Retiree bonds with troubled young men through woodworking

Friday, April 21, 2017

WILLIAMSPORT, Tenn. (AP) — His first solo project didn’t go so well. Mike Zinser brought home a gun rack he’d built in his high school woodworking class, and his father immediately tore it apart and rebuilt it.

“I was terrible,” Zinser said, laughing.

His skills have greatly improved in the six decades since.

Zinser, a retired salesman, has his own home wood shop, and he turns out beautiful plates, salt and pepper shakers and wall art pieces that have sold at Loveless Motel and in craft shows across Tennessee.

His proudest accomplishment?

“I’ve been a woodworker for 60 years or so and I’ve still got all my fingers,” Zinser said, smiling and holding up his hands.

Aside from selling enough pieces to support his hobby - and retaining all his digits -Zinser is most pleased he can use his skills to connect with some troubled young men in Maury County.

Zinser and some buddies from the Tennessee Association of Woodturners go twice a month to Narrow Gate Lodge in Williamsport, Tenn., near Leiper’s Fork. There, some 35 guys, ages 18 to 25, are in a Christian-based program to help them find purpose in their lives.

Zinser got involved with Narrow Gate in about 2009 when a woodturner buddy, Phil Stoner, a board member at Narrow Gate, told Zinser about the eight-month residential program.

“They were just kids who didn’t know where they were going in life,” Zinser said.

“Maybe some of them got into drugs and alcohol, maybe some of them are from families that were not good family environments, some missing father figures. They were there to find out who they are and where they’re going.”

On his most recent visit, Zinser ate a chili dog lunch with the guys, then spent four hours demonstrating and helping some students build cherry wood chalice cups.

“This cannot be an aggressive cut, this has to be more of a finesse cut,” he said, demonstrating on the stem of the cup.

When he finished, the guys broke into applause and cheers.

“OK, OK, back to work,” Zinser interjected, smiling and shooing the students. “We want to finish this afternoon.”

The six students went back to lathes, sanding, spinning, cutting, concentrating, and kicking up clouds of wood dust in front of their face shields.

After each step, they drifted over to each other’s stations to make jokes and check out each other’s work and wait for Zinser to drift over and give them feedback.

“How’s that, Mr. Mike?” one said earnestly as Zinser leaned over the student’s lathe.

“Looking good. Let’s try cutting this down just a little more.”

In all, Zinser and the students spend about four hours in the wood shop, and the end results have varying degrees of resemblance to chalice cups. But the visit has little to do with the craft.

“It’s not necessarily about what we’re making,” student Christian Harrison, 24, says. “It’s about the relationships.”

“They come out here pretty often, so it feels like they’re investing in us.”

Zinser almost always reaches out to students, whether they show up in his woodworking class or not.

“He’s very personable, and we got to know each other before woodworking was even an option,” said student Tommy Lee, 22.

“I came into Narrow Gate not having a role model. When a guy like Mike steps onto the property, I can view him as a teacher and as a role model that was absent in my life.”

Zinser says he, too, finds it rewarding.

“I’m drawn to our conversations, their sense of accomplishment, the trust we can find in one another and through that trust, the bond that may or may not develop.”

His involvement goes beyond woodturning. Zinser also has helped some students with their resumes, and he once hosted all of them for dessert and a service at his church.

“Here’s a guy in his 70s relating to a guy in his 20s,” said campus director and former student Eric “Boots” Davis.

“In any other world, that doesn’t happen.”