Falling in Place

by Tom Wilson, writer/editor-PCToday.

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A stickler for skatepark protocol, he calmly waits his turn, one foot on the back end of his board, the other marking time ’til launch.

Front wheels overhang the lip of the course, an empty swimming pool of sorts at the bottom of a very sheer drop, indeed.

Meeting a middle school goal – and proving a guidance counselor wrong – Benjamin M. Schappel, a CAD student, peer mentor/tutor and the college’s first commuter assistant, developed Smorgas Board Co. Photo by Cindy Davis Meixel.With the fearlessness of youth, Benjamin M. Schappell propels himself into play, from one side of the bowl to the other, a pendulum gathering momentum into the quarter-pipe. He soars and smiles and surfs the breeze, attempting an aerial stunt called the “roast beef.”

It’s a move that relies on midair balance, a subtle shift as the skater drops to grab the heel-side of his board, then stands to stick the landing. He misses it, barely, rolls onto his back, laughing. His skateboard scampers on, into the surrounding mulch.

A fresh scrape joins its distant cousins on Schappell’s elbow, and with a philosophical “Wiping out is part of the game,” he rises to go again and again, each time getting closer to nailing it. Close enough, at least, for another bit of etiquette: the staccato applause of other skaters’ wheels tap-clap-tapping against the concrete.

A computer aided product design major at Pennsylvania College of Technology, Schappell embraces trial and error.

Schappell soars above the Lifland Skatepark, between Williamsport’s Elm Park and Original Little League Field. Photo by Cindy Davis Meixel.To him, falling isn’t remotely like failing. Rather, it is a beneficial concept in his field: industry’s capability to fashion goods on-screen prior to reaching the expensive, unforgiving factory floor – to “digitally tweak stuff before you have to spend a dime.” “I can spend months and months designing and redesigning before I ever build anything by hand,” says Schappell, who clearly enjoys working – and playing – with CAD.

A tinkerer by bloodline, he terms his Reading-area family a “bunch of frugal, handy people.” No exception was his grandfather, christened as David G. Simmons but remembered simply as “Pop,” who retired to Morris and remained after the 2006 death of his wife, Jean.

“He was a Navy man, a jack-of-all-trades,” Schappell says, eyes bright as he conjures an adolescence of do-it-yourself adventure with a senior accomplice.

“We’d come up over the summer, and we’d always (have) project ideas. We’d invent something, then get it done that week,” he remembers. “We made marshmallow guns, a rocket launcher that would send soda bottles way up into the sky; we hooked a ‘weed-wacker’ motor up to an old banana-seat bike.

“Doing stuff like that with him inspired my love for engineering and design. ‘If you can create something, don’t buy it.’ That’s a motto I live by. ‘Fix something yourself’; I learned that from him.”

"'If you can create something, don’t buy it.’ That’s a motto I live by. ‘Fix something yourself’; I learned that from him."

Emotional and geographical closeness was a factor in Schappell’s Penn College decision. And the childhood challenge of bringing an idea to life within seven days would resurface, not coincidentally involving the park where “Pop’s” grandson now glides with confidence and finesse.

But first things first.

“I knew I wanted to get into engineering, mainly with a CAD focus. I didn’t really have an idea of where to go,” Schappell says. “My mom suggested I look into here.

“They have a wonderful program. The fact that it’s in an area I’m familiar with – I could move in with my grandfather and commute – it was just too perfect. I didn’t even bother applying anywhere else; I knew this was where I had to go to school.”

His career interest wasn’t quite as well-defined. In middle school, he told his guidance counselor that he wanted to open a skateboard business.

Schappell volunteered his computer aided design skills to creating a model of the park for a presentation to Williamsport City Council. Photo by Cindy Davis Meixel.“He suggested I come up with other ideas, some Plan B’s.”

Schappell showed an aptitude for technical drawing in eighth grade, but found it “boring.” As a sophomore at Schuylkill Valley High School, he looked closer, and “it just became a passion.”

During Penn College orientation, he met David A. Probst, an assistant professor of drafting and computer aided design, who talked engagingly about student projects and showed him the rapid prototyping laboratories.

“Dave’s just a real guy who has experience in industry, not just a professor with a bunch of knowledge who can’t relate it to the real world,” Schappell says. “All the professors have field experience. You know they’re real and you know they can relate the subject matter to reality.”

Probst, characterized by Schappell as “pretty cool” and “a biker dude,” readily shares the affection: “Ben is a very dedicated and hard-working student. He is a team player and helps others that may be struggling. He’s very conscientious about any project he works on (and) manages his time well.

“He did a fantastic job on the skatepark design.”

Schappell’s assistance with the Lifland Skatepark, dedicated in September of 2012, was a blend of hobby and happenstance.

“When I came to school here, there wasn’t anywhere to really skateboard besides the parking lots around campus,” Schappell explains, “and a parking lot gets boring after a while. When I found out there was a push to get a skatepark built here, it really got my interest.”

College faculty offered pointers on modeling the park’s complex curves while Schappell spent his hours after classes creating a 3-D representation of the skatepark that he and other enthusiasts now make frequent use of. Photo by Cindy Davis Meixel.He left a Facebook message for Lonnie Wilcox, who was spearheading the project, offering, “I’m a CAD student, I know a lot about skateboarding, I’ll be willing to help where I can.” By the time they met, going over details that would move the idea closer to fruition, the clock was ticking.

“They had some cardboard models that weren’t very representative, so he asked me if I could take the information we talked about and create a digital 3-D model – as an actual representation of the basic construction design and shape of the park – to show to City Council.”

He had one week.

“I worked on it every night, after classes, with help from my professors to give me pointers about different methods of modeling some complex curves, the way the ramps flow,” Schappell remembers.

He got it done in plenty of time and showed it to the organizers, who used the mockup in the council presentation.

“Ben truly stepped up,” Wilcox says. “It didn’t take him long at all. He got me his model days ahead, and we were able to really show what we had in mind. Council unanimously approved the project, and Ben’s design helped make all that possible.”

Schappell with his grandfather, who helped to influence his love for engineering and invention. Photo courtesy of Benjamin M. Schappell.It also saved an estimated $8,000 to $10,000 that might have been spent on a professional design consultant.

“So the money that was raised (including a $40,000 donation from Sally Butterfield, for whose parents the Lifland Skatepark is named) could go toward seeing it done instead of conceptualizing,” says Schappell, glad to be part of such an addition to his adopted community.

“There’s a very deep culture around skateboarding – people who love to skate just love to skate,” he says. “It was important to have something for them. Otherwise, there’d be skateboarders all over town, aggravating people who don’t want them on their property.”

That outlet will only improve in its next phase, an L-shaped expansion that will incorporate “street”-style enhancements: staircases, ledges and other “fun obstacles for people to skate on.”

“They won’t need to go downtown and skate on some business’s railings,” Schappell says of the facility, which also caters to other so-called extreme sports: BMX bikes, scooters, in-line skates. “They can come to the skatepark that’s created for them. It’s an awesome park.”

He is certainly enjoying it on this afternoon, tirelessly looping the course even as shadows lengthen, headgear protecting him from inevitable spills.

“I like wearing a helmet ’cause I’ve hit my head so many times,” he shrugs, intimating an equation that arose from a teenage injury: staples + lecture from the doctor = advocacy. “I wear hats constantly, and this is just another hat.”

In just a few years, he has worn many such hats, accruing an admirably diverse body of work.

“Pop,” who died in July 2012 while Schappell was on a mission trip in Trinidad, would be proud.

Contrary to that counselor’s advice, Schappell did start a skateboard company: Smorgas Board Co., with its tagline “All you can skate.” He also designs and builds drum kits as part of a praise band that performs weekly at Liberty Church.

“As long as we’re creating, doing anything new, there’s always a need for CAD,” he says, pointing to a communications tower beyond. “It was designed very intentionally; people didn’t just sketch it and start grabbing metal and welding it together. There’s documentation of the process, to look back on and inspect and ensure that it’s done correctly to the highest quality. That’s the role CAD plays in just about everything.”

As Schappell nears graduation, his job hunt will grow more earnest. He’d like to stay in the area – preferably near Liberty, where he moved in with his pastor after the sale of “Pop’s” house.

“I don’t find myself particular to any field,” he says. “I just love the work itself. I love designing, seeing something made in 3-D and comparing it to the real-life project in the end.”

Time will tell … and it shouldn’t take but a week.

A Class Act – In AND Out of Class

Does anything say "comfort" quite like a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich? Granted, it won't change the world, but it can make it a homier place in which to work, play and study.

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That's the philosophy behind "It's Peanut Butter Jelly Time," among the initiatives undertaken by Benjamin M. Schappell as Pennsylvania College of Technology's first Commuter Assistant in 2011-12. In an ongoing effort to put out the welcome mat and engage nonresident students, Schappell and his successors supply free fixin's – bread, peanut butter, jelly and marshmallow crème – every Friday in the Bush Campus Center commuter lounge.

The tasty offering is noted in an informative video titled "A Day in the Life of a Penn College Commuter," incorporated this summer into the Connections orientation presentations. In a breezy eight minutes, Schappell's good nature (and even better advice) resolves many of the basic questions a drive-in student might ask about the college and its resources.

"There may not always be a parking space right where you want it, but I can assure you there's parking somewhere," is one of his helpful hints for campus survival. "What I like to do is park further away in one of the more secluded parking lots, where I know there will be a spot available, then I'll just use a skateboard or bike to get around throughout the day."

Benjamin M. Schappell immerses in the "community" of Penn College. Photo by Cindy Davis Meixel.Viewers also peek into Schappell's physics and computer aided design classes, follow him to lunch at the Wildcat Express, visit the commuter lounge and locker facilities, hang out with friends in campus housing, and attend an evening meeting of the Off-Campus Housing Organization.

The video illuminates one of its star's main attributes, according to Katie L. Mackey, coordinator of off-campus living and commuter services: his contagiously genial involvement with each and every student he meets.

"Whether it was interaction as a peer in the commuter lounge, a strong member of a team or supporting OCHO, Ben was a student leader – not because of what he accomplished, but because of the person that he is," she said.

Schappell carries that inspiringly supportive attitude into all aspects of life: with his faith family at church, patrons of the local skatepark, his broad circle of friends, and the students and faculty who rely on him as a peer mentor/tutor.

"As faculty, we select students who would serve as good role models and have a willingness to help fellow students in need," said Katherine A. Walker, assistant professor of drafting and computer aided design. "Ben was an excellent candidate for the position because he had been doing this activity all along – as a department, we just gave it an official title. He is a student that stays on task, has excellent organizational skills, and is very patient and kind when working with classmates that may need his help."

"Community" hasn't been a part of the college's name since 1989. But, as long as there are students like Ben Schappell – spreading smiles, building rapport and lending a hand – the word will never vanish from its legacy.

– Tom Wilson

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