Instructor teaches with humor, rehabilitates with passion

Instructor teaches with humor, rehabilitates with passion

D&D driving instructor Dale Wilhelm is renowned among Fairmont students for his unique teaching style, but Wilhelm also rehabilitates drivers who have been severely injured.

When students think about driving school, they usually think of long hours with boring presenters. But one driving instructor sets himself apart from the rest with his lively, humorous teaching style.

Dale Wilhelm has been a driving instructor at D&D Driving Schools for 21 years, and before he taught in Kettering, he taught in Grove City for half a dozen years.

“This is the best job I’ve ever had in my life,” Wilhelm said. “I like working here better [than in Grove City] because I can have an opportunity to do more with helping disabled people learn how to drive.”

Before becoming a driving instructor, Wilhelm was in the military police for more than a decade. After being hurt on the job as a civilian police officer in Denver, Colo., he returned home and got into drivers’ education by pure accident.

“I didn’t quite know what I was going to do, and I saw an ad to be a driving instructor and I figured I could do that to give me some gas money until I could find a ‘real’ job,” Wilhelm said. “That was 27 years ago, and I haven’t considered doing anything else since the first day I did it.”

Humor in the classroom

At D&D, Wilhelm is most commonly known for his in-class instruction.

“As students here know, I have a lot of fun in the classroom, whether the students do or not,” Wilhelm said.

Humor is an important part of Wilhelm’s classroom environment, because “psychologically, if students associate information with humor, they’re more likely to retain that information.”

Senior Colton Jones was a student at D&D. He said that although the overall concepts of driving school were common sense, “I definitely learned a lot of facts, and he made sure those facts stuck in my brain. And [his humor] helped pass the time that otherwise would have been super boring.”

Wilhelm is well-known for stressing the importance of “the children.” During the majority of his classes, he incorporates ways to be careful for “the children” into his curriculum, like stopping behind sidewalks, going the speed limit, or stopping when school buses are unloading or loading children. And, although it may seem like just a joke to his students, he has good reasoning behind it.

Crash involvement rates are highest for children ages 5 to 9 because they tend to dart into the street. “I want to make sure that as often as I can, I get the students who come through here to think about ‘the children’ because most pedestrian deaths are kids, and we want to make sure they’re looking for them,” Wilhelm said. “Seeing them before you kill them is a good thing.”

Assisting disabled drivers

In addition to teaching in class, Wilhelm also works on the road with disabled drivers, and this is his passion.

What Wilhelm does at D&D is not something everyone is capable of doing. He is the rehabilitation manager, meaning he teaches disabled men, women and teens how to drive again. Wilhelm has a plethora of rehabilitation tools to help people regain their driving ability. These include different hand controls, left-foot gas pedals, upper torso restraints that help paralyzed drivers, braces to give drivers strength in certain joints and different steering devices.

“A steer knob is the most common steering device,” Wilhelm said. “But sometimes that just doesn’t work, so there are many other options.”

On rare occasions, Wilhelm just isn’t capable of teaching a disabled driver how to drive again.

“The responsibility of telling a driver they can no longer drive is usually taken by medical facilities who do the initial assessment, but sometimes things slip through the cracks, and I’ll try my best to help someone with whatever adaptive equipment they need,” said Wilhelm. “I’m successful more often than not, but there will be occasions when I have to tell a person that they can no longer drive. There’s no question that that’s the hardest part of this job.”

Wilhelm explained one case that stuck out most in his mind, and it’s a story that he tells during class to emphasize how drivers should always stop behind the crosswalks and sidewalks.

The boy Wilhelm was working with was a skateboard enthusiast who had once trained to be an Olympic snowboarder. “When he was 15, he was flying down a long hill on his skateboard, and some inept driver pulling out of an alley failed to stop behind the sidewalk, blocked it, and the young man slammed into the front fender of the vehicle. He flew all the way over the front of it and crashed head first into the pavement,” Wilhelm said.

The fall destroyed much of the left side of the boy’s brain, meaning he could never control the right side of his body.

“Even with almost half of his brain missing, I was able to successfully teach him how to drive safely. Not just to get a driver’s license, because I’m never into that. If I can teach him how to drive safely, getting a driver’s license is a given,” Wilhelm said. “It was bittersweet, because he was never going to be a competition skateboarder or continue his training as an Olympic snowboarder, and that was really important to him.”

Sometimes, though, Wilhelm can find a little bit of humor in his work.

Wilhelm was teaching a woman who had a prosthetic right foot how to drive. At the end of the lesson, the woman was getting out of the car and hit her prosthetic foot on the door, twisting it. He tried to reach down quickly to twist the foot back to its proper position, but wasn’t nearly fast enough, causing the woman to fall forward.

“When she fell, she fell on my head. My glasses were shattered, and I had road rash on part of my face. But luckily, she rolled off before any serious damage was done.”

After 27 years of his job, Wilhelm is still able to say that he loves it. “It’s the most gratifying thing I’ve ever done.”