Just after 6 one recent morning, Los Angeles Trade Technical College appeared abandoned but for a light shining through an open door on the northwest side of the downtown campus.
Inside, several dozen students, all men, leaned against their lockers and shot the breeze, welding helmets in hand.
At 6:50 a.m. sharp, the door at the front of the room swung open, and Lisa Legohn appeared, hair tied back, thick plastic glasses over her eyes, her name stitched in gold across her jacket.
“All right, you guys!” she bellowed, waving a can of welding rods. “Those of you who showed up yesterday, you get first choice. The rest of you, you get the leftovers.”
“Except Gerald,” she said. “He was in the hospital. We thank God he’s OK.”
The class laughed, then slipped on helmets and fired up the welding guns.
“I love this woman and I barely know her,” said student Josh Hidalgo, 40, a former terminal operations supervisor at Los Angeles International Airport who hopes to launch a new career as a welder. “I would go to war with this woman.... And now, I know how to weld.”
A veteran in a field with relatively few women, Legohn, 50, is a nontraditional teacher at a community college filled with nontraditional students. A Trade Tech alum, she is known for her candor, toughness and an uncompromising approach to her trade as she pushes her students along, then cheers their success.
Her welding skills have been displayed on the TV show “Monster Garage,” and she helped build giant toasters, blenders and other objects on the Discovery Channel’s “BIG” show.
“She really is a remarkable human being, and she’s completely part of our fabric,” said Leticia Barajas, a Trade Tech vice president who oversees Legohn’s department.
More than half of Trade Tech’s students come from families with annual incomes of less than $25,000. Only 37% complete certificate programs, earn their associate degrees or transfer to four-year universities, according to the 2009 accountability report for California’s community colleges.
The college’s welding students, meanwhile, complete their courses at a clip closer to 82%, and about half of the successful students are Legohn’s.
“Like the best trades teachers, Lisa combines really strong technical knowledge with deep concern about the growth of her students as human beings,” said UCLA education professor Mike Rose, who observed Legohn’s class for his 2004 book, “The Mind At Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker.”
Like many of her students, Legohn has known some tough times.
After bouncing between Los Angeles and New Orleans as a child, she graduated from Hollywood High School and completed a certificate program in welding at Trade Tech. By 18, she had a full-time welding job, which turned out to be the first of many.
Legohn has held up to three jobs at once. At one point, she worked as a pipe welder by day and taught at Compton College at night — while making progress toward her full-time teaching credential at Cal State Long Beach.
Now in her 28th year of teaching, the last 14 as an associate professor at Trade Tech, Legohn has raised a child with special needs and kept working while she battled cancer. She is now in remission.
Legohn shares some of her life story with students, but they didn’t know about the cancer until one student, recently released from jail, challenged Legohn about how easy her life must be, compared to his.
“I just lifted up my sleeve,” she recalled, “and he said, ‘What is that?’ ” as he stared at a tube attached to her arm. “I said ‘I am doing chemo. I have cancer. So now, do you want to switch your life with mine?’ ”
It’s that kind of candor that some of her students say they need to stay on track. Others need her toughness. Many need her compassion.
At 47, Tim Rodenberger said he believes that Legohn’s “no excuses” approach is helping him turn his life around — again.
After leaving home in Ohio in 2002, Rodenberger settled into downtown Los Angeles, where he soon became homeless, spent time in jail and was then ordered into a drug rehabilitation program. Now he’s staying at a sober-living home whose manager suggested he take college courses.
That’s how he met Legohn and learned never to be late. If a student strolls into class at 6:55 a.m., he’ll be greeted with “Good afternoon!”
“She is stern, but I need that,” Rodenberger said. “I’m not getting any younger … and the longest job I held was 18 months.”
Hidalgo, meanwhile, said he needs Legohn’s expertise. He has two children to support, so he is eager to finish his training and start working.
“You can teach me whatever you want, but if you’re not hands-on, right there next to me, it’s not going to happen,” Hidalgo said. “She’s been there and done that.
“But she also cares about the person. That’s the most important part.”
At the end of class, as the sparks settled, a student approached Legohn to share some news.
“Byron passed his certification test!” she boomed to the others.
And a cheer went up in the weld shop as the students headed for the door.