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Real Steele: Nothing slows down Ellie Steele in quest of an automotive career
Photos and Story by James Hill
Ellie Steele doesn’t give up.
This was never truer than when the Automotive Service Technology Program student got his first car as a teenager. The Lincoln Town Car, given to him by one of his brothers as a hand-me-down, was not drivable.
“It had really bad brakes,” recalled Steele, a Southwest Portland resident. “It couldn’t stop at all. At that time, I didn’t really know much about cars, but I knew I liked them and wanted to drive them. So I had to fix that Lincoln myself because I didn’t have the money to have it fixed at a shop.”
A self-admitted gear head, Steele enrolled in Beaverton High School’s automotive program in his junior year there and fixed the Lincoln in the school’s auto shop.
“We rebuilt the whole braking system,” recalled Steele. “It wasn’t the easy stuff either. It was brake drums, which have a bunch of springs and connections, and you have to have a picture memory to put them back together. Each piece works for every other piece, and if one doesn’t work right the whole brake doesn’t work. That’s how I learned to work on cars. It was a nice little learning curve.”
At age 19, Steele was presented a more serious obstacle and one that would change his life forever. In 2004, he crashed his restored four-cylinder Toyota Tercel, breaking his neck and back. The accident left him a paraplegic with minimal leg ability and bound mostly to a wheelchair.
“It was a tuna can,” he said of the Toyota. “It blew up and I flew out of it.”
Steele, 30, would spend nearly a decade recovering through physical therapy with the full support of his family. As he got better, he stayed busy by volunteering at football passing camps to assist youth athletes. In addition, he sought out organizations that treat spinal cord injuries by helping patients get back as much physical ability as possible. He worked with Project Walk in Carlsbad, Calif., and is enrolled at OHSU’s Rewalk Program, which pairs the injured with exoskeleton braces that are powered by batteries.
“It’s futuristic stuff,” Steele said. “I can move a couple of steps with it, but nothing where I can walk. I’m waiting on my first session with OHSU, and that will be sweet.”
Steele can talk shop until the cows come home. He’s proficient on discussing engine performance, types of cars or how to troubleshoot modifications. After talking to a friend at a parts store, Steele felt he should capitalize on his automotive know-how and enrolled in PCC’s Automotive Service Technology Program in 2013.
“I always wanted to learn, but I’ve never been into traditional schooling,” he said. “However, this is something I like.”
The program trains students to be skilled service technicians, providing them with high-tech and fundamental skills. It’s perfect for Steele, who wants to work as a service writer or technician at a local dealership. He plans to graduate from the program by next June and earn his associate degree by next winter or spring from PCC.
But it can be a rigorous physical experience for students as they work on cars in an active shop environment.“Ellie works like any other technician; on the ground, crawling under the dash and removing gas tanks,” said Scott Morgan, auto service instructor. “Nothing stops him from his work and he continually builds and improves his skills. His creative thinking, positive attitude and great teamwork allow him to tackle any project with success.”
Instructor Paul Sackman said Steele was often honored with the famous “Sackman Certified” stamp, which is given to an automotive student who earns a perfect score on his tests. He said Steele is like any other student and hasn’t let anything slow him down.
“The logistics of how he adapts from the chair to do the work is where Ellie really thinks outside the box,” Sackman said. “He comes up with ways that I would not think of because I don’t need to. He finds the way. Whatever it takes. Always with a smile.”
You have the feeling that the smiling Steele will conquer any obstacle. Even when driving around town he’s adapted to his injury. He uses a hand control to steer his Volvo wagon. It’s like a bike handle that operates the car’s gas pedal and brake through a lever system fixed to a pole. It’s just another example of how he isn’t letting anything stop him.
“When somebody is always questioning what you are doing, you always have to keep pressing, keep working,” Steele said of people questioning his recovery odds, or any project he takes on. “People were like ‘oh, you have a spinal cord injury, you have this certain percentage that you will heal from your injury.’ Obviously, that’s a possibility, but it doesn’t mean it’s the bottom line. If you keep pushing you can make your own destiny and hopefully things will be in the right position for you to get whatever it is you want.”