ETSU senior geosciences major Steven Felix, originally from Miami, has traveled and lived all over through his military service and work, but now calls East Tennessee home. He has discovered a love of rock cutting, of which – along with fly fishing – he plans to do a lot after he graduates in December. Felix recently found and polished a piece of Unicoi County basalt that he describes as “the prettiest green you’d ever want to see,” and Knoxville geologist Travis Paris has selected this piece for inclusion in his forthcoming book on the rocks of Tennessee. During his time at ETSU, the Alpha Sigma Lambda adult student honor society member has been a volunteer with the Office of Adult, Commuter and Transfer Services during orientation and other occasions.
How did you become interested in rock cutting and choose geosciences as your major?
When I started at ETSU and the first time I came to this room and saw these beasts! This is where we cut the big rocks. These are 24-inch diamond-fused saws that can slice rock as thin as an eighth of an inch. I had thought about anthropology and archaeology, and started my first semester with anthropology. But I also took a geology course. I said, “Hmm … I like geology better.”
What we’re doing now is building a geologic stack of all the rocks in this area, from oldest to youngest, bottom to top, that we’ll put in a wooden frame outside Ross Hall. We have so much fun out in the field. That’s what really got me interested in it.
When I was in the Air Force, I was stationed in Alaska. I got discharged in Anchorage in 1974 and went to work on the Alaskan Pipeline, then on oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. The oil rig shut down in 1980. A friend of mine offered me a job in Tacoma, Washington, on a fishing boat, so I went up there to apply in May 1980. But do you know what happened in Washington in May of 1980? Mount St. Helens. I didn’t get a job on the fishing boat, but I saw the biggest fireworks show ever! And that’s what really got me interested in geology. It took me a lot of years to get back to it.
How did you end up in East Tennessee?
In 2006, I was in Jacksonville, Florida. I’d had five back surgeries. I had an issue with pain, and so I drank. I’d been having severe pains in my stomach and I was in an emergency room at a local hospital at the beach. They were tired of seeing me, I think. They thought I was just looking for pain medications. But I had a heart attack and aspirated my lungs; they thought my appendix had ruptured, but they found I had a hole in my colon and peritonitis. I ended up spending 45 days in a drug-induced coma, and 75 days on a ventilator. I was sent to the VA at Mountain Home, where I spent four years being rehabilitated and finding a way to treat my back pain without medications. In 2010, they put a neurostimulator in my back to help my nerve pain, and now I’m drug-free and pretty much pain-free. Tylenol or Advil pretty much treats the pain now.
How did you begin your education at ETSU?
I found out that being a disabled veteran – because of my age and disability – my tuition cost was basically a maintenance fee. Veterans Upward Bound gave me the prep classes I needed and said, “Steve, you need to go to college.” I said, “Alright, let’s get the paperwork going. I’ll give it a shot.” And for the last five years, I’ve felt more alive than in the last 30 years.
One of the first things I did was go to Student Support Services to get tutoring. I was like a deer in headlights. I was in shock. All my life, I’d been called “stupid.” I was the middle of seven kids; my brothers and sisters made friends easily, and I didn’t. After a lifetime of that, it built up. So I had very little confidence my first year. Then my tutors and the Student Support Services employees sat me down and pulled up my grades – A, A, B, A, B, A, A. It took another year to convince me.
What’s next after you graduate in December?
I’ll go fly fishing for six months. No, I’ll be working on these things (rocks). I’ve been doing research on a place called Crater Diamonds in Arkansas, so I’ll go there, and take a tent and some tools, and hopefully come back with a motor home! Dr. (Mick) Whitelaw said, and I’ve noticed throughout my life, I have a tendency to find things where no one else can find them. He’ll ask me to go out and find a certain rock, or he wants me to find a rock at a certain state of metamorphism, and I’ll find it. The Knoxville Gem and Mineral Show and the Kingsport Gem and Mineral Show want me to do some freelance work for them, go out and find things for them. I’ll take a year off and see about getting that archaeology or anthropology degree. They may talk me into a master’s, but I don’t know about that.
NOTE: The week of Nov. 6-10, 2017, is Nontraditional Student Week, a national observance that recognizes the efforts of adult students working to earn a college education and calls attention to campus programs and events designed to support and help these students reach their goals. For more information, contact ETSU’s Office of Adult, Commuter and Transfer Services at 423-439-5641. The ACTS office is located inside the ARC on the second level of the D.P. Culp University Center.
In addition, Veterans Day is Nov. 11. East Tennessee State University has been designated as a Military Friendly® School for eight consecutive years. To learn more about the services offered to veterans at ETSU, call the Office of Veterans Affairs at 423-439-6819.