Gulfport Auto Teacher Lands Funds for Shop Upgrades
Gulfport School District’s (GSD's) Robert Caylor (left) works with students on Project Mustang.
A Toyota truck is pictured at the GSD automotive shop. The district's automotive program completes about $30,000 in free auto repairs each year.
A GSD student works in the automotive shop.
Caylor receives the Harbor Freight Tools for Schools Prize for Teaching Excellence last fall.
Caylor and his students listen to a speaker at a recent automotive seminar.
The Gulf Coast’s environment — the accessibility to a nautical life and the dangers the water brings with it — shaped Robert Caylor’s life with as much force as tides eroding a beach.
The current Gulfport School District (GSD) auto mechanics teacher, whose efforts recently brought in a large cash prize that will upgrade school equipment, originally dreamed of a career involving the water. He first pursued a life in the U.S. Navy — an obvious choice for a young man whose father spent years on aircraft carriers at sea. His imperfect hearing, however, required him to give up that dream. He naturally turned to what he saw as the next best thing: marine biology.
Caylor soon found himself stretched between his habitat and his family ties, a battle of nature versus nurture consuming all his time. After working all week for the National Marine Fish Service, he would then toil for his dad at the family’s Long Beach auto shop on the weekends.
“He had so many cars waiting that I’d work all weekend long and then go back to work on Monday,” Caylor said. “From the very start, he was splitting the profits with me. I was making more in those two days on the weekend than I was all week long in my regular paycheck. I did that for about a year, and then I was at the point of exhaustion.”
Soon, Caylor opened his own shop in Gulfport, quitting his job as a marine biologist and following in his father’s footsteps instead.
“I mean, I love marine biology. Biology was fun, but I liked being able to provide for my family too, so I saw where auto mechanics was a good job for me,” he said.
When Hurricane Katrina destroyed his shop, Caylor found himself again bending to the forces of nature.
“Hurricane Katrina said, ‘No.’ My shop was three blocks off the beach, and it was destroyed. It was a rental, and my landlord decided to rebuild [differently]. My house was also destroyed, so we were having to rebuild that. I had two FEMA trailers sitting in my driveway, three kids and my wife,” he said. “It was not a good situation, so we had to focus on that.”
Not long after his house was finished, Caylor’s son — then a high school senior — told him Gulfport’s auto mechanics teacher was retiring after a 30-year career. Caylor was quick to apply for the position and started the next year.
That was 15 years ago, and Caylor has found nothing short of success as Gulfport’s auto mechanics instructor. After a lengthy application and interview process, he was presented this year with the Harbor Freight Tools for Schools Prize for Teaching Excellence, which gave $35,000 to Gulfport High School (GHS) and $15,000 to Caylor.
“At first I thought they were calling looking for one of my colleagues,” he said. “Only three teachers in Mississippi have ever received the Harbor Freight award, and all of them are at Gulfport."
The award will enable Caylor to achieve many dreams for his program, including replacing lifts and other aging equipment. He also said he hopes to buy all his students matching, personalized mechanic shirts to show their team pride and buy needed parts for Project Mustang, a restoration effort involving a car he donated to his school.
The award will also benefit more than Caylor’s class. Some of the money will go toward the school’s new STEM Haven, a venture that provides space for students to work on CTE projects alongside academic teachers and other students, rounding out their opportunities to learn both the hands-on side of their projects and the theory and implications of their work with additional resources from classes like math, science, English and history.
“We’re an academy that they designed around CTE, so we’re part of the main campus now. I want to be able to buy some equipment for STEM Haven so students will have what they need out there and at home,” he said.
The award comes as no surprise to Gulfport CTE Director Tom Wallace, who said Caylor is responsible for making the GHS automotive program “one of the strongest in the state.”
“He has an unwavering commitment to help his students achieve their personal goals. He also connects them with local business and industry partners to provide them with tremendous experience that helps prepare them for the workforce,” Wallace said. “We are extremely proud of Mr. Caylor’s award with the Harbor Freight Tools for Schools program. This acknowledgement has shined a spotlight on his dedication to his students and garnered the GHS automotive program national recognition.”
Caylor offers so much more than his award money to Gulfport students. GHS Principal Oswago Harper said Caylor “has been a vital member of our CTE program for many years. His capacity is extremely high, and he does an outstanding job imparting knowledge to our children.
“His students always leave the automotive technology courses with great working knowledge, and they are well prepared to pursue future ambitions,” Harper added. “Most of all, Mr. Caylor is a man of great integrity. He is always teaching our students valuable life lessons that will impact them for a lifetime.”
Caylor’s situation at Gulfport is nothing short of ideal. While he works hard and advocates for his students and program regularly, he said he couldn’t be successful without support from GSD.
“I don’t know of another district that just provides everything like they do,” he said. “They are just like, ‘What do you want? What do you need?’ They make sure we have it.”