Tag: Steve Builta

Getting the call: Builta deployed to Pacific Northwest to help train National Guard’s wildfire fighters

Steve Builta

Steve Builta

When the urgent call came in September for Steve Builta to travel to Oregon to train National Guard members in fighting wildfires, there was little time to decide.

Yet for the director of Technology Innovation and Learning Services for the NIU College of Education, the answer came quickly.

Two days later, Builta was on a plane flying to the Pacific Northwest.

“Oregon had a terrible fire situation this year. They had need to train 250 additional National Guard troops, but they didn’t have enough people to do the training,” he says. “The State of Oregon contacted the Illinois Fire Service Institute, and the program director called me.”

Builta, who is also the longtime chief of the volunteer fire department in Hillcrest, Ill., has been on the staff of the Illinois Fire Service Institute for 12 years. He and his colleagues there provide training for mostly volunteer fire crews around the state of Illinois in fighting wildland blazes and prescribed burns.

Funding comes from a Department of Natural Resources grant, which finances the training and supplies free gear to first responders who service populations of less than 10,000. “We provide them with the training and protective equipment to fight this type of fire safely,” he says, “and that makes huge difference.”

builta-1In Oregon, the trainers from the Land of Lincoln joined trainers from across the country to deliver the 40-hour curriculum over only four long days. The courses are conducted under the National Wildfire Coordinating Group’s program, policies and standards for training.

Courses cover only the ground battles, which are waged with everything from shovels, rakes and hoes and “flappers” – mud flaps attached to long poles – to backpack water sprayers that “look like big Super Soakers.” Airborne wildfire fighting is not included.

Lessons in Oregon began with a class on fire behavior that focused on how weather, topography and fuel all can drive fire.

Remaining days were spent in the classroom during the morning, where the troops learned about preparation for firefighting, and in the field during the afternoon.

“There were two-and-a-half hours for skills stations; then the staff would put on a burn for the students,” Builta says. “The staff light the burn and suppress it; the class lead instructors talk to the students about fire behavior, what was going on, why we were doing what we were doing. After the fire was out, students would mop up and grid to make sure there were no hot spots left.”

builta-2A fortunate change in the weather during the training gave the upper hand to the crews already on the job, he adds. As a result, only half of the 250 National Guard members were dispatched after their four-day prep.

“This was the largest group of National Guard that I’d been around, and you just cannot say enough good things about them, their work ethic and their commitment to go out and do good things for the community,” Builta says.

He also is grateful for the cooperation of the Oregon Department of Public Safety Standards and Training and the Oregon Department of Forestry. They join similar agencies from Georgia, Montana and California who have received assistance from trained Illinois Fire Service Institute staff members.

California’s devastating wildfires this fall are the result of “two major problems,” Builta says.

“From what I have read, the spring was really wet in California. The grasses grow a lot, and give you a lot of fuels for fire. Then, they didn’t get a lot of rain, the grasses dried and made for lots of fuel on the ground,” he says.

Meanwhile, he adds, “the Santa Ana winds – when high pressure pushes air over the tops of the mountains – come down warm and dry with low humidity. If something catches fire, then a lot of dry winds coming down just ignite the fire.”

Steve Builta, right, chats with other wildland firefighting trainers in Oregon.


Although Builta is frequent trainer of wildland firefighters, teaching those courses across Illinois between five and 10 weekends each year, he rarely can accept the two-week standard deployments to battle the blazes. “With my job, it’s hard to do that,” he says.

However, fighting fires is an important part of his life at home – and one that involves the whole family.

Builta’s wife, Joelle; their son, Christopher; their daughter, Danielle Kaecker; and her husband, Justin, all are members of the Hillcrest Fire Department. Christopher recently returned from Montana, where he was dispatched to help fight the wildland fires there.

The story began 21 years ago when the Builtas bought their home in Hillcrest, located just north of Rochelle along Route 251.

builta-3Joelle, pregnant with Christopher, was on doctor-ordered bedrest. Steve was unpacking boxes. As a powerful thunderstorm rumbled through town, a violent lightning strike rattled the house.

“Moments later, we could smell smoke,” Builta says, “so we called the volunteer fire department, and out they came.”

No fire was found, but the assistant chief believed he had found something: a new recruit. After his first invitation that day, he made a few more trips to the Builta home until the new guy in town finally said “yes.”

“My wife and I had talked about trying to become involved in the community,” Builta says. “I just had no idea this would be it.”

Come, Look, See: Blackwell celebrates classic book series

Yvonne Johnson

Yvonne Johnson

Familiar faces – at least to those of a certain age – are taking root throughout the College of Education’s Blackwell History of Education Museum and the Learning Center.

Dick, Jane and Sally, along with their parents and pets, are the stars of a sprawling new exhibition highlighting the classic “Dick and Jane” book series that helped multiple 20th century generations learn to read.

Yvonne Johnson, a longtime Sycamore educator who holds two degrees from NIU, including a 1960 master’s in Elementary Education, graciously and generously donated her vast collection of the famous and influential books to the Blackwell.

“We want to put out as many of the books as we can, and we tried to open up as many as we could,” says Steve Builta, director of Technology Innovation and Learning Services in College of Education Technology Services. “People will remember the pictures.”

Rich Casey, instructional designer in the Learning Center, heard of the opportunity from Cindy Ditzler and Lynne M. Thomas of the NIU Libraries. With the help of the NIU Foundation, the gift was completed in November 2015.

Casey and Ditzler soon visited Johnson in her Sycamore home.

Johnson taught in a one-room school for two years after earning her NIU bachelor’s degree in Home Economics Education in 1951.

Johnson chats with DeKalb Mayor Jerry Smith.

Johnson chats with DeKalb Mayor Jerry Smith.

Her career in Sycamore’s District 427 began in 1953, when she joined the staff at West Elementary School. She closed the book on her career 58 years later, and in 2013 was inducted to the Sycamore High School Distinguished Alumni Hall of Fame.

“She showed us the collection, and I was amazed. I was thrilled,” Casey says. “I’m hoping to hear people say, ‘I remember that story.’ I’m hoping we’ve done some justice to it.”

Builta and Casey have accomplished just that, displaying books, framed images and enlarged prints throughout their facility in the lower level of Gabel Hall.

One glass case shows pages from Dick and Jane stories side-by-side with nearly identical words and illustrations of African-American siblings Mike and Pam – their family arrived in the 1960s amid the civil rights movement – or within religious school contexts.

Many cases are dressed with objects that vividly evoke the period of the books’ greatest popularity: wood clothespins, a rolling pin, a mop, an iron, a game of jacks, stuffed dolls, a baseball glove, a toy airplane.

“Frankly, ‘Dick and Jane’ is a real part of pop culture,” Builta says, “and this really is about bringing back some memories for some folks. ‘Reminisce’ is a great word. We’re giving people an opportunity to see this again.”

Dean Laurie Elish-Piper and Johnson enjoy the exhibition.

Dean Laurie Elish-Piper and Johnson
enjoy the exhibition.

“Dick and Jane” was the creation of Zerna Sharp, a reading consultant one-time kindergarten teacher who called the main characters “my children.”

According to a 1994 article in the Chicago Tribune:

It was in the late 1920s that Sharp, who died in 1981 at age 91, came up with the concept of an illustrated primer with simple text and repeated words mimicking the speech patterns of her young students.

Sharp had difficulty at first convincing Scott, Foresman’s editors to abandon the more stilted reading books of the era, most of which lacked illustrations. But when a University of Chicago authority on education, William S. Gray, endorsed her methods, the publisher embraced her “picture-story” method.

“She heard kids talking the way Dick and Jane would – ‘Look! Look! Look!’ – and thought that maybe the dialogue should reflect that kind of language,” Casey says.

“With the illustrations, she thought that maybe those would help kids understand what they were reading,” he adds. “There were illustrated primers, such as the New England Primer, but the difference was having the images mirror the action.”

“ ‘Dick and Jane’ were the first set of books that really utilized that concept,” Builta says.

dick-jane-4Regardless of the affection and nostalgia held by many 20th century children, however, the “Dick and Jane” books were not universally beloved. Legendary author Dr. Seuss, for example, said in 1983 that his “The Cat in the Hat” was “the book I’m proudest of because it had something to do with the death of the Dick and Jane primers.”

And although Casey was never a fan himself, he will acknowledge that the series made a huge impact on baby boomers, their parents and their children.

“Personally, I think that kids learned how to read in spite of ‘Dick and Jane.’ Our nuns were very big on phonics. I remember being in second-grade and trying to sound out ‘refrigerator,’ ” he says. “Nonetheless, ‘Dick and Jane’ was very successful.”

The Learning Center is open from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday and from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Friday. For more information, call (815) 753-1241 or email learningcenter@niu.edu.

Rich Casey, Johnson, Margaret Thacker and Steve Builta

Rich Casey, Johnson, Margaret Thacker and Steve Builta

Writing Center to open satellite location in CoE Learning Center

Gail Jacky

Gail Jacky

NIU’s Writing Center, a place “to practice critical thinking, analytical reasoning, and writing communication without fear of judgment,” will open a satellite location in the College of Education’s Learning Center this fall.

Steve Builta, director of Technology Innovation and Learning Services in College of Education Technology Services, offered the space on the lower level of Gabel Hall.

“It’s a pop-up site,” Director Gail Jacky says. “We will have a room there – most of our pop-up sites are just tables – and we’ll be there two days a week. We will have a presence there from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays beginning the third week of the fall semester.”

Jacky expects good crowds.

“We do a lot of work with College of Education students, and this makes it more convenient for them,” she says. “We spend a lot of time working with them on their teaching philosophies, their paperwork for student-teaching, their lesson plans and the actual papers they have to write.”

Headquartered in Stevenson Towers, the Writing Center logs thousands of sessions each year with undergraduates, graduate students, students-at-large, faculty and alumni – and the services go far beyond grammar, punctuation, quote integration, clarity, coherence and formatting.

computer-keysWriting coaches provide guidance on academic essays, personal statements, résumés, cover letters, websites, electronic portfolios, capstone projects, dissertations, theses, syllabi, rubrics, assignment prompts and even personal and creative writing.

Preparation for tests such as the GRE, GMAT, basic skills, SPEAK/TOFEL, CLEP and more. English Language Learners also can work to boost their abilities at the Writing Center.

Students who take advantage of the center reap the rewards on their report cards, Jacky says.

“We’ve had a few professors do some research on the students who come to the Writing Center and those who don’t, and the research shows that those who do get better grades,” she says.

“We make you better writers and more confident in what you do,” she adds. “It’s our fresh set of eyes – you know what you meant to write, but we’re reading it as an audience, and we’re helping you to clarify those ideas.”

For more information, call (815) 753-6636 or email gjacky@niu.edu.