Notable Neighbors

June 6, 2022 at 7:07 p.m.
Notable Neighbors
Notable Neighbors

By DEAN LAUX Columnist

A Self-Made Man Who Followed His Dreams
There has been a long-standing argument in the sciences about “nature vs. nurture.” Are our lives shaped more by our environment or by our DNA?  Learning in school and in life is obviously a huge factor, but what about one’s innate ability to learn and develop in the first place?

Psychologists have developed IQ tests to measure that innate ability, focusing primarily on language, logic, mathematics and spatial analysis. Those IQ tests are reliable (i.e., consistent when repeatedly administered), but are they accurate? The answer is, “Not so much.” There is a bias toward language skills in the tests, in that the tests themselves involve language and reading ability. This bias exists in schools as well, where language and reading dominate the classroom.  Unusual nonlinguistic skills may be overlooked.

A classic example of this is Stan Policka, a man who is unusually gifted in spatial analysis. “I’d say I was terrible in school, because I was a slow reader and I lacked interest,” he says. His grades reflected it until seventh grade, when he took his first shop class. It was a revelation to him. “I knew then and there that I wanted to spend my life working with my hands,” he says. His performance was off the charts when it came to assembling or disassembling things – analyzing the whole structure, visualizing easily in three dimensions and understanding the order in which actions had to be taken to solve a problem. He was a genius in hiding.

Stan lived with his sister, two brothers and parents in Muskegon, Michigan when he was growing up. His dad worked at Continental Motors, a company that manufactured aircraft engines. “He was a good worker and took a lot of pride in his work,” Stan says. He also had a house-painting business, and from the age of ten, Stan would be his helper, masking all the windows and electrical outlets. Dad left him to do the job unsupervised, but he made it very plain that “it better be right!” It taught Stan that he had to take responsibility for his work, to be in effect his own boss, a trait he carried with him for the rest of his life.

His dad also had another business, repossessing autos, fixing them up and reselling them. Working the second shift at Continental and running two businesses of his own didn’t leave him much time to be with his family. Stan’s role model was his grandfather, a highly skilled tool and die maker in his day. “I spent as much time with him as I could,” Stan recalls, and he learned welding and metal work at an early age, making him the envy of many of his male classmates. During those growing up years he loved making model airplanes and working on auto engines in what spare time he had.

But he was a different breed from his classmates. “In high school I played football, just to be one of the guys, but once I’d make the cut I’d quit.” Why? He had other interests. “I found it more to my advantage, when they were out on the football field, to be behind the bleachers, flirting with some little cutie.” And in 1966, his senior year, he met a little cutie named Cheryl – not behind the stands but in science class – who would become his future wife. “I was at a table in the back row, and there was this very pretty gal two tables in front of me,” he remembers. “After class I asked the teacher if I could sit at the front table. I had a reputation as something of a troublemaker and didn’t take orders well, so he readily agreed to move me up front, where he could keep an eye on me.” After that, Stan spent a lot of time keeping his eyes on Cheryl. “He was very good looking, and the fact that he was a ‘Bad Boy’ attracted me,” Cheryl admits. But actually he was not aggressive, just determined, and not cocky, just self-assured. They went together for four years after that, got married in 1970 and are still going strong after 52 years of marital bliss.

When he graduated from high school, Stan knew he had to go to college if he was going to amount to anything. He applied at Muskegon Community College, but at the registrar’s office they told him they couldn’t accept him because his grades were too low. His boisterous response to this news echoed throughout the building, and the administration, if only to restore peace, agreed to take him in “on probation.” He proceeded to breeze through the voc/tech classes, got an associate’s degree and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in metalworking and woodworking as well as a vocational teaching certificate at Western Michigan University.

“I didn’t ever take a teaching job at a school,” Stan says. “In schools they have rules, and I didn’t want to be restricted by someone else’s rules. I liked to think outside the box, and do things my way.” He took a job as a troubleshooter at a metalworking company, and he was good at it. When given a problem, he recalls, “I would dream every night about what I had to do tomorrow. The next day I would get up and do it right, because I had already done it once in my dreams.” Now that is truly fulfilling your dreams!

But Stan had bigger dreams for himself. “I only worked to get money to buy machines and equipment so I could have my own business,” he says. “I wanted to be my own boss.” But tool and die equipment was very expensive, so he and Cheryl decided to open a woodworking shop, which was easier to finance. They called it “The Woodshed.” A big part of the business was remodeling or replacing kitchens. Stan would put in long hours on the plans and layouts, design and woodworking, while Cheryl did virtually nothing … except advertising, marketing, accounting, estimating costs and pricing, supervising installation at the job site, bookkeeping, filing taxes, raising two children and making supper.

 “We worked well together,” Cheryl says modestly. Indeed, like hand in glove, and The Woodshed thrived. Then they decided to use Stan’s metalworking talents and split their time between woodworking and metalworking. They branched out to making garden fountains, statuary, hangings and other metal artwork, selling everything they could produce in garden shows and juried art fairs. And Stan won his share of medals and acclaim for his highly creative artwork.

When he turned 65 in 2013, Stan decided that he’d done enough cabinetmaking and metalwork to please other people, and that he would thereafter commit his time to pleasing himself and Cheryl. They bought a place in Florida and now split their time between their seven-acre farm in Muskegon and paradise in Florida. They’ve been in Englewood for five years, and they love its Olde Florida character, “off the beaten track” quietude and friendly folks.

They have two family properties side by side in Mobile Gardens, and their home has become almost a tourist attraction, fronted as it is by a 14-foot alligator and an enormous, colorful display of offshore marine life – highly creative products of Stan’s fertile mind and agile hands. The alligator is crafted entirely from old auto parts, wrenches, gears, padlocks, wheels, plates and whatever other scrap metal struck Stan’s fancy. The marine display, including over 300 fish made from fabricated metal, depicts a wide variety of anatomically authentic sea creatures in their native habitats. Cheryl recounts that “one woman cried, she was so taken by it.”

Stan has been “working” on it for some time, and there’s more to come. He likes to say, “I never worked a day in my life. I had fun doing what I did.” Now he’s having fun doing it for himself. He’s living his dream – and he wouldn’t dream of having it any other way.

Dean Laux is exploring interesting folks living in our community. If you know of anyone with an interesting background please send an email to: [email protected]. Include the person’s name, contact info and give a brief description of the person’s background.