A Ramble With Cleaners

Born and raised with six siblings in North Dakota, Ray Hellman has served his country, worked for a boss he loved and looks back on his career with happy thoughts.

Hellman's father and mother immigrated from Germany and Russia in the early 1990's. Both coming from large families (his mother was one of 11 and his father one of 15), they raised seven children, Ray and six girls. The family owned a farm 50 miles southwest of Bismark, ND, which influenced Hellman's decision when returning home in March 1959, after three years of service in the U.S. Army with Nike Missile Battery, Fort Story, VA. "I found that the job market at that time was pretty slim (I didn't want to farm), but I did hook up with a company that was building bridges for the interstate system being built throughout the United States," says Hellman. "That was pretty tough backbreaking work and after six months I decided that there had to be a better way to make a living."

In October of that year, Hellman moved with his ex-wife to her hometown of Norfolk, VA, and went in search of work yet again. "My former wife's grandfather told me to talk to a friend of his ' [at] a company called Air-A-Plane Corporation," explains Hellman. At the time Air-A-Plane was owned by William L. Shepheard, who was quite a character according to Hellman, and very intelligent. Shepheard was the type of person "who would try anything and would not take no for an answer."

Hellman found himself interested in the job and the travel opportunities, so he applied and was hired by Shepheard. "I worked for that man until he died in 1997 at the age of 84 and enjoyed every minute of it."

While at Air-A-Plane, Hellman started out as a punch press operator and worked his way up to head engineer through various positions including head of the fabrication department, testing department, drafting department and being a field engineer and field technician. "During the last 20 years of my employment with Air-A-Plane, most of the equipment they put on the market I designed or helped design," says Hellman. Many of these products continue to be built by Trilectron, which bought the struggling company in January of 2000.

"After the purchase, Trilectron asked me if I wanted to work for them and move to Florida, which I did," explains Hellman. "When I first came on with Trilectron Industries, I was director of customer service and at the present time I am director of research and development and field installations." Currently Trilectron Industries is part of the ITW (Illinois Tool Works) GSE Group, which consists of four companies: AXA in Denmark, J & B Aviation, Hobart Ground Power and Trilectron Industries.

"During my 40 years with Air-A-Plane Corporation, the time period I enjoyed the most was when I did most of their field work," says Hellman. Meeting GSE people from around the world and being introduced to different cultures has been "the most memorable" part of the job. From the mid-1960's to mid-1980's, Hellman traveled to 87 different countries, including all the countries in the Middle East and Africa. Some crazy things happened to me on my travels, he recalls. "I was arrested and kept under house arrest for eight days in Oman for not having a passport and Visa. They did allow me to do my work with Oman Aviation but I could only travel between the hotel and the Airport." The Oman Customs had lost his documents when he arrived and held him until they found them.

"I was arrested in Iraq for calling one of the airline managers a communist, boy that was a dumb mistake, I apologized and they let me go," Hellman continues, "I was shot at in Sudan, my plane ran off the runway in Mozambique, due to brake failure, (no one was hurt) [and] I had an aborted takeoff in Manila due to one of the engines catching fire and coming apart."

"Singapore was my favorite place to go," adds Hellman. "And China was one of my most memorable individual trips. I was one of the first visitors after President Nixon reestablished trading relations with the Chinese Government in the early 70's." Hellman even got a picture of his visit to the Great Wall before it became a tourist attraction.

Currently, Hellman and his wife, Barbara, have six children of their own: Ray, Billy, Debbie, Bridgett, Deborah and Jodie, plus raised a granddaughter, Jennifer, who still is living at home. Hellman's mother lives by herself at 95 years old and is in good health.

With many years of experience in the industry, Hellman offers us a few words of advice: "The main thing I have learned in my 45 years in this business is never take anything for granted, you are never to old to learn and always treat the customer like you would like to be treated."

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