Early mornings don't bother this South Central nontraditional student

Heading back from the restroom, I notice that it's still a bit early and quiet in the hallways.

But I spy a lone figure with his nose in a hydraulics textbook. It's Charlie Foskett, a 49-year-old unemployed bowling-alley owner who's studying mechatronics engineering technology.

(As someone who went back to school at 42, I'm sympathetic toward nontraditional students. And they intrigue me, because their stories are usually a lot more interesting than mine.)

Mechatronics originally was a word combining mechanics and electronics, but I believe it now includes computers, system design and so on, and refers to the integrated study of those things. But that's a rough idea, and I may be corrected here.

Foskett has held some jobs since he sold his business a few years ago -- such as utility locator and aluminum foundry grinder -- and was drawn to mechatronics because, he tells me:

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"Automation is the wave of the future. They're going to need people to maintain it."

As a full-timer here, he commutes about 25 minutes from his home in Le Sueur. His son studies heavy-equipment operations at a community college in Staples -- I believe that's Central Lakes College he's talking about -- so the father-son academic team have a bit to talk about.

He says:

"He's had computer classes as well, so I've given him some tips, and he's given me some tips."

His son bowled with him, so he misses being together. Still, his boy returns on the weekends during hunting season.

So what is Foskett doing cracking the books here so early?

It's something he does regularly before his 8 a.m. class:

"I like to be punctual. Punctuality is next to cleanliness (which is next to godliness, as they say.) You see the (tardiness) and (work) ethic of some of these kids -- they're coming in quarter of an hour late. You think: You're going to do that on the job?"

A couple of students in Foskett's class are older than he is, he says, but most are in their mid-20s. They all get along, he says. There's a real camaraderie.

Foskett, who has done a lot of mechanical work, says electronics overwhelmed him at first. ("It was mind-boggling.") But now that he's learned the basic concepts and jargon, he says, he's cruising along:

"It's a nice change. I find (electronics) to be a nice hobby as well."