Faculty Appreciation Month – Meet Donald Button

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Don, 59, from Payson, Arizona, is an electrical instructor at The Refrigeration School. Don has been teaching at RSI for about eight months, but he’s been in the electrical field for 51 years.  

Thanks for your time, Don; okay, we have to start there. 51 years? You started at aged 8? 

Exactly. My father was an electrical contractor; in fact, he still is, even now at the age of 77. Up in Payson in the 1970s, we didn’t have daycare. So, we either went with dad to work, or we went to little league practice and that was it. All of my friends grew up the same way.

That’s awesome, and you’re alive to tell the tale. So, did you go straight into the field after high school? 

I did, and I went to NAU to become an electrical engineer. I worked extensively through college to the point where eventually I got a federal job before I even graduated. So, I dropped out and went to work on government military bases. I did that for the next 10 years.

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Why did you drop out, just for the job?

In all honesty, the courses were pretty dry, and I wasn’t that good of a student at the time when I was 18/19. I came out of a small town, so I was confused as to what I wanted to do. I loved Flagstaff. I already had an electrical background, so I worked my way through school. I spent seven years at NAU.

Tell us more about the military bases.

I worked for 10 years solid on military bases as a civilian contractor. My very first military project was at the Camp Navajo Army Depot near Williams, where we put in security alarm systems on the ammunition storage. I got straight into making some real money and made it a habit. I also worked at the Yuma Proving Grounds, at the Marine Corps Air Station in Yuma, I’ve worked at Camp Pendleton. I’ve worked at Mountain Home Air Force Base in Boise, Idaho, and I’ve worked at Davis-Monthan Air Force base down in Tucson. 

Did you regret not finishing the degree?

I didn’t see myself, at that time, ever wishing I had that degree. Looking back on it, I’m really glad I went the direction I went because I spent a lot of time learning a lot of things from some really good journeymen. I feel blessed in the sense that I was able to have those guys as my personal instructors, not just my father. My first journeyman was Michael Grubbs, who eventually went on to become the City Electrical Inspector for the City of Phoenix. 

Sounds like a great education. Just outline the rest of your career experience. 

I was working on a project at the Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho and Bill Clinton got elected. He took away the funding for our project, so I ended up having to join the IBEW [International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers] in Idaho and the local 271. I tested right in and got a 97% on the union exam. I eventually went to work in Sacramento in their union office and became an organizer for a while. Then my father got really busy in Arizona; he called and requested that I come home. Of course I said, no problem. I dropped out of the union then and there, and I’ve been in Arizona ever since. That was 1998.

I worked for my father for at least 15, close to 20 years, and I still do. We don’t take on any new projects at all, but we’ve done over 40 kidney dialysis centers here locally, and if they add new chairs or they need stuff done, I’m always eager to go and help them. My last big project was as the electrical superintendent of the remodel at the Hyatt Regency in central Phoenix. It was 600 units, all the rooms, all the restaurants, the ballrooms, function rooms, the Porte Cochere, everything. I was in charge of all of it.

When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I wanted to be a disc jockey right up until college. Casey Kasem and Wolfman Jack were my heroes. I used to play my albums for my high school dances! I still have that album collection to this day.

What made you go into teaching?

Pre-Covid, I partnered up with another electrical contractor who had actually worked for me over at the Hyatt Recency job. He’s a very good guy. We had a few contracts going with McDonald’s to do a bunch of remodels. As soon as Covid happened, McDonald’s pulled out. We lost about $3 million worth of work. So, we decided to take on all the service work we could get and look at teaching part-time at trade schools.

In late 2021, I taught part-time at what turned out to be, in my opinion, a couple of terrible trade schools, and my partner Carl came here to teach at RSI. Anyway, long story short, I ended up getting rear ended in my truck going to work one night. I hurt my back pretty bad and ended up having 11 spinal taps. I quickly realized I wouldn’t be climbing any more ladders, at least not on a daily basis. So, I decided to take teaching more seriously. At that time, Carl needed to take care of some things on the home front, and he said, “Don, I’m going to have to give up my RSI job. Would you be interested in coming over here?”

I finished up a project and came and spoke with a couple of instructors, and David Heiman, the Director of Training. They hired me on the spot. I’ve been here eight months now, and I’ve made this commercial department my own. This is probably the best solid decision I’ve made in my senior years. I love this job. 

What do you love best about teaching here?

Students I’ve had in previous classes often come to visit me; they always tell my current group of students how much they learned from me. It’s just a real big ego builder! It makes me feel good. To me, that’s the best part. A little ‘attaboy’ never hurt anybody! I enjoy this place. I try to go the extra mile. I’ve taken 40 students to the Salt River Project (SRP) Workshop Safety Program on my own time. All 40 of them got certificates for their résumés stating that they’d attended this workshop. That’s really good because SRP is our leading utility company here in Arizona. These guys also had the benefit of learning a bunch of things that could potentially save their lives in the future. I’m proud of that. I would almost do this job for free because it feels so good to be here after the previous two schools I taught at.

Tell us something most people don’t know about you?

I’m an avid fisherman, whether it be freshwater or saltwater, and I grew up on a drag track. My father is not only an electrical contractor, but he’s a professional drag racer in the NHRA. And so, if I’m not working, a lot of my weekends are taken up on the drag track. I really seriously love older super sport Chevy vehicles – Chevelles and Novas. It’s a family thing for us – my dad and two brothers are really into it.

If you could have dinner with anyone, alive or dead, who would it be?

There’s a fellow named Mike Holt. In my opinion, he’s the guru for anything electrical throughout the United States. He’s got many YouTube videos; he’s the most influential person when it comes to the National Electrical Code. I like to think I’m pretty sharp, so I’d love to sit down and chat with Michael Holt.

What advice would you give students to be successful at RSI??

Show up to school early every day, pay attention to the instructors, and do your homework. And ask questions! If you don’t know, I will always take the time to explain things, and I’m surrounded by intelligent gentlemen who will do the same. The talent we have in the instructors at this school is one of the biggest reasons I decided to come to RSI. We make sure that the students have everything they need. So, you can’t take it easy or lightly here and expect to succeed. You have to show up every day and work hard; you will get back what you put into it. If you don’t put anything into it, don’t expect to get anything out of it.

If you got an unexpected afternoon to yourself, what would you do with that time?

I might take a nap, or I might go fishing! We live in Phoenix, so fishing is a very seasonal thing as it gets very hot here. So, if it’s in the summer, I might stay home and enjoy the AC and catch up on some of my own stuff in my own personal life – the stuff I don’t usually have time to pay attention to! 

What did you enjoy most about your time working in the field?

I would have to say working on the military bases. I’ve got some really decent clearance levels where I can walk on just about any military base in the country and go into whatever proactive status I need to be in right away. I always enjoyed being able to go work anywhere. Once I got in that loop, I was on that special list of guys they would call when there was a new project.

I enjoyed traveling. I did a lot of airfield runway lighting all over at different airfields and marine bases. I specialized in that. I worked all the way from the airport in Atlanta, to putting in security door alarm systems in prisons in Memphis. In 1990 through 92, I worked in the Yuma Proving Ground on one particular project; it was a Patriot Missile System. We tested it prior to them blowing scuds out of sky in Iraq. We tested that thing. We cleared the entire desert out, put a substation out there, and ran cables for high-speed video cameras as they shot 2000lb rounds into the Kofa firing range. It took them months, but they eventually shot those rounds out of the air, and that was simulating the Patriots shooting a scud out of the air. That was a pretty cool project. Being an electrician has allowed me to do and see a lot of cool stuff.

If you were to tell someone “Thank you” for making you the person you are today, who would it be?

It would be my dad, Robert. He made me a man and he taught me a trade. And I have taught this trade to hundreds of people since then. My dad is my hero.

Thank you, Donald, for all you do to impact the RSI community.