this machine has moved 10 feet closer, or just those finite revisions over time, as you go in plants is really fun to see just on a human level. Like, “Okay, they’ve improved this process by 10 minutes. Well, how, How can I do that with my day?” If I move breakfast 10 minutes closer to this, then am I going to have, a 30 minute overage of time, which would be great. So learning how those things kind of function together, you can see those physical components line up.

I don’t know if industry will ever release more information on what they’re like behind their doors, because there’s a lot of trade secrets involved in that, but I think even for myself, even though I just went in a plant earlier today, when I think of factory, I think of kids underneath machines, like from the industrial revolution, I still think they’re like down there pushing pedals and stuff. And it’s hard to reconcile what we’ve seen in our history books, what we have not been corrected on and what we have not been updated on how these things work and where we’re at. 

Chris: 14:08 

Yeah. I mean, even though a lot of his factories do have proprietary stuff, I think just finding out I was talking to a guest recently, and she got an opportunity to take her two sons to these, I think three different manufacturing plants and she, basically lined up a tour. Obviously, if there’s, if there are things that you can’t show as a manufacturer got to respect that, but have those options to bring in a second-grade class to experience put on the safety glasses and maybe the hairnet and you know, all the things you get to do when you go into a manufacturing plant and just expose them, give that exposure to what, what exists. I think that’d be a cool way to do it. She actually did it just as a mom. Just, “Hey. I want to introduce my kids.” That’s a one-on-one way to do it, but it sounds like something that you would agree with. 

Mary: 14:51 

Absolutely. There’s no way that you can anticipate it. We could be shown those same pictures over and over. The two-dimensional feeling does not translate. So when you go to a place and you get to see in the round, what they’re doing and how they’re doing it, what textures are doing it with being in that space, it gives you a little bit of a passion for it. 

Chris: 15:12 

Now you mentioned that you’re that, alternative education enthusiast. When you think through that, is that when you’re the happiest? When you’re working with people to learn differently and coming up with those programs and those initiatives and those types of ways to move forward.

Mary: 15:24 

I am passionate about it, but it is not where I’m happiest, I’m happiest doing the work. And that was the part between that commercial. I had 11 years advocating for people and trying to find solutions to problems that seemed solutionless. All of that stuff is fantastic, but I actually prefer to just go pick up a drill and be left alone. That’s just how it goes 

Chris: 15:46 

You’re the doer. I got it. I love it. 

Mary: 15:49 

Task person. I need tasks.

Chris: 15:51 

Got it. Makes sense. Any mentors that’s come along? You’ve already mentioned Tim and Amber, it sounds like there’s some great mentors there. Any mentors that you like to, uh, give some recognition to?

Mary: 16:04 

Yeah. Yeah. My old executive director, Aaron Ray Dykstra, was a huge mentor of mine on making and he owned a bicycle company here where he made bikes that were shipped all over the world and really humble had an alternative education route as well.  it’s just great to see people try to dig their niche. Just find your niche within the group. It doesn’t matter what they said you’d be good at or bad at just ignore it, do what you want and just encouraging people to be as authentic as possible. Just be authentic. There’s no reward for pretending like you’re part of one group rather than another, other than your own self dissociation, 

Chris: 16:42

 Be real. You have to be real for sure. How about we do this? I’ve learned a lot about where you’re passionate about your career, make you give some great advice. Your why don’t we take a turn and talk about things outside of work. You cool with that? 

Mary: 16:55 


Chris: 16:55 

All right. Cool. Now you mentioned you worked at a Harley place, so I’m going to go there first. So I’m a Harley guy myself. So do you ride or it was just a really cool job to land? 

Mary: 17:05 

It was the only job I could land. And I’m from motorcycle people. And I figured if I could get a job there, I’d have something to talk to them about, I was wrong. So it was good. I loved getting a job there. I was in sales, which I think is an important thing for any young person to experience how difficult those positions are. I mean, that was intense and far more than I ever could have imagined, but it was incredible to be able to, I got my motorcycle license out of it. I learned how to negotiate. I learned how to stand up for myself and stand up for other people and try to find the right way through. It was an incredible experience. 

Chris: 17:44 

Very cool. Very cool. Well, You work for the right brand. There’s only one kind that’s for sure. That’s a personal opinion, but anyway, we’ll move on.

Mary: 17:52 

The first sale I ever made was I think to a woman after I got my license and she was like, “I don’t think I can do this.” And I was like, “Take this bike on a test ride. I will go with you,” because neither one of us had written on the road before. And I was like, “if you take it out I will take this bike out with you. We’ll ride right beside each other to the truck, stop and back.” And so we did and we got back and she was like, ” That was incredible!” Tears coming out of her face. And I was like, “Buy this motorcycle.” She said, okay,” and it was done. 

Chris: 18:18 

I love it. I love it. Awesome. Great story. Now how about so what hobbies do you have then? What do you enjoy doing for fun?

Mary: 18:26 

I enjoy making postal mail for people that I care about. So I’ll…. I know it’s weird, but I will sit there and I’ll consider that person the whole time I’m making a card or a box or something, basically it’s just I’m a pretty big paper enthusiast, so I’ll make them a personalized card and basically just think about them while I’m doing that. And I’ll just send some good vibes their way. I don’t care what anybody says. If you get something in the mail you feel like a million dollars. 

Chris: 18:51 

It’s super cool. I mean, I send something to every guest in the mail and just think about it. Everybody gets email it just, there’s probably no telling how many emails you’ve got since we’ve been talking. It’s so impersonal, but when you get something in the mail and you get to have that sense of opening, I just know how my kids are when they get something from their grandparents, something like that. It’s a big deal. 

Mary: 19:12 

You spent 65 cents and that person’s day, maybe even whole month might be different, you know, all you’ve got to do is just handwrite something, then handwrite the address. It’s pretty great. It’s a good payoff. I also really like working in my yard. That’s something that I really enjoy. I move plants around. 

Chris: 19:26 

So like gardening type work? 

Mary: 19:29 

I wish it was cool like that, but it’s just, I wish I could grow food, but I just keep growing flowers and I’ll, I like to grow flowers to cut. Cause like when I visit people like to take them a vase of flowers. 

Chris: 19:39 


Mary: 19:39 

I like taking rewards to other people. 

Chris: 19:42 

That’s awesome. That’s awesome. Now we also love to hear about family here on EECO Asks Why. Anything you’d like to share with us about your family? 

Mary: 19:50 

Absolutely. The whole reason that I’m here is because of the conversations that my mom and my dad, when they were married, used to have about the versus subject on blue-collar and white-collar careers. My mom had her master’s in English and my dad I think maybe took one semester of community college, but was a quality control manager for 40 years. And so their conversations back and forth on like, what pay is, how that functions, what you had to do to get there, what that debt process was. One is not better than the other pick, the one that you want because neither one is superior to the other. Both of them are needed and make sure you’re choosing the one that you want and not what people are choosing for you. 

Chris: 20:26 

Right now. They, in the area of Lynchburg there where you’re at?

Mary: 20:30 

Yeah. So where I’m from, I grew up in Wythe county. So that’s about an hour south of Roanoke. And so they’re still down there and they’re still doing, they’re very different worlds. And I’d like to think that they’re encouraged by the things that I picked up from those conversations. 

Chris: 20:45 

Well, I’m sure they are for sure. Then thank you for sharing that as well. So how about, you’re such a passionate person, anything you enjoy consuming for personal use, it could be YouTube podcasts, just books that you think the other people might enjoy. 

Mary: 20:59 

Yeah, I love podcasts. This is one of them. I really enjoyed the female engineers sections for obvious reasons, but I also enjoy a couple of other podcasts. They were pretty incredible to do while you’re doing some of our more mindless tasks, like washing dishes and things. Ologies with Alie Ward is one that I’m pretty excited about always. And she’s the one that says, “Ask smart people dumb questions,” and I think that it’s important to consume. I really like the non-music YouTube sections, where they redo things. Essentially it’s just a hyper-focus ASMR of people taking apart, old lighters or old machines, and then putting them back together as they restore them, that’s pretty comforting, but it also teaches you a lot about materials and how those function and what abrasives and adhesives and things like that should be used on what materials. And I love scientific illustrations. 

Chris: 21:54

 Right. Very nice. 

Mary: 21:56

That’s where it all started is so books with any kind of machine drawings. That’s something that I don’t think you can look at enough and especially anatomy and, all those types of illustrations, I think are pretty incredible. 

Chris: 22:07 

Awesome. And I think now, too TW controls, you guys have a podcast going as well?

Mary: 22:12 

Yes. Yes, we do. It’s pretty exciting. So a lot of those episodes end up being conversations that we’ve had on the back end while we’re building panels or working on a machine or are doing something like that, just trying to conceptualize. I told Tim I said, I can’t just watch YouTube forever. You gotta have your screen on. That’s not low-key like I have to have an audio thing that I can just take with me and I’ll think about it and then I’ll look it up later. And so that was how that was born was that it needed to be portable. 

Chris: 22:38 

I love it. I love it. You guys are doing wonderful work there. Wonderful stuff. We’ll make sure we put those links in our show notes too. So our listeners can check that out. So how about a, I like to do a lightning round just to get a little bit more insight to who you are. We’ll go through some fun stuff here. So if you’re willing to play we’ll jump right in.

Mary: 22:54 

Let’s do it. 

Chris: 22:55 

Cool. So favorite food? 

Mary: 22:56 

Uh, carbs.

Chris: 23:01 

Nice. Haven’t had that answer yet. You really threw me off with that one. So just any carb. I love it. I love it. How about adult beverage? 

Mary: 23:09 

Uh, I love plain seltzer water. 

Chris: 23:12 

Okay, how about all-time favorite movie? 

Mary: 23:15 

Oh, Yeah, Did I tell you I worked in a video store for like five years? That’s a hard one. Yeah, I’ll go ahead and we’ll go. Big Fish is always a classic. That’s a good one. 

Chris: 23:26 

Okay. All right. How about music? 

Mary: 23:30 

I love metal and techno.

Chris: 23:32 

Metal and techno. All right. Top metal band? 

Mary: 23:35 

Ah, Deftones. 

Chris: 23:37 

All right. Okay. How about what’s on your nightstand? 

Mary: 23:40 

A battery-operated candle and vitamins. 

Chris: 23:46 

Guilty pleasure?

Mary: 23:50 

Britney Spears.  (#FreeBritney) 

Chris: 23:51 

Okay. Did not see it. Didn’t see that one coming. I hear you about 

Mary: 23:56 

She bridges metal and techno.

Chris: 23:58 

Okay. All right. How about a vacation? Somewhere you’ve been that you just think people need to go. 

Mary: 24:06 

A Creek in the mountains forever. 

Chris: 24:08 

Got it. And last but not least pets. Dogs or cats?

Mary: 24:13 


Chris: 24:14 

Okay. There’s only one right answer. Okay good. 

Mary: 24:17 

I have cats but I would love to get a refund. 

Chris: 24:22 

I think that, most cat owners would definitely agree with you there. So thank you for playing the lightning round. That was one of the funnest lightning rounds we’ve ever had. And I love this whole conversation. Mary it’s been just a blast to get to know you. We wrap up EECO Asks Why with the why. It talks about your passion. So somebody wants to know, “Hey Mary, what is your personal, why, what would that be? 

Mary: 24:43

 Manual literacy,

Chris: 24:44 

Manual literacy. Perfect. Well, This has been wonderful for our listeners. Check out the show notes. You’ll find a way to connect directly with Mary as well as some of those other resources that she talked about. Make sure you go eat your carbs like she does enjoy them. And Mary it’s been a lot of fun. Thank you so much for taking the time with us. 

Mary: 25:04 

Thank you very much for having me. I’ve enjoyed this. 

Chris: 25:06 

Cool. You have a great day. 

Mary: 25:07 

You too.