Alumni Features

Community Rallies Around John Payne’s Dream to Walk Again 

Recently, family, friends and even complete strangers poured out their support so that fellow Memphian, John Payne (ECS class of 1997), could walk again.  

In June 1998, just a year after high school, Payne, a high level mountain bike racer, was training in Chattanooga for nationals later that year. While training, Payne was involved in a freak accident and suffered a spinal cord injury, paralyzing him from the chest down.  

While others may have resorted to anger, doubt and idleness at such a tragedy, Payne forged ahead, determined to live out his life as normally as before, enrolling in classes just two months later and graduating college in four years. 

As a part of adapting to his new life, Payne remained active physically and through volunteer work. He began hand-bicycling (on a hand-crank bicycle) and wheelchair racing. He also volunteered for two major running organizations: the Memphis Runners Track Club for 17 years and Memphis Youth Athletics since its inception in 2014, serving both as a race timer, enabling and encouraging others to run, a pleasure he had been denied. He has served both organizations on their boards and as president. In addition, Payne has volunteered for Girls on the Run and serves on the board for Accessible Hope International and is hoping to participate in relief work through them in Sierra Leone in the next year. Throughout all of his efforts volunteering in the running community, Payne never gave up his dream to one day walk again. 

In 2020, an opportunity to fulfill his dream presented itself in the form of a new device called ReWalk, an exoskeleton which depends on user-controlled technology and weight balance to walk. But this device came with a hefty price tag. Payne traveled to North Carolina to learn more about it and see the device in use. That’s when he decided to post about this opportunity on Facebook, which began a grassroots effort to make Payne’s dream come true. 

Bill Rhodes, CEO of AutoZone, for which Payne works as a senior operations analyst, got wind of Payne’s opportunity, and reached out to him to learn more about the ReWalk device. He encouraged Payne to get in touch with AutoZone’s Human Resources who worked to find a way for Payne to get his own device.  

AutoZone Human Resources and Community Relations connected Payne to a fundraising organization, I GOT LEGS, that helps raise money for ReWalk devices. After retaining their services, he had raised $20,000 in just four days! However, there was still a long way to go to raise the $92,250 needed to purchase this exoskeleton. As word got out, donations kept pouring in, and he had reached the $67,000 mark. That’s when a longtime Memphis journalist learned about this fundraising effort.

Payne explained, “Geoff Calkins (of the Daily Memphian) wanted to do an article on it. He called me that night. He posted the article on Monday, April 12. By Tuesday morning, we had raised $81,000, and within the hour, we were over the goal.” Payne was overwhelmed by the outpouring of support.  

Calkins wrote in his follow-up article on April 13: “I chronicled Payne’s story in a Monday column. Readers responded as I suspected they would. It’s not just that Payne is a good guy who suffered misfortune. It’s that he didn’t let his misfortune get in the way of giving back.”

The total amount raised was $129,447, well over his goal, donated from friends in the running community as well as complete strangers. The surplus will be used to help others walk. 

Payne was given access to a refurbished exoskeleton to increase his speed of training. He attends training three times a week with a physical therapist, Melanie Morton, who, incidentally, is married to an ECS alumnus, Richard Morton (class of 1994). This specialized training helps Payne learn how to work the battery-powered device that straps onto his legs and lower back. Payne moves the ReWalk device to different modes such as stand and walk through a Bluetooth-paired watch while he balances his weight on crutches. Learning how to synchronize the device to his body to produce controlled movement takes about 30-40 sessions to become proficient; Payne is about halfway through his training. 

“It’s pretty mechanical. It’s all driven by a device but with a lot of input from the user.” Payne adds, “It is way harder than I thought it was going to be. It’s a lot of work.” It’s a good thing he has remained so active!

Throughout his journey, Payne credits his family and friends for their support. “Family has had a big role to play. My church, friends and parents helped support me a lot.” His friendships from ECS have been a part of this as well. Payne reflected, “ECS has provided me with good life values and a Christian education. I have remained engaged in my church. ECS has provided me with a lot of good friends such as the Butler family.”

Fellow ECS classmate David Butler said of his friend, “Being able to walk alongside this journey with John has been an awesome and yet humbling experience. JP does more from his chair than many able-bodied individuals. Whether it’s marathons or timing youth running events, he just refused to let his injury define him.

“John’s positive attitude and sense of humor have been magnetic for everyone he has come into contact with. I’ve watched two of my brothers complete marathons because of John’s example and encouragement.” 

Butler continued, “It’s been a testament to JP’s determination and faith in God’s plan for him for this opportunity to come to fruition. JP has worked, researched and prepared for this opportunity when it was still theoretical research. I’m excited for his wife Sabrina, family and his friends to be able to see him stand and walk since, for some, they have only known him in a chair. It’s an answer to 20+ years of prayers.”

Fighting COVID-19 on the Front Lines

When Carlie Clack (ECS class of 2012) was a nursing student at Samford University five years ago, she could have never dreamed she would be serving on the front line during a worldwide pandemic. Now, Clack is a leader on a COVID-19 response team in the Germantown Methodist Emergency Room, and often treats COVID-19 patients 60 hours per week.

Last spring, shortly before the coronavirus hit Memphis, Clack decided that after four years of working as a Registered Nurse for Germantown Methodist Hospital, it was time for her to take on a leadership role. So she responded to an email soliciting volunteers to join a research team. Little did she know, on March 19, also her twenty-sixth birthday, her whole world would change.

As a part of this administrative team including the emergency department director and head emergency room doctor, Clack and her team rose to the occasion by spearheading the invention of Methodist’s process for drive-through COVID-19 testing on-site. “It was a whole lot of trial-and-error. There was not really any research on this. They don’t even have drive-through flu shots. So we just asked ourselves, What do we need to do?

And they got it done. Their drive-through model worked so well it was soon adopted by other Methodist Hospital locations.

The early days of COVID-19 were long and hard. Before COVID, Clack worked three 12-hour shifts. Since March, it is common for her to work five 12-hour days because the hospital is short-staffed. In fact, she says, “I almost feel guilty when I’m not at work.”

As part of her training, Samford simulated a disaster drill in response to the then-recent Tuscaloosa tornado nearby. “But it was only a day,” Clack says. (With COVID-19), you don’t have time to process it mentally, and patients keep coming in for treatment. A year-long disaster of this pandemic is nothing that I could have imagined.

“Nurses are mentally drained. The news is saying that we will have PTSD after this. I have lost patients, and it has been devastating. But it has been so rewarding too. Having a 103-year old beat COVID and then get discharged, or seeing someone’s oxygen levels going up quickly is so exciting. You have to celebrate the little victories.

“It has been the most stressful year of my life,” Clack says. A few months ago, after a particularly long and hard day with more patients than beds available, the stress finally hit her. Clack was discouraged and found comfort in her mother’s reassuring words that reminded her that she was trained to do this, and she must keep going.

“At work, I love to educate people. If I wasn’t a nurse, I would be a teacher. I’ve said that ever since being in Mrs. Peggy’s class (referring to her ECS kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Peggy Selph). It is stressful to educate my patients when there is still so much unknown, and information on the virus is ever-changing. I want to make sure I’m doing the best I can to make sure I’m giving the most current information.”

Clack has taken her first vaccine and will receive her second dose this week. She advises that everyone should consult their doctor about the best choice for them. Clack supports anything we can do to heIp get rid of this virus, including taking precautions to stay safe and help keep others safe.

Clack looks with promise to the days ahead, now that the vaccine is being distributed worldwide. Her sunny disposition about the future may also have something to do with her upcoming wedding in May.

Many people, including ECS friends, have asked what they can do for her. Her answer? Pray. “Pray for health care workers. Work is hard, yet not being at work is hard too. It’s taking a physical toll.”

Especially in the past year, Clack has been comforted by a quote by writer Corrie Ten Boon plastered all over her house, which perhaps not coincidentally was also her ECS senior quote in the yearbook: “Never be afraid to trust an unknown future to a knowing God.”

Rocket Man

Engineer Andy Short (ECS 1996), shares his experiences in a revolutionary industry, including working for SpaceX founder Elon Musk.

Many watched with rapt attention as the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched into orbit from Kennedy Space Center on May 30, 2020, the first time the United States has launched a rocket into space in 10 years. Perhaps more notably, this marked the first time a rocket built by a private company launched astronauts into orbit, ushering in a new era in human space travel.

Andy Short was also watching the launch closely, but with perhaps greater anticipation than the rest of us. Six years ago, he was on the Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) team responsible for the design and creation of a prototype of the Dragon 2, a capsule which later housed astronauts aboard the Falcon 9 rocket.

Even though Short has been working as an engineer in the aerospace industry for 20 years, launch day revealed his boy-like wonder: “By far, the coolest part of working in aerospace is seeing the final countdown of the rocket launch and watching those initial 20 to 30 seconds of flight. The anticipation, the amount of power on display as the rocket lifts off, and the myriad systems that have to work perfectly together is incredible.”

Launch day is a culmination of years of work from the nation’s brightest minds researching, planning, building, testing, troubleshooting and revamping time and again, to finally achieve exhilarating success.

“SpaceX was probably the place that was the most demanding and challenging, but it’s also where I learned the most,” Short reflects of his job as Director of Composites Production, in which he led a team of more than 200 people. “I think the most important thing I learned while working at SpaceX was the value of setting really ambitious goals and objectives. Some people used the word impossible to describe their goals. Working there meant learning to get comfortable in that environment of trying to make the impossible possible.”

Short describes what it was like to work for Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX and one of the founders of Tesla, Inc., with whom he had regular interaction: “Elon Musk is a man that is always pushing forward and using ambitious goals as a driving motivating factor. As a result, he has accomplished more in scope than was ever thought possible. That’s his M.O.

“It is a really tall order to hit the objectives and accomplish what he expects of you, but if you can get comfortable in that pressure cooker, and you accomplish 80% of his expectations, then you are still miles and miles ahead of other companies.”

Ultimately, working in an environment likened to a pressure cooker can lead to exhaustion. “When I decided to leave SpaceX, I wanted to work in a new industry. I had been in aerospace for a long time and was eager to try something new. I wanted to work in a small company.” He transitioned to a position as Director of Operations at Goldbrecht, Inc., a company that makes high-end architectural windows and door designs.

“No one should shy away from making a career change based on following your interests or expanding your horizons,” Short advises. “For me, it was cool, but I realized I did miss the more technical challenges of aerospace.”

Now, Short is the Senior Director of Manufacturing at Virgin Orbit, which provides launch services for small satellites and has developed the air-launched LauncherOne rocket.

As both an engineer and a business manager, Short relishes his role at this up and coming company. At the time he was brought on in 2016, Virgin Orbit still needed to make foundational decisions and establish basic business processes such as determining which enterprise systems to use, how to purchase parts and manage inventory, and how to plan and manage production.

Short prefers the smaller company size – Virgin Orbit currently employs around 500 people – and enjoys his ability to influence decisions and the direction of the company. “There was a lot that had to be done in terms of maturing the organization and business processes.” He adds, “We are working on building a rocket but also building a company.”

Virgin Orbit recently completed their launch demonstration mission. There was a malfunction early in flight that ended the mission. While disappointing, Short says that in his industry, it is not unusual for new rocket programs to experience failures or anomalies during their first several missions. Now, they are investigating what went wrong and strategizing how to fix it for future launches. 

Each rocket is equipped with sensors and instrumentation from which engineers at Virgin retrieve valuable data needed to learn how to improve the design and launch future rockets successfully. Short and his team simultaneously incorporate these new findings into manufacturing future rockets so that their launch timeline is minimally affected.

Short shares that extensive testing and learning from failures is a key aspect of work for engineers. He advises young engineering students, “Sometimes you may get a very black-and-white answer for simpler designs or problems. When you are dealing with a complex system like launching a rocket, you can’t always get a crystal clear, black-and-white answer. It always takes engineering judgment and quantification of risk. That is a vital part of an engineer’s job. We could tinker with a rocket design for years, but you can’t run a business like that. At the end of the day, you have to get the data, use that along with engineering judgment to determine, based on everything we have collected and others’ input, what we could do to solve the problem.”

Short encourages students interested in one day becoming engineers to develop their skills in active STEM programs as early as possible. “I am a huge proponent of maximizing opportunities to apply what students are learning in the classroom.” He advises, “Students should take advantage of robotics teams or similar organized groups and competitions. Things start to come together when you are forced to work with your hands. There is a lot you can learn in that environment that you can’t learn in the classroom.”

To future engineers, Short offers some valuable advice as a hiring manager in one of the most cutting edge industries in the world. The pool of applicants for jobs at any aerospace company is impressive, and there is no shortage of graduates from highly distinguished universities. But Short has found, “One of the most important, foundational qualities of a good engineer is a great work ethic. What a differentiator between people in terms of what they know versus how they perform!”  

 

THE SHORT LIST

Education:

  • Bachelor’s of Science in Textile Engineering, Auburn University, 2000
  • Master’s of Business Administration in International Business, Xavier University, 2004

Experience:

  • Virgin Orbit, Senior Director of Manufacturing, 2016-present
  • Goldbrecht, Inc., Director of Operations, 2015-2016
  • Space Exploration Technologies, Director, Composites Production, 2012-2015
  • Messier-Bugatti USA, LLC, Vice President, Carbon Operations, 2008-2012
  • Quality Director, 2007-2008
  • Quality and Program Manager, 2004-2007
  • Process Engineer, 2001-2004

Family:

  • Married to Stephanie with five children ages 5 to 17

 

HOW DID ECS PREPARE YOU FOR LIFE?

The number one thing that ECS helped with was writing and critical thinking. It provided guided opportunities to think through faith and how it applied to different areas of my life. A lot of that was done in the advanced English classes. I was fortunate to be with a group of students who prompted debate and discussion and critical thinking. My teachers were good about integrating Christian worldview into our class discussions of books. It pushed me to think in areas I wouldn’t have on my own. ECS was a safe place to be challenged in the thought process. After ECS, students will be challenged on their faith and worldview, but perhaps with less support, and in a not-as-safe environment. That could be difficult without the foundation of a place like ECS.

WHO WERE SOME OF YOUR FAVORITE TEACHERS?

Joyce Herring, my AP English teacher, and Peter Cooper, my sophomore History and Literature teacher were some of my favorites. I also have such wonderful memories from cross country and track with Coach Baker and Coach Roelofs. Both of those guys were mentors to me who taught the values of working hard, living your faith, supporting your teammates, and in all that, having fun.