Hometown tragedy inspires FHSU student’s career choice


James Little well remembers the compassion shown by neighbors and relatives – and even strangers – following the aftermath of an EF5 tornado that ripped through his hometown of Greensburg back in 2007.

Witnessing the rebuilding of homes and people’s lives while growing up ultimately led Little to pursue a career in construction management. After graduating with his bachelor’s degree in technology studies later this month, Little will return to the Greensburg area to work for a local construction company.

While commercial companies in larger cities annually recruit several FHSU graduates, Little decided on the residential construction route after working an internship last summer with a commercial building company.

“I wanted to give commercial a try,” he said, “but I really take pride in my work in residential, and it seems more personal. I just really like helping people. I’ve always wanted to go back and make a difference in my community, and this gives me a chance to do that.”

Little, who was 8 years old when the tornado nearly destroyed the town of about 850 residents, lived with his family in a FEMA trailer while his home was being rebuilt, so he got to watch firsthand the reconstruction of his town.

He got his start in residential construction while working with his high school industrial technology instructor, Peter Kern, who rebuilt his family home in Greensburg. When the home was nearing completion, it was struck by lightning. One of the rooms caught on fire, and several rooms received smoke and water damage.

“We had to gut the place, and start over,” Little said. “It sure wasn’t an ideal situation, but it definitely was a learning experience for me.”

A Fort Hays State graduate himself, Kern is pleased that Little chose the construction industry – and Fort Hays State.

“James is a rock star,” Kern said. “He is conscientious and takes pride in his work. I couldn’t think of a better representative for our high school here at Fort Hays State. Now, we’ll have another FHSU graduate out in the workforce.”

Little and Kern were reunited last month when Kern brought his students from Kiowa County High School to the 62nd annual Western Kansas Technology Education Fair at FHSU.

Little served as a judge’s assistant at the fair, and he was proud of the projects his high school displayed. Kiowa County senior Logan Rugg won two of the most prestigious awards at the fair. He was awarded the Ed Davis Award given for the most outstanding production entry for his walnut china cabinet. He also won the Fred Ruda Legacy Award, a people’s choice award for the fair’s favorite project. Coincidentally, Little also won two of the top awards at the tech fair as a high school senior back in 2017.

“The technology fair was one of the favorite parts of the school year in high school,” Little said. “It was always nice to show off the quality work we can produce out of our school.”

Like Kiowa County’s Kern, instructors for programs that won the other three main overall awards this year are FHSU graduates. Students of Brent Kerr from Ness City Junior/Senior High School won the Dennis McKee Award (multi-pupil) for their tiny house project. Hays High School senior Tyree Turnbull (instructor Chris Dinkel) won the Richard Cain Award as the winner of the communication contest. USD 399-Natoma High School and Paradise Junior High (instructor Chris Broeckelman) won the Ross Beach Sr. Award for outstanding program of the year.

“Hard-working, dedicated applied technology students make hard-working, dedicated industrial technology teachers,” said Kim Stewart, chair of FHSU’s Department of Applied Technology. “Many of our past graduates support the FHSU technology fair, and we appreciate the opportunity to bring programs together and share ideas.”  

Last year’s fair was canceled because of the pandemic. Even though they knew numbers would probably be down this year, faculty in the Department of Applied Technology decided to go ahead with the 2021 fair.

“We adhered to protocols with wearing masks, social distancing, and hand sanitizing,” said Kim Stewart, department chair. “We decided we were going to make it work. It was great to see kids on campus.”

Students from 15 middle and high schools brought their projects to Gross Memorial Coliseum for display, and students also participated in a quiz bowl competition, metric 500, problem-solving competition, communication contest, and STEM Display.

“This is such an excellent way for middle and high school students to showcase the work they have done throughout the year,” said Eric Deneault, associate professor of applied technology. “This is all about the students and their dedicated instructors. I’m really glad we were able to have the fair this year.”

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