MTI's 'family' feeling endures through 50 graduations

rdymond@bradenton.comJune 23, 2014 

MANATEE -- Bradenton's Jozsefne Lukacs enrolled at Manatee Technical Institute two years ago dreaming of becoming a certified public accountant.

In her first year, she could only go to morning classes part time.

A physics and mathematics teacher in her native Hungary, Lukacs needed to clean houses full time to support herself.

MTI accounting teacher Judy Hangartner, also known as Mrs. H., supported Lukacs' truncated schedule and helped her use the Google dictionary on her laptop computer to look up English-to-Hungarian translations.

"We had an understanding that anytime she could ask me questions about words she didn't know," Hangartner said Sunday. "For her part, she kept coming back to class."

After sending out 50 letters to CPA firms, Lukacs recently landed a job in Bradenton as a bookkeeper and office manager of a CPA firm.

Lukacs will be among MTI's historic 50th graduating class set to receive diplomas beginning at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Bradenton Area Convention Center, One Haben Blvd., Palmetto.

Lukacs' 2014 graduating class is 1,400 strong. The first MTI graduating class in 1964 was 78.

"Jozsefne came to see me recently and said: 'Mrs. H., my dream has come true,' " Hangartner said. "We both cried. I told her my dream had come true, too."

For 50 years in Manatee County, MTI has been training or retraining people like Lukacs who need new skills to survive, Hangartner said.

MTI teachers, including seven-year teaching veteran Hangartner, 20-year veteran Kim Bland, 11-year-veteran Jane Arnoldi and nine-year veteran Padraic "Paddy" McCarthy, all said MTI teachers derive great satisfaction seeing students secure their futures.

"MTI is all about, 'Get in there, learn something and get yourself to work,'" said McCarthy, who teaches major appliance technology. "So many are lost when they come into that school that it's so rewarding to see them take over themselves and change their lives."

"The most remarkable thing I can say about MTI is that the teachers are there for the students," said Bland, program director for the dental assisting program and also a student in the program in the early '80s.

"A lot of times you look at colleges and they are looking to make a buck and line pockets," Bland said. "It's not the case at MTI. We are there for the students and we care about their success. I think all the MTI teachers feel as I do that the person we help will be a contributor in a good way so, with our influence, we can make society so much better."

"MTI is like a family," Arnoldi said. "It's been a life-changing experience watching these students blossom."

Humble beginnings

Most Manatee County newcomers know of MTI from the glistening new main campus building with its digital front sign on State Road 70.

That building houses fields of endeavor as varied as plumbing, electricity, carpentry, web development and digital design just west of Interstate 75.

Others know of MTI's north campus in portable classrooms near the old Palmetto Elementary School site where English for speakers of other languages, GED preparation and basic adult education is taught, or the east campus, which produces nurses, law enforcement officers, firefighters, medical assistants, pharmacy techs and massage therapists on Lakewood Ranch Boulevard near Lakewood Ranch High School.

Oldtimers, however, know the west campus where MTI once went by its former name, Manatee Area Vocational Technical Center or simply Vo-Tech.

Vo-Tech, which eventually grew to 12 buildings, started with five tiny buildings under one roof in the 3300 block of 57th Avenue West, then known as Little Pittsburgh Road.

That campus has been shuttered except for a firing range for law enforcement and a nearby adult education component.

At first there were just five programs. Women could choose cosmetology or nursing while men could pick from auto mechanics, small engine repair and welding.

Enrollment grew steadily. The Cold War technology race between the Russians and Americans helped fuel the vo-tech movement, said Mary Cantrell, MTI director for 18 years.

"One of the reasons vo-tech got started was America wanted to be No. 1 in technology and when the Russians put up Sputnik, there was concern," Cantrell said.

When the Vocational Education Act of 1963 passed Congress, funds were available nationwide, Cantrell said.

"The government said if you build a tech center for adults, we will fund it up to 70 percent," Cantrell added.

Hurricane Mary

By 1996, Manatee's vo-tech movement was somewhat stalled.

"There was less than 20 programs and the school had low enrollment," Cantrell said.

In 1996, MTI hired Cantrell, then-county director for career technology in Osceola County. Cantrell reached out to area industry to find out exactly what human resources officers needed from job applicants.

"When I came it was kind of a little sleepy place," Cantrell said. "My nickname became Hurricane Mary. My job was to wake them up."

Under Cantrell since 1996, MTI has increased to 55 programs. The school has also won 10 straight SkillsUSA national championships and is hoping for an 11th in competition, which begins Monday in the Kansas City area and runs through Friday. SkillsUSA is a national nonprofit organization serving teachers and high school and college students preparing for careers in trade, technical and skilled service occupations, including health, by having high level competitions. It was formerly known as Vocational Industrial Clubs of America.

Like her teachers, Cantrell also is touched by her student's achievements.

"If you help people to a good life, you just don't change that person, your community is better for it," Cantrell said.

She then recounted a story of a student who came to MTI so downtrodden his status could only be described as poverty.

"This young man learned to weld at MTI and became an exceptional welder," Cantrell said. "His current salary is $175,000 annually and his company sends him all over the world. All I can say is, 'Wow, an MTI teacher did that. A teacher changed his life.' "

Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-525-3377 or contact him via Twitter @RichardDymond.

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