Balancing Act

MLS student Gil deftly balances work, volunteerism, and a passion for learning

Gil Huie, Master of Liberal Studies studentMaster of Liberal Studies student Gil Huie was recently presented with the "FIRST" Robotics Competition Outstanding Volunteer Award by Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway Personal Transporter (PT) and founder of the FIRST robot competition. It's just the latest honor for the affable, self-effacing tradesman, who has also received the U of M President's Award for Outstanding Service.

But Huie's hardest fought battles and achievements haven't come in his career, however. His life has taken many twists and turns, and lately he has found himself in the fight of his life. Read on to hear the story of his remarkable life--and attitude.

It is rare, perhaps, to find a jack of all trades who is, in fact, an actual tradesman. But Master of Liberal Studies student Gil Huie is a rare individual at that. The affable machinist is equally at ease discussing the foundations of Judeo-Christianity as he is talking about working as a tool and die apprentice. And his enthusiasm for his hobbies and interests, as well as his career, is apparent.

Huie, whose mother was a member of the Fond du Lac band of Ojibwe and whose father was Chinese, says that as part of his legacy to his granddaughter, he'd like to leave his stories for her to read. "The number of Ojibwe people is getting smaller and smaller. The people before us told stories; wrote about their lives, about what it was like to be Ojibwe 100, 150 years ago. Stories of 'my life in the 1870s' and that sort of thing. I want to write down what it is like today. What it is like to be Gil Huie in the 20th century and beyond.

"What's new today will be antique when she's grown--just like what seems old, antique now was new then. But it's the same sun above and ground below us all."

Huie is a natural storyteller, so his desire to leave such a legacy is not surprising. What is surprising, perhaps, is the candor with which he tells his story. Diagnosed with stage four squamous cell carcinoma of the tongue in 2008, Huie is frank when he says that, although he is in remission now, there is always that chance that the cancer will reoccur.

"I go in to get the tests, and they say 'You're cancer free', and it's like a gift. I've got a lot of things I want to get done--write my master's thesis; continue my education, informally or formally; write a memoir. I'm busy, and if I'm here, I have plans to keep busy," he says with a smile.

Huie continues, "Still...some days it's surreal. Months ago, some doctor's giving me what amounts to a death sentence, and I go through all the treatment, the chemo, the radiation, all that. And today I'm sitting here, back at work."

A Unique Path to Learning

Anyone who has met Huie is probably not surprised to find him back at work as a machinist in the U's Department of Civil Engineering. Just like they wouldn't give the piles of books in his office or around his home (everything from Dante's Divine Comedy, to works on the foundations of Christianity, to general history texts, and more) a second glance. Huie is like a force of nature in that way--unflagging in his quest to keep busy, whether it is through physical work or through intellectual pursuits.

It's a drive that he first discovered as a young man. "I had dropped out of high school; gotten married young. I was working as a stock boy, and I remember telling the stock manager I wished I had HIS job. After all, I had a family to support. And he looked at me and said, NO. You do not want my job. You want to get out of here.

Huie credits the stock manager with altering his course. "It was true, I needed to do something...he was right. It was a small comment, a chance event, but you know, sometimes it's those small things that truly shape your life."

He went on to do a machinist apprenticeship, and then on to Honeywell where he worked as a tool and die apprentice. In 1971, however, he was laid off. "Oh, I needed to keep busy. And what I did was drink. I had too much idle time. I had no job, I couldn't drive, couldn't pay my child support. I was a wreck."

One night, walking along the railroad tracks with his mother, Huie experienced another one of those little, yet large, moments of change. "In the middle of telling me a story, she suggested maybe I should join the military."

Joining the military during the Vietnam War was a bit of an unusual course of action--especially for someone who had a deferment, as Huie did. But still, he felt like it was the right choice. "I'll tell you, the little old lady working at the draft board office about fell out of her chair when I walked in and told her I was voluntarily signing up," he laughs. "I don't think they got a lot of people doing that."

Huie ended up serving stateside as a medical specialist. Although he readily admits he could never be a career military man, he appreciates that being in the Army gave him a job and a paycheck that let him get his life back on track and support his family.

It also allowed him to enroll in college through the G.I. Bill, and he started taking classes at Minneapolis Community College, and then later at North Hennepin Community College, where he earned his associate's degree--the first Native American to graduate from the school. Along the way, he also remarried and had two more daughters.

Success at the University and Beyond

Although he was busy working, education was never far from Huie's mind, and he enrolled at Metropolitan State University to use up the last of his G.I. Bill benefits to work toward a bachelor's degree. When he started work at the U in 1991, Huie immediately took advantage of the Regents Scholarship. "I took a lot of interesting classes, largely focused on American Indian history and culture."

During this time, he discovered the Master of Liberal Studies (MLS) degree offered through the College of Continuing Education. "I saw this flyer advertising it as the only master's degree on campus that you can take part-time, evenings, that sort of thing. It sounded perfect--I could work during the day, fit my master's courses in in the evenings. I was able to take courses for intellectual curiosity, stuff I was interested in and passionate about. I studied environmental sustainability, something that is very much in line with Native American traditions and way of life."

The interactions he had during his studies were "inspirational," says Huie. "Being surrounded by people of so many different backgrounds and fields of knowledge, the communal aspect of it, the sharing of ideas... It was a very collegiate atmosphere, and it made me see the world in new ways."

Amid his academic pursuits, intellectual curiosity, and career at the U, Huie also managed to fit in an astounding amount of community service work. A tribal elder for the Fond du Lac band of Ojibwe, he served on the American Indian Advisory committee at Metropolitan State, and was also extensively involved as a member of the alumni board.

At the U, Huie provided bibliographic information, contacts, and resources from his own private library and his MLS research for the University's comprehensive report on diversity resources for the Sesquicentennial celebration. He also helped found the MLS Student Association and he has served as an active participant with American Indian cultural celebrations within and outside the University. For his work, Huie was honored with two outstanding service awards from his department, as well as with the 2008 U-wide President's Award for Outstanding Service.

Most recently, Huie was honored with the 2010 "FIRST" Robotics Competition Outstanding Volunteer Award "for inspiration and recognition of science and technology for Minnesota North Star and 10,000 Lakes Regional" by Segway PT inventor and founder of the FIRST competition, Dean Kamen.

Founded in 1992, the FIRST Robotics Competition challenges high school students to build robots from a standard kit of parts and enter them in a series of competitions. Today, the annual competition involves more than 1,300 teams competing in more than 40 regional events for a spot at the national competition in Atlanta.

Huie has been involved as a technical support liaison since the program first started at the U of M several years ago. "When Dean Crouch [Steven Crouch, dean of the Institute of Technology] asked me if I wanted to be involved, I thought it would be cool--I like challenges. I don't think I was quite prepared for the inches-thick stack of super-secret blueprints to be dropped on my desk, though!" he smiles.

Although he was forced to cut back his duties while undergoing cancer treatment, Huie still helped out as much as he could and attended the competition. "This is a big deal. It's not some backyard toy--these kids are serious and creating some very sophisticated robotics. This is the future of the U. Not only is the FIRST competition getting more diverse groups of kids involved in science and engineering, the U is helping create talent--these future engineers who may consider the U as their first choice."

Aside from continuing his work with FIRST, working at the U, and maybe writing his memoirs, among other things, what does Huie plan for his next adventure? His animated face turns serious for a moment, as he says, "Well, if I am still here, I'll resume work on my master's thesis [the final step to completing his MLS degree]," he says. But his smile returns as he adds, "but I plan to keep getting those "cancer's still gone" visits to the doctor... I want to continue reading--my current interest is comparative religion and the history of religion. I'd like to spend more time working with Engineers Without Borders and some of the other groups I work with."

"I don't ever want to be just a name on a committee. I want to be involved with the things I care about; am passionate about."

Click here to learn more about the CCE's Master of Liberal Studies program.