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Nurse exchanges scalpel for scroll saw to teach at Fort Campbell

October 16, 2000

Jean Purdom is a petite woman with pixie-short hair and a small, charming gap in her front teeth. She's impeccably dressed, from her pressed chinos to the tiny gold studs in her ears. And she can fix a leaky toilet faster than you can say “flush.”

The retired Army nurse is an adjunct instructor in the construction technology program at the Austin Peay Center at Fort Campbell, a program whose curriculum includes carpentry, masonry construction, electrical wiring, and--Purdom's specialty--blueprint reading and sketching.

Her foray into construction began with the purchase of a house. “We had moved into a house with plumbing problems,” she says, “so I tried to get a plumber. But in this town, if you don't have a big project, you can't find one.

“I had heard about the construction technology program at Austin Peay, and I decided to look into it.”

The look led to a leap, the leap to a landing, and the landing to fascination. “The more courses I had, the more I enjoyed them,” she says.

Purdom's fascination with all things mechanical wasn't new. It showed up in childhood. “My dad was a fixer. I loved to tag along when he fixed things.”

Her love of taking things apart and putting them back together led to a long and satisfying career as a surgical nurse in the Army. That lasted until 1991, when she retired.

Retiring was a joy, she says, allowing her to spend more time with her sons, then 9 and 12. But her tendency to seldom be without a project--and her problems with no-show (or no find) plumbers--soon propelled her into a totally unexpected career as a teacher.

“I teach contracting, construction drawing, and blueprint reading and sketching,” Purdom says. “Students go from seeing ‘Greek' when they look at a blueprint to having total understanding.”

So these are serious courses? “Oh, yes,” she says, quickly heading off any presumption that because the classes are taught by a woman they won't pass inspection. “These are serious courses,” she says. “Students work hard, study hard--and learn a lot.”

Enough, she emphasizes, to contract a new house, get a job in the construction trades, and fix darn near anything.

And enough, she might add, to allow students to bypass the Yellow Pages listing of “Plumbers” for good.