WVU Tech alumni are many things to many people. They’re hard workers, modernizers
and visionaries. They’re historians, educators and healers. They’re Golden Bears,
through and through, and we got the chance to catch up with a few.
John Katok, civil engineering, 1978
John grew up in Somers Point, New Jersey. He got started in the engineering field at the tender age of 14, working as a draftsman, a soil boring technician and a surveyor.
His fascination with the field brought him to Tech, where he worked alongside renowned professor Ernie Nestor, joined the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity and fell in love with the people and scenery of the Mountain State. When he was a student at Tech, crews were also putting the finishing touches on the world-famous New River Gorge Bridge just a short drive away (it was a budding engineer’s dream). He credits this time with building in him leadership skills and bringing him out of his shell.
John took his new skills and his fascination with big engineering to Houston, Texas, where he developed a 40-year career in the oil and gas industry. His specialty? Massive off-shore rigs capable of operating in depths of more than 10,000 feet. In 1983, he was part of a team that built the tallest single-piece drilling platform in the world in the Gulf of Mexico.
“I videoed the launch and later produced the only video documentary of the project,” he said. “For all of us, the feeling of accomplishment was like we had landed on the moon."
These days, John has traded the high seas for some quality time on land as a hunter,
golfer and proud grandad.
Gary Fauber, history and government, 1997
Gary was born in raised in Montgomery, West Virginia, the original hometown of WVU Tech. He wanted to stay close to home and his favorite subject was history, so he enrolled at Tech and worked alongside well-known historians like the late Dr. Ron Alexander.
He also met his wife Heather at Tech. The two wrapped up college, got married and, the very next day, moved to Beckley, West Virginia.
As a natural keeper of history and avid sports fan, Gary eventually landed a job in the sports department with Beckley Newspapers. It was the best of both worlds, and it’s a career he’s held onto for more than two decades. In his time covering regional sports, he’s worked with some remarkable athletes.
“One moment I will never forget came early in my career,” he said. “I was reporting on a young pitcher who was sought after by professional scouts for his 95 mile per hour fastball, but he could also hit. He was playing in a baseball game versus Oak Hill at Woodrow Wilson High here in Beckley, and he turned on a fastball to hit what is still the longest home run I have ever seen. I was sitting right behind home plate and watched the ball scream to straight away center field. It had to have gone 500 feet. I’m not sure anyone ever saw it land.”
Gary says that he fondly remembers his time at Tech. Now, he’s glad to be a part of the Golden Bear community again.
“Beckley has grown a lot since Heather and I moved here 20 years ago. While it is
sad to see the university move from my hometown, it has been great to see it thrive
here in my home away from home. There is so much opportunity here for the university
and the students, both academically and athletically,” he said.
Vanessa VanGilder, RBA, 2007
Vanessa grew up in Mannington, West Virginia, and has always been an advocate for people with disabilities. As a professional with a disability and the mother of a disabled daughter, she’s been driven for a very long time in her fight to help people live and work with dignity, no matter their status.
Back in the mid-2000s, Vanessa was working as a 911 dispatcher and decided that she wanted to finish her degree. So she enrolled in Tech’s RBA program and took courses online. She earned her degree and took things a step further, landing a spot in the WVU rehab counseling master’s degree program.
Now she uses her educational training and passion for helping people as the Olmstead Coordinator at the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources Office of the Inspector General.
In a U.S. Supreme Court case in 1999 – Olmstead v. L.C. – the court determined that mental illness is a form of disability covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act. As coordinator, Vanessa works to ensure that people with such disabilities in West Virginia have access to the same services and programs as any other disabled person.
Vanessa is responsible for the management of the state’s Olmstead program. She monitors and reports on compliance while providing assistance with information, referrals and complaints. She maintains a system for cataloging, tracking and reporting on assistance. She manages the Olmstead general revenue funds through state grant programs and manages the Olmstead Transition and Diversion Program. She also provides training and technical assistance to Olmstead Council members, providers, state agencies, advocacy group and individuals. She works to identify issues within the system and provides recommendations for changes to help the system operate in a better way.
Her favorite part of the job? One of her grant projects designed to help those transitioning out of nursing facilities.
“I also help people who are at imminent risk of going into a nursing home by purchasing things that will keep them in their own home so they don’t have to go into a facility,” she said.
All told, her work plays a major role in how agencies within the state serve those with disabilities.
“I think nearly every person can be a productive and a contributing member of society and can work, regardless of their disabilities,” she said.
“I had been a volunteer advocate for people with disabilities for about 15 years
before making it my profession. I go to work every day to try and make changes
to services so that they are there for the people who need them the most. I may
need some of those services one day,” she said.
Natalie Atkins-Hansen, civil engineering, 1982
Natalie grew up in Poca, West Virginia, where she put in enough hard work to graduate high school with her first year of college already completed.
As a business management major at West Virginia State University, she landed a summer job as a receptionist at a local engineering firm. She took to the field quickly. So quickly, in fact, that the director of the company’s civil engineering department encouraged her to change majors.
“My parents and I discussed it and made a trip to Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. The dean of engineering there had recently left West Virginia Tech [now WVU Tech]. He told us that we had one of the best and strongest engineering schools in the country right in our backyard. We drove from Blacksburg that day to Montgomery, went to the admissions office and I applied,” she said.
At Tech, Natalie excelled. Although she hadn’t taken calculus in high school, she had a strong grasp of math and science.
“My dad was a machinist so we talked fractions and ‘thousand’s of an inch’ all the time around our house. Dad helped me a lot in math and instilled that love of numbers in me,” she said.
So with her new field in focus, Natalie wrapped up her degree and got to work in the industry.
The rest of the world, however, wasn’t ready.
“I was locked in porta johns and had concrete thrown on my boots. I had to hear that ‘I was taking a man’s job’ or that I ‘should be home having babies’ by women passing by our jobsite along the highway on my first job. My dad always said ‘never let them see you cry,’ so I found out that porta johns were good for that,” she said.
But Natalie persevered. In fact, she persevered herself right into a phenomenal career in the industry.
She worked for an Australian firm building military housing in the States, which allowed her to travel all over the country. She owned her own company. She worked for federal and state governments, built schools and hospitals, constructed prisons and worked on the famous Williamson Floodwall designed to protect the town of Williamson, West Virginia.
Now she’s the Executive Director of Capital Projects for the state of Tennessee. Her team oversees all construction for the state outside of highways and higher education. Right now, that means more than 450 active projects worth a cool two billion dollars in investments.
In this role, she’s amassed a remarkable collection of projects. Among her favorites are the remodeling of the state legislature’s Cordell Hull building (including a 500-foot tunnel leading to the Capitol), the removal of the cupola on the Capitol for restoration and the construction of the Tennessee State Museum and the Tennessee State Library and Archives.
Looking back on her first experiences in the field, Natalie is proud of her accomplishments in the face of so much adversity.
“Over time – much time – men (and women) became more accustomed to seeing women in
the field, and I’d like to think I was a leader in making that happen,” she said.
Shane Ranck, industrial technology, 2010
Shane came to Tech from the small town of Hedgesville in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle, where he grew up working alongside his grandfather at the family construction business. In fact, it was his grandfather who suggested Shane take his passion for the field into the realm of the modern.
“He told me that I should go after something to do with electronics, as that was the way of the future,” he said.
So Shane wrapped up an electro-mechanical associate’s degree and came to Tech to earn his bachelor’s in industrial technology.
Now he’s using what he learned as the assistant manager of the controls and engineering department of a company called Equinix in Virginia. It’s a data center provider that services internet, network and data operations for major companies across the world. Shane oversees control systems for 26 databases running from Philadelphia to Atlanta.
Along the way, Shane says he’s been able to take pride in his stake in the company’s operations.
“When I came on board eight years ago, there were a lot of equipment failures, and everything was out of date. Through many years of implementation, replacements and troubleshooting, we finally have stability and a direction that is allowing these data centers to run smoothly. There are a lot of standardized practices that I have been involved with which have ended up being standardized on a national level – and even sometimes globally. It’s hard to not enjoy a company that has allowed me to elevate to this level, and be able to provide substantial input in our processes,” he said.
When he’s not putting his education to work, he’s spending time with his wife Amanda and their two daughters, Savannah and Sydney.
“Life has been great, and I owe my career start to WVU Tech,” he said.