When it comes to what makes Benedictine Military School special, Drew Schwalbe has a unique perspective because he has experienced BC as a student, parent, and teacher.
“I love it,” Schwalbe said. “Maybe I do love it more now but it’s a different kind of love. Your perspective changes. I thoroughly love being here. I’ve experienced it as a student, as a teacher, and as a parent, so I’ve kind of got the trifecta of viewpoints.”
Schwalbe, 48, was only 16 when he began his senior year at BC. He started college at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, S.C., when he was 17.
“I tell students that story sometimes and they say, ‘Wow! Mr. Schwalbe, you must’ve been really smart,’” he said, laughing. “I say, ‘No, I didn’t skip any grades or anything like that. I was such a terror as a child to my mother that she had to get me out of the house, so she put me in school a year early.’”
Schwalbe and his wife, Jennifer, will celebrate 23 years of marriage this fall. Jennifer is from Charleston, S.C. The couple met at the University of South Carolina and have two children: son, Joseph, BC Class of 2020, is a freshman at Georgia Tech (he’s one of 11 Cadets from the BC Class of 2020 who were accepted to Georgia Tech; 16 Cadets were accepted to the University of Georgia) and daughter, Caroline, is a junior at St. Vincent’s Academy.
“My wife, not being from (Savannah), she came from a traditional public school in Charleston and she heard all about the brotherhood of BC, and what a tight-knit community we were, and she didn’t understand it,” Schwalbe said. “I told her that I couldn’t explain it to her. I could never make her understand what it would be like. And she probably still won’t understand. She has a much greater understanding now that she’s experienced it as a parent, and seen her son progress through, but this is just such a special place that’s it’s really tough to put words on. It’s tough to articulate what this place means to me. I’ve got lifelong friends that I made when I was a student here that I still talk with.
“Just being back, I look at my classroom every year and I try to pick out the student who most reminds me of myself when I was that age because so many things have changed in the last 30-plus years since I was a student here,” he continued. “But so many things have not changed. There are things that just are not going to change when you have a cohort of young men that are all interacting with each other, and will all form this bond, this brotherhood, this friendship, that will carry them through, in large part, for the rest of their lives.”
LIFE AFTER COLLEGE
Schwalbe earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 1995 from the University of South Carolina. He also earned a master’s degree in business administration from California Pacific University, and a master’s degree in industrial engineering from Auburn University.
“I worked briefly for Milliken and Company up in Greenville, S.C., and came back home to a job that was really kind of being held for me with National Gypsum Company (in Garden City),” he said. “I had done some summer work there while I was in college. Came back to work for National Gypsum as the process engineer and worked my way up, over the course of 17 years, and assumed the responsibility of plant engineer. I did all sorts of capital projects. I did process improvement. I was responsible for all of the automation in that plant. The plant technology was kind of in the stone age when I came along. I did a lot of PLC programming, human-machine interface, automation. That’s a little bit, sometimes, of a double-edged sword because if automation is done, people are losing their jobs. It’s kind of tough to think about that at times.
“But, thankfully, for us, it was all focused on improving efficiency and reducing costs so that was really rewarding career,” he continued. “I thoroughly enjoyed it. Had a tremendous realm of responsibility. I was never off. I was always on call. My wife and I used to joke that I couldn’t be on vacation and stay in town. We would have to go out of state. Until I got called back from out of state one time. So then it became that I had to be out of the country somewhere. I worked at National Gypsum for 17 years. I was happy there but toward the end of my time there I felt this nudge to go and do something else that I couldn’t really put my finger on why I was being nudged. But I knew I was being nudged.”
Schwalbe inquired about a position with Haifa Chemicals, an Israeli fertilizer company based in Haifa, Israel, a northern port town along the Mediterranean Sea. Although Schwalbe was based in Savannah, he made five extended-stay business trips to Israel before leaving the company in 2017 for a position at BC.
“It sounded like a great opportunity,” he said. “Very fun. I love project work. That was my favorite thing to do was project work. The opportunity with Haifa was to build a $15 million fertilizer facility in Savannah. So, I was going to carry that project through from design to build and commissioning. Over the course of five years, that’s what I did. I built the plant, traveled around quite a bit, started the plant up, hired the initial crew and we began production about six years ago.
KIDNEY CANCER DIAGNOSIS
“As it turns out, right after I got to Haifa, I wouldn’t have known this otherwise, I took a routine health screening (in late 2012) for some health insurance and found out I was completely asymptomatic but I found out that I had kidney cancer,” he continued. “I had to have a kidney removed in pretty short order (Jan. 19, 2013). So looking back and reflecting on that, I know that was God’s hand nudging me to make that move. Haifa was very rewarding. It was very pressure-intense in a lot of different ways. But that was an environment that I typically thrive in. And after about five years of Haifa, I started to feel the nudge again and it worried me. I was like, ‘Uh-oh, what’s wrong now that I’m going to find out about?’ But I’m so glad to be home at BC. I had some conversation with (BC Principal) Mr. (Jacob) Horne and (BC Headmaster) Fr. Frank (Ziemkiewicz, O.S.B.) last week, and it sounds a little bit cliché, and it’s completely not, but I know this is my God-ordained place to be. So I’m happy to be here. I always joked when I was working in industry that my dream job would be to come back to BC and teach math. And I never really thought that that could materialize. And here I am. The Lord works in ways that we don’t always understand. But He’s put me here and I’m here for a purpose, and I hope I’m here for a very long time.”
Schwalbe and BC Theology Department Chair Deacon Kevin Knight will take a group of Cadets to Israel for 12 days on June 3.
“The Holy Land is an amazing place to be,” Schwalbe said. “(Haifa, Israel) is where my industrial engineering really came into play, after I earned my bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, and earned my master’s degree in business administration, and studied at Auburn for my master’s degree in industrial engineering. Throughout my career of things, and it’s been varied, especially now with this latest chapter in my life, those experiences have really helped a lot.”
PASSION FOR BC
At BC, Schwalbe teaches precalculus, two engineering classes, AP physics, and honors physics. He also serves as an assistant baseball coach and the head robotics team coach.
“It keeps me busy, particularly in the springtime,” he said. “Usually in the springtime a 16-hour day is more the norm than the exception. The weekend days are a little bit shorter but I’m here seven days a week working on either robotics or preparing my lessons for the week, or baseball, or some kind of combination of all of those at the same time.”
Schwalbe said it was odd at first teaching at BC while his son was a Cadet.
“It was a little bit weird at first,” he said. “I didn’t come here until he was a sophomore. I came here and I made it a point to not interact with him during the school day because I didn’t want to be ‘Daddy’ at school. Finally, he came to me one day when he was a sophomore and said, ‘What’s the problem?” I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘I pass you in the hallway and you don’t even look at me.’ And I said, ‘Well, son, I was really doing that for your benefit.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, well, it would be nice to talk to you every now and then.’ So that really changed things for us. We rode to school together through his sophomore year, and then his junior year he started driving. And I didn’t even have him in my class until his senior year. He had an engineering class with me, and I taught him in AP physics. It used to drive my wife nuts because when he and I got home, we would talk about AP physics stuff and she just couldn’t stand that conversation. Her wheelhouse is early childhood education.”
Schwalbe said the most challenging part of being a teacher comes in trying to reach every student.
“I get frustrated when I can’t get through to a student sometimes,” he said. “I get frustrated when I see students not living up to their full potential. Those are the kinds of things that frustrate me. As far as a place to work, this is a great place to work. I’m very happy here. I love the challenge of working with students on a daily basis. And when I see the lightbulb come on for a student, that’s just gold for me. It’s absolute gold for me.
“What’s even better is when students who have graduated come back and come and visit me,” he continued. “They come in my classroom quite frequently. Sometimes they’ll just sit down and talk, and that’s fine. A visit to chit-chat or chew the fat or whatever is fine. But sometimes they’ll come back and say, ‘Man, I tell you what, that really helped me. Your class, when we did this project, this lesson in particular...’ Oh, my gosh, that’s a teacher’s dream.”
BC ROBOTICS TEAM
Four years ago, BC’s Horne asked Schwalbe to start a robotics program.
“That was my first year,” Schwalbe said, smiling. “I kind of made a big gulp and said, ‘Well, OK.’ I had to Google it. I was like, ‘What is a high school robotics program?’ Fortunately, we landed in the right spot with FIRST. FIRST is a fantastic global organization that empowers young students, boys and girls, to explore robotics. The level at which these robots are in these challenges is just amazing. It is so far beyond what I did in college 30 years ago. My senior project in college was to build a robot. I had three teammates and we had a semester to do it. And it was a very, very difficult project. There were no pre-programmed microcontrollers, no sensor packs, there was none of this. We had to build all of our circuits out of physical circuit components: resistors, capacitors, microcontrollers. We had to build all that stuff. When we got to the microcontrollers, we had to program down at the bit level so it was rudimentary, crude technology, really, compared to today.
“But, with the advance in technology, these robots, and what they’re asking these kids to do, it is mind-blowing,” Schwalbe continued. “Our first year, we didn’t know what we didn’t know. So when we got to our first competition, it was definitely an eye-opening experience. We failed our first inspection miserably. We had spent six weeks building our robot and in one night had to completely tear it down and completely rebuild it to get within specifications. We were out of spec on width, weight, height, equipment. Everything that could be wrong with the robot was wrong with the robot. So we missed almost the first half of competition on the second day. And then we developed a skill with what was remaining of our robot, we found something that we could do during the competition and did it very well and ended up finishing as a finalist in our very first state competition.”
During the BC robotics team’s second year, Schwalbe said they were much improved over their first year. Last year, their third year, they built a robot that was ranked No. 1 in the state at one point during a tournament.
“We finished the tournament that weekend ranked No. 3 in the state and, unfortunately, COVID cut our season short,” Schwalbe said. “We had a very strong shot at being a state finalist last year. So, this year’s competition is virtual. And it has exposed our young men to a different facet of it. We’re doing some virtual competitions, one of which is the game design challenge. Our students have designed a three-dimensional game field and a whole game concept. We submitted it last week for judging and I think we’ve got an excellent shot of placing an award there because they’ve done an amazing job. We still have one virtual competition ahead of us, that will carry us through April, through our season, but it has been fantastic.
“We also, during the summers, have held robotics camps to outreach into the community to other kids, who may not have the same exposure to robotics,” he continued. “Some kids may end up at school here, which would be fantastic. But also the camp is open to boys and girls. We love having girls here. Last year, one of the girls in our camp completely dominated the whole camp and won all of the competitions. We love to foster that kind of spirit in both young boys and girls.”
Schwalbe isn’t the only person who is invested in the robotics camp’s success. He has his students assisting and often leading the way.
“They are very crucially involved with summer camp,” Schwalbe said. “They are involved in the design of it. They are involved in the execution of it. This year, with our competitions, I am probably more hands-off than I have been at any point so far. This thing has kind of taken on a life of its own and these students are really leading this group and doing things. And it’s fantastic.”