Larry Busby still remembers the moment he realized something needed to change. he was getting rusty.
“I was on U.S. Hwy. 83, mowing on the side of the road, and thinking about my life and praying, and it just kind of came to me: I needed to go back to school if I wanted things to change,” he said.
Busby had worked for the state of Kansas highway department for nearly almost 10 years, a heavy equipment operator.
“I kind of came to work every day, doing the same thing every day, and when you work at the state you’re kind of at the mercy of the legislature when it comes to raises and promotions, you know?”
Busby was, in a way, stuck — “growing rusty,” he said with a chuckle. “I wanted to get into something a little more capitalistic, something where they would reward you for hard work, and where I had a chance to make more money and do better for myself.”
He decided to enroll in the Seward County Community College corrosion technology program. He knew a little bit about the field owing to his father’s work in the natural gas industry. And, Busby knew the business of cathodic protection — putting measures in place to reduce corrosion, which leads to the deterioration of metals in pipelines, transportation, even concrete work and construction — offered a chance to earn more income very quickly.
“People thought I was crazy, even my own family,” Busby said. “They said, ‘that’s crazy!’ Dropping everything I had in my career — I had a good retirement ahead of me, but I wasn’t satisfied.”
The idea of switching was especially hard to accept in light of his earlier experiences with college. Freshly graduated from Liberal High School in 1999, Busby enrolled at Seward County Community College. He wasn’t ready to apply himself, he recalls.
“I like to say, I went to college and had a cup of coffee,” he said. “I wasn’t ready, and I dropped out.” In his early 20s, Busby “took a wrong turn, and I ended up incarcerated.” After nearly a year behind bars, he bounced from job to job: bar tender, fence builder, security guard. Finally, he settled on obtaining his Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) to drive trucks.
“One thing led to another. The CDL led me to truck driving, and I realized I didn’t want to go over the road. But I ended up at the state, because I had the CDL,” he said. “There was a lot of stigma back then about vocational education, but even so, I got the idea that learning can open doors.”
By the side of highway 83, Busby felt clear about his purpose, but walking through the classroom door, “I was really, really nervous. I was worried about how I was gonna get treated by these kids. I mean, I’m old enough to be their father!”
To his surprise, it was a much kinder atmosphere than when he attended school in the 1990s.
“They became my friends,” he said. “It turned out to be a big source of support.”
The year Busby completed his corrosion technology course, he found he needed it.
“I was on Cloud 9, I had just gotten a scholarship, and things were going great, and then I got the phone call.”
Busby’s kids, age 6 and 13, “not my biological children, but the kids of my friend who I’ve helped out over the years,” had been in a vehicle accident with their great-grandmother. No one survived. The goal of being able to lend more support had been one of his primary motivations, he said.
“It hurt me,” he said. “I cry every day, I grieve every day. But you’ve got to continue in life, keep going.”
A few months later, a classmate’s stepfather died unexpectedly. Despite the age and gender difference between the two future corrosion techs, Busby said he found it comforting to process his loss more openly, in the company of friends.
Busby said the college lived up to its reputation of being the “Saints family,” providing academic, emotional, and even material support.
“I needed a little time off, and it meant a lot that Mr. Coleman and Mr. Nunez were understanding,” he said. “And just knowing people cared, that made a big difference.”
As the academic year wrapped up and Busby looked ahead to completing his first year of training, he anticipated a summer internship and the chance for more opportunities.
“I’m excited,” he said. “A lot of people get internships and job offers after one or two semesters, but I’m planning to get my associate’s degree. Then we’ll see what comes next.”