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Pressing On: A Life Re-engineered

How one woman designed a blueprint to succeed.

We all have a story, and many are worth telling. Let’s face it though, for some, it’s hard to tell your own story. Those that have followed along with my blog have read the diverse variety of people that I felt compelled to write about over the years.

From a 40+-year streak runner on the sands of South Beach, Florida to a brave little girl who underwent two open-heart surgeries before age 9, to spotlighting several women who have inspired me through their ability to reinvent themselves. The common thread with each of these is they have all been people that I know intimately. What I haven’t done, until now, is write about someone that I’ve never met. Our only connection is through her sister, who approached me to tell her sister’s story.

This request came on the heels of authoring a blog post last year on five women who have ushered change in a meaningful and purposeful way. One of the women I featured, Jodi Keller, is the person who approached me to tell the story of Jill Howe, née Keller. For me, this request came as both a surprise and a gift. I was honored and flattered that she felt that I could capture her qualities and write about her sister, whom I had never met.

I felt a great deal of responsibility to convey her story and give it the justice and sentiment it deserved. Perhaps unknowingly, Jodi’s request to write Jill’s story was not solely a gift for her sister but me as well. From my hours of interviews with Jill, her father, husband, and three children, I emerged with a life and story that, indeed, needed to be told.

From Jodi’s perspective, as the youngest of five, she witnessed first-hand the challenges, setbacks, and roadblocks that Jill faced but never allowed to prevent her from moving forward. So much of Jodi’s most impressionable years were shaped by witnessing how Jill navigated the rough patches.

Keller Family circa 1998 (L to R) Jon, Dan, Jodi, Mary Ann, Jennifer, Jessica with the family dog, Preppy and Jill

As young adults, we are shaped more by what we see and the actions of others than any other lesson that can be told. The two sisters bookend the Keller kids – Jill, the oldest, Jodi, the youngest. Jill is a self-proclaimed introvert, Jodi, a gregarious extrovert.

Yet, as I learned by talking with the family that the Keller mantra to “pick up the pieces and press on” dates back generations. Jill’s father, Dan Keller, relayed a devasting event that happened to his grandparents when he was a young boy – their house burnt down, and all their material possessions were lost in the fire. Everything, that is, but their faith and their family. Those two things not only carried them through but proved to shape future generations of Kellers.

A Foundation in Fortitude

When Jill was a young girl growing up in Minster, Ohio, she spent most, if not all, her free time following her father around and watching him take appliances apart and put them back together. She found solace in spending hours on end, creating mechanical drawings on the drafting table her father set up in their home. By the time she was in 6th grade, her dad enrolled her in mechanical drafting classes, and, not surprisingly, for that period in time, she was the only girl in the class. Naturally, she was intimidated, but her dad foresaw an engineer in her that she had not yet discovered but would come to fruition despite the odds.

To put things into perspective, at 16 years old, her idea of a dream job was to become a lifeguard. At the time if she were to tell her future self that she one day would…

  • Become a mom at age 17
  • Earn a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Wright State University
  • Be an engineer at the same company for over 30 years
  • Granted a US patent in 2002
  • Spend two years living and working in Logron͂o, Spain
  • Achieve the prestigious Women of Excellence Award by The Precision Metalforming Association and Women in Manufacturing

…she would never have believed it – and rightfully so.

You see, her life and career have been a voyage. Each twist and turn ignited her from within to rise to the challenges that faced her with both grit and resilience. Jill became pregnant in her junior year of high school. Growing up in a faith-based family with strong values, she knew the right thing to do was to press on, marry the father of her child, and continue her educational pursuits while doing what it takes to provide financially for her growing family.

On this course, she abolished all thoughts of dreams never coming true. In this pursuit of excellence and sometimes sheer survival, she realized her gift and real purpose. Her innate engineering mind proved to serve her well, both professionally and personally. She exercised her ability to think ahead and plan for the unexpected, minimize complexity, set realistic yet challenging goals, and leverage knowledge utilization (her own as well that of others).

A Designing Woman

Her professional success story has a humble start as a part-time Detailer at Minster Machine Company (now Nidec Minster Corporation) where she worked evenings converting their pencil drawings into a state-of-the-art CAD AM system. During the day, she raised her daughter Alyssa, had another daughter, Lindsey, all while working towards earning a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. Upon graduation, she was offered a full-time position there as a Mechanical Design Engineer. Once again, she found herself being the only woman in a traditionally male-dominated profession.

Jill hard at work

In her engineering role, she excelled at the craft. At the same time, she met the mounting responsibility of providing for and raising three children. She welcomed a son this time, Sam. It wasn’t long after that the strain of being young parents took a toll on the marriage. Jill made the difficult but necessary decision to end her marriage in 2002 when her son was just 4 years old.

Amidst the turmoil of raising three kids on her own, Jill achieved two noteworthy accomplishments that proved that good things can happen when you work hard. In the same year as her divorce, the US patent that she and her father had applied for in 2000 was granted. For Jill, that was one of her proudest accomplishments, “My father, who at the time had served a multi-decade-and-counting career with Minster Machine and I were granted a US patent for devising a means to detect the failure of a slide guiding system,” said Jill.

Jill and Dan receiving their US Patent

The years that followed brought several promotions and new responsibilities for her. Predominantly, she worked with the Packaging Engineering department designing presses with the required specifications for a variety of familiar products – beverage and food cans, car filters, batteries, etc. Notably, Jill was involved in ensuring their press had the necessary characteristics to compliment the die used to make Campbell’s soup easy-open lid.

One of the most rewarding things for a parent is witnessing your children flourish and thrive. This held true for Jill’s parents, Mary Ann, and Dan, to see each of their five children uphold the Keller legacy by harnessing “a can-do attitude and press on!” Dan remembers with great pride seeing the potential Jill demonstrated as young as 3 years old playing with building blocks and watching him take apart and put things back together. “She would just sit there for hours watching me. She had an insatiable curiosity that fueled her.”

One of Dan’s favorite memories of Jill was the moment she walked on stage at Wright State University to receive her bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. The recollection of that moment still brings tears to his eyes. “Despite everything that she was going through, she did, in fact, “press on” and I couldn’t be prouder.”

Passing On “Pressing On”

Dan recalls as being a close second to that moment was when Jill’s oldest child, Alyssa, received her Ph.D. in political science from Hillsdale College. “To think so much good came out of a young, unexpected pregnancy was more than I could have ever hoped or prayed for.”

Alyssa, being the oldest, had a unique advantage of seeing how her mom dealt with and managed tough times. “My mom has a remarkable faith that life will turn out well. I think in having that trust and faith – she is not blinded to obstacles or setbacks – but can take them into a much better perspective and sees challenges and opportunities to grow and better herself as a human being.”

As a result, Alyssa and her mom have a special bond and shared traditions. “During Christmastime, we get together, drink hard eggnog, and listen to John Denver. We just hang out and talk – I look forward to that every year.” Alyssa attributes her passion for running and love of music to her mom.

Alyssa was inspired at a young age to enjoy the discipline, reward, and competition of running, which sparked a greater appreciation for her mom. “My mom picked up running when I was in middle school. I think that showed me she was more than “mom,” but someone with her own goals, ambitions, and interests. I remember going to watch her run 5ks then later seeing her train for 10ks, half-marathons, and in 2012 she ran the Chicago Marathon,” said Alyssa.

Engineering New Horizons

As with all good life stories, love found Jill once again. This time with Scott Howe, who also worked at Minster Machine but in the Service Department and who was managed and mentored by her dad early on in his career. Scott and Jill surprisingly did not know each other, and first met after being introduced through some friends at Minster. It was a fateful arrangement that they ended up having so much in common and not even knowing it.

Scott traveled extensively around the globe for work, so when they were on their first date, and Jill shared she had never been out of the country, Scott pivoted quickly and expanded their evening to include a road trip to Windsor, Canada so she could officially check off traveling to another country. “It was a most unique first date that ended at 3:00 A.M. but one that would prove to be a defining moment for our relationship from that point forward,” said Scott.

Jill with husband, Scott

Fate played its hand again and all in favor of their union in marriage in 2007, Jill welcomed Scott’s two daughters, Ashley, and Mallory, into their blended family. Another shared occasion was when they both celebrated 25 years at Minster Nidec, making them the first couple to celebrate the same milestone at the company.

Over the years, Jill witnessed more watershed moments when her daughter, Lindsey, who began working as a Business Office Manager and was later promoted to Admissions Manager for a local senior care facility in Ohio. Jill recalled an incredibly special time for her and Lindsey during the 2009 recession when they both helped in the kitchen at night, preparing and serving meals for the elderly. “In looking back, I will forever cherish that time we had together giving back,” said Jill. “It reinforced for me why Lindsey has devoted her life to helping and serving others.”

Lindsey describes her mom as displaying unwavering stoicism. “When going through any hard times, you never knew it. She kept a smile on her face and worked through any obstacle that she was facing without showing the struggle,” said Lindsey.

For Lindsey, her mom was always there for her and her siblings. “The one time that to this day stands out the most is when I was going through labor with my first child. There were complications with getting Connor, our son, out, and the only person I wanted was my mom. She was there instantly, coaching me through labor, making me much more comfortable and at ease. I can only hope that I am as great as a mother to my children as she is to me,” said Lindsey.

“If there’s one thing I want to convey in this story about my mom, it’s – thank you. Thanks for all that you have done for me. I know I was the wild child and I’m sure I gave you a run for your money. I would like to thank her for all the patience and love she has for me,” said Lindsey.

Jill with daughters, Alyssa, and Lindsey

Jill’s youngest, Sam, was impacted by her divorce at the tender age of 4. In looking back, Sam empathically conveys, “She had everything go wrong but had a selfless attitude.” “Even during the recession, when she had to take a pay cut and then a second job at night, she did so without reservation. She always cared for us no matter what – both financially, physically, and emotionally,” said Sam.

Sam cites his mom’s perspective of “hold yourself accountable, don’t blame others” to the success he has achieved in life. “Her parenting skills were consistent. She taught us so many life skills and lessons that, to this day, remind me of the person I continue to strive to be. Her words are wise and grounded. I can recall a time when she wouldn’t allow me to spend time with my friends but rather refocused my priorities with family and the importance of spending time at home. I know, without a doubt, I will share that same sentiment when I become a dad one day.”

Growing up, Sam was also influenced by his Aunt Jodi [Keller]. Jodi has a long, illustrious career with United Scrap Metal (USM) as their Executive Vice President. One thing for certain about the Kellers is their deep-rooted sense of loyalty to each other, their careers, and their family. Jodi periodically planted a seed with Sam as he was growing up that one day, he would work for United Scrap Metal. After Sam served an internship there, he was offered a full-time position in operations at USM’s Charlotte, NC location after he graduated from the University of Cincinnati with a bachelor’s degree in marketing.

Proud moment with son, Sam at United Scrap Metal

One of Sam’s most significant times he had with his mom was when he was getting ready to move from Ohio to Charlotte. “My mom and I spent the entire week together before I moved. It was a time of bonding, reflecting on my childhood (some of the hardships) and all the things that lead up to this point. What I remember most is all the coaching she imparted on me growing up, at that moment before a big move, and even now. The pride I could see on her face as I readied myself for the start of a career is permanently etched in my mind,” said Sam.

Seizing the Moment

After Jill served for more than 20 years, The Minster Machine Company was acquired by the Nidec Corporation in 2012, headquartered in Kyoto, Japan. The acquisition opened a world of global resources for Nidec Minster, its consumers, and ultimately, Jill. In 2016, she seized an opportunity to live in Spain and work at Nidec Minster’s sister company, Nidec ARISA.

This was a dream come true. In high school, one of her teachers, Ms. Perry, would often show pictures from her travels to Spain. She dreamed of traveling there one day but never thought it possible. Not for her, anyway. “This was a big decision for me to make. I had never lived outside of Ohio or went away to school. This was my chance to experience another culture, learn a new language, and fulfill my passion for traveling – I just knew I needed to seize it,” said Jill. With their children grown or in college, the timing was serendipitous. She and her husband, Scott, lived and worked in Logron͂o, Spain, for two years, the epicenter of the wine region best known for Rioja wine.

Jill taking in the view over Rioja wine country

Jill with her team at Nidec ARISA

Jill and Scott with coworkers in Logron͂o, Spain

Just before the big move, she was merited the prestigious Women of Excellence Award by The Precision Metalforming Association (PMA) and Women in Manufacturing (WiM). The award winners were featured in MetalForming Magazine, Jill’s picture adorned the cover.

Jill on the cover of MetalForming magazine

Six months before leaving Spain, the Director of Operations in Ohio tapped Jill to bring his vision of creating a manufacturing engineering department to life, and her upward progression continued as she became the Manager, Manufacturing Engineering. She once again leveraged not only her engineering mind but pushed herself out of her introverted comfort zone to manage a team of 14 young and diverse individuals. Leadership begins with humility, of which Jill has an enormous reservoir to draw from.

In more recent years, she has worked in earnest to be both a teacher and a student by upskilling and documenting the assembly process (and more) to help fill the knowledge gaps of older generations that served in these roles before. According to Jill, “We are all learning, and we are doing it together. I’m committed equally to develop new generations and to never stop learning, myself.” She was selected and is enrolled in the three-year Vistage International program designed to prepare Nidec Press & Automation leaders to successfully lead in a highly technical, global environment.

What would she tell her future self now?

That she is living proof that despite all odds, obstacles can be overcome. That it is possible to accomplish extraordinary things, and in doing so, you will see the results of your impact on those who surround you. She especially thinks daily about her responsibility to shape and develop the next generation of professionals.

The list of what her future-self became is as humbling as the process it took to achieve it:

  • Mom to three (unapologetically) amazing children and two bonus daughters
  • Blessed with 8 grandchildren in total (and counting)
  • Completed 5 half-marathons (one of them with her sister, Jodi) and finished the 2012 Chicago 26.2 marathon
  • Served on the Auglaize County Crisis Center Board as Secretary for five years and Vice President for two years
Jill and Jodi beaming after finishing the Rock ‘n’ Roll Chicago Half Marathon

Jill’s pioneering spirit has transcended to helping women who are pursuing a career in engineering with this uplifting testimony, “Engineering provides an opportunity not only to take things apart and see how they work but also to see your ideas come to life. Because no day is ever the same, engineering is mentally stimulating. For the woman who wants to grow, engineering provides not just a great career, but also provides the challenges necessary to make you better at your job and also in life.”

And so, despite Jill’s voyage that took many twists and turns, she not only created a family, she imparted wisdom, shared her knowledge, and inspired others to persevere. I, for one, cannot wait to see what the future holds for her and the entire Keller family at large.

In closing, I would like to leave you with an excerpt from one of Dan Keller’s muses and short stories, entitled, “Pressing On – A World Situation as Dan sees it” that he writes for family, friends and business associates, grounded in perspective, wisdom, and teachings.

“When a setback happens, we need to muster up the strength and courage to start facing each new day with an attitude of Faith, I Can Do This, I Can Press on, I Can Rebuild. Things may be gone, your heart may be broken, a certain person may have hurt you, but you are now standing in a moment of truth; am I going to throw in the towel, or am I going to be resilient and move on?

Grandpa and Grandma looked at the rubble and ashes of their old house and buried it. They moved on and didn’t look back. You, too, must bury it and have the Faith, Trust, Courage, and Strength to rise above it. If you are in the middle of a swamp, you have to go through the murky water to get to the shore. Stuff happens, and when it does, we need to have an attitude of pressing on!”

Michelle is Mariola Unlimited’s Chief Brand Officer and has 20 years of experience in branding and marketing strategy. Her blog is dedicated to sharing her mastery of marketing best practices, insights into building brand equity, and her reflections on creating intentional cultures and the leaders that make it happen.

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