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By: Luciano Guerra
May 03, 2012

For students in Sharyland High School’s FFA shop class, creating handmade art is nothing new, but when it comes to constructing a desk for one of FFA’s top scholarship contributors, the pressure was on.

Dedicated to the challenge of building a desk to show their appreciation, the students used old-world craftsmanship and attention to detail complete with dovetailing on desk drawers made from aged red oak lumber to earn top awards at the recent 2012 Rio Grande Valley Livestock Show. Their desk, with an accompanying chair and lamp, was selected as grand champion shop project among over 450 other entries.

Danny Wallrath recently approached Brad Wood, SHS agriculture science shop class teacher, about the possibility of Sharyland FFA students building a desk for his father, Richard “Dick” Wallrath, who is a major contributor to the Texas FFA and 4-H programs and scholarships.

Wallrath had heard about a mesquite table Sharyland FFA members had built previously, and he wanted his father to have a custom made, one-of-a-kind desk built especially for him by FFA members.

While such a request may not have been all that unusual, the fact that the desk was for Wallrath made this particular request special. Hollywood has taken notice of Wallrath and has adapted his life story into a feature-length movie entitled “Deep in the Heart,” starring Val Kilmer and D. B. Sweeney.

As a recovering alcoholic and a former abusive husband and father, Wallrath’s earlier life was anything but inspirational. He was in a downward spiral until he found himself without a job and estranged from his family. Through his faith he found the strength he needed to turn his life around. Not only did he make amends with his family, but he went on to become a successful businessman. He has since shared his new-found success and wealth in a big way. His seemingly unlimited generosity has led to his becoming the single largest donor to Texas FFA and 4-H associations with donations currently totaling over $16 million.

Knowing of Wallrath’s commitment to the FFA and 4-H organizations, Wood was honored to have the opportunity to take on such a special and personal project. He knew this was a unique opportunity to express his and his students’ appreciation to Wallrath for his generosity. He took on the challenge and proceeded to select the students with the skills necessary to make a desk befitting of Wallrath’s stature.

“Being that this is an extensive project, I wanted to make sure that these students exhibited the skills that would meet the qualifications to do a project of this magnitude,” he said. “Upon visual appraisal on these students, I hand selected some of them but some of them just kind of jumped on in and the kids welcomed them.”

The five Sharyland FFA members that made up the team were seniors Jazette Hagne, Reyes Martinez, Mitchell Pippenger, Katherine C. Torres and sophomore Tyler Paul Kelley. These students, who are also involved in other extracurricular activities, were also raising livestock to show at the livestock show.

The students submitted several different designs to Danny Wallrath and asked him to select the one he thought his father would like best.

“It means a lot because it’s for a really special man. He’s done so much for everyone but for me it means even more because I’ve had an opportunity to meet him and experience what his life is and what he’s done for everyone else,” Torres said. 

Hagne and Pippenger expressed excitement about working on a project of this magnitude for Wallrath, who they appreciate for his contributions to their state’s organization.

The team’s next step in the project was selecting the wood. This is where Carlos Garza of Rio Hondo stepped in. He and a few other people had recently disassembled an old railroad storage facility in Raymondville in exchange for the rights to the red oak lumber it was constructed from. He was planning to use the lumber to create and sell rustic projects, but when Garza heard about this project, he donated the wood to the Sharyland FFA.

“The wood had nail holes, screws, worms, dirt and everything you can imagine in it.  We had to pull it all out,” said Kelley, adding they were appreciative of the donation. “We even had to purchase a metal detector to find all the nails and screws. It was a dirty job, but we all pitched in and got it done.”

With hours of hard work already behind them, and the only thing to show for it being a much nicer looking pile of lumber than they started with, the team began building. The detailed plans showed each and every measurement needed to cut the boards and assemble them into a desk, giving the students all the information they needed to start the project. The effort would test their woodworking skills and over the construction time would require them to learn new techniques and develop the kind of skills that normally take years to perfect.

As work on the actual construction of the desk began, the five students were soon working as a team.

“It’s a well-deserved and well-needed team. Each kid had a different responsibility on that piece,” Wood said. “There’s probably over 1,000 pieces to that desk and each piece had to be exactly right for the desk to come together the way it did.”

The team members decided to go with a glass top for the desk, but they wanted something more than just a plain sheet of glass. Leeda Wood donated a sheet of desktop glass and Alan Leidner of Glassica donated the etching of the FFA and 4-H emblems in each corner; he also etched an image of barbed wire along the top and side edges. The names of the students that built the desk were etched along the bottom edge. A star and the words “Deep in the Heart” with “Designed and Constructed by the Students of Sharyland FFA 2012” in the center completed the glass top.

Many details on the desk are reminiscent of old-world craftsmanship. These include dovetailing on the desk drawers, the use of square bars and round rods to make the drawer pulls by hand, the mitering of the upper trim along the edge of the desk top and the hand engraving of the FFA and 4-H emblems, which were attached on opposite sides of the lamp.

As proud as Wood is of his team for building a desk out of a pile of old lumber, he said he saw each of them build something much more important and everlasting than a piece of office furniture. He saw each student build character and develop skills that few young people ever get an opportunity to cultivate. Additionally, Wood said their participation in the project provided his students the opportunity to be part of something special and something they will always remember fondly.

Students agree the project had changed them.

“Not only did I learn that I could complete something I thought would be impossible by taking it one step at a time but I also learned an art,” Kelley explained. “I was able to experience the joy of taking old wood from a building that was left to rot and turn that wood into something beautiful.”

This story originally ran in the Progress Times. 

Luciano Guerra is a freelance writer and photographer from Mission, Texas.  He photographs nature, wildlife, sports and livestock.  As a former four-year FFA member at Mission High School, he was awarded the American Farmer Degree by the National FFA Association.