As a child, Stephanie Hern loved working with her hands so much that her mother nicknamed her Bob the Builder.
If there was something that needed to be fixed around the house, Hern was the one to do it. Meticulous and patient, she learned the ins and outs of drywall before she even set foot in carpentry class this school year at the Paducah Area Technical Center.
Hern's carpentry instructor, Lynn Rogers, said she's proven to be an A-1 student since her first day in class. But it still surprised him when a judge announced that Hern had earned a perfect score at last month's first-year regional carpentry competition, trouncing about 11 male contestants. Only one other student has ever done so well, he said.
Hern, a slender, blonde 17-year-old, may not be the first young woman you'd pick to go up against the boys. She has a reserved manner that threw Rogers off at first, but it came in handy during the regional tournament.
"She's a calm, cool, collected and dangerous carpenter," he said. "She rocked and rolled and blew the boys away."
The competition gave students three hours to properly lay out and build a wall according to blueprints. Judges from the Carpenter's Local Union 357 assessed everything from the lengths of studs and walls to how well the students followed safety guidelines, Rogers said.
A junior at Paducah Tilghman High School, Hern said she decided to take the carpentry class after her sophomore English teacher took students on a tour of the technical center.
"I just kind of clicked with it," she said.
At this point in the school year, Hern is the only girl in the carpentry class. That doesn't bother her much.
"I've always been one to fit in with the guys," she said.
What gets to Hern is the jealousy. Not all of her classmates took well to the news of her perfect score, she said.
"I get jealous, but I don't talk about it. It's just a part of life. There's always going to be someone who's better than you. Always. That's why I don't get big-headed or cocky," she said.
Hern said she worked hard and pulled through more than her share of problems to succeed. Her mother, Kandy, passed away when Hern was 12. She and her five siblings - four sisters and a brother - had to grow up fast after the loss, which led to their temporary placement in foster care.
Hern, who's been a starting varsity soccer player since freshman year, said the sport gives her an outlet. Keeping busy also helps her maintain peace of mind.
"It takes my mind off everything for a minute," she said of carpentry. "I'm always working on something, concentrating on something."
Although Rogers says his star student has a future in carpentry, Hern has set her sights on joining the U.S. Army once she graduates. A member of Tilghman's ROTC, Hern said she loves uniforms - she used to admire her older sister's ROTC ensemble - and the outdoors. She admits she's nervous about going through basic training, but Hern's not the type to shy away from a challenge, especially if it requires courage.
"What wins me over in people is (when) they've been through so much, like me, but they've still got the strength and courage to move forward with their lives," she said, adding that this is the trait she admires in her father, Lewis.
For the time being, Hern is focusing on getting her grades up - a challenge, given that she works at a lawn care company from 4 to 8 p.m. after school and is preparing for the state carpentry competition. It will be held April 16-19 in Louisville.
To get ready, Hern is hammering away at her carpentry skills. But she also has to raise the competition's $80 entry fee and find enough money to pay for food and a hotel room.
Rogers estimates his student will need about $400 for the trip. The technical center - which also teaches auto body, automotive technology, cosmetology, health services and welding classes - already struggles from a lack of funding.
Donations to the Paducah Area Technical Center can be made by check and mailed to 2400 Adams St. Those wishing to help defray the cost of Hern's trip may put her name in the memo, Rogers said.
"We hope the community will support her. She's representing western Kentucky," he said.
Contact Laurel Black, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8641, or follow @LaurelFBlack on Twitter.
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