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“Non-Traditional” Piston Scholar Jacob Koehn Resets his Goals at Age 35

Not all college students are in their teens or early 20s. Some return to higher education after years of working at “regular” jobs that don’t satisfy their need for personal accomplishment. Often, they are driven by a desire to do something else – something they initially thought was unattainable for them, or had life’s issues get in the way. As their desire to be their genuine selves grew stronger, they were determined to find a way to follow that path.

By JudY Stropus

February 13, 2023

A Lifelong Automotive Dream

Jacob Koehn is one of those travelers, a “non-traditional” student at McPherson College, who, at age 35, is finally beginning to navigate the road on which he’s wanted to ride since the days as a youngster when he saw a 1959 Cadillac turn the corner in his small town of just 1600 residents.

That ’59 Caddy sparked his interest in post-WWII General Motors cars, including hot rods, “land yachts” and pickup trucks. But what he called his “pipe dream”, to surround himself with classic cars such as these and others, was too elusive at first for this small-town “car guy.”

“I knew I needed a job,” he said. “I went to school when I was 18 to Northwest Missouri State, and I ended up just settling for finance because it seemed practical and those jobs were available. I ended up working in corporate banking for 10 years. As time went on, I got more and more involved as a weekend warrior on cars. The interest had always been there, I just never saw it as feasible [as a profession]. And then I got to the point where I was like, it’d be cool to be around these all the time, because I wasn’t really engaged in my day job, mentally.”

“I had issues with substance abuse and mental health for several years,” he wrote in his application to be a Piston Scholar. “I recently hit two years sober. I continue to overcome those afflictions on a daily basis because I have larger goals. I want to work on classic cars.”

Changing Course for McPherson

That’s what brought Jacob to McPherson College, at the urging of his wife Kristen, who grew up in Wichita, about 50 miles from the college in McPherson, Kansas. She asked Jacob, “What do you want to do for work? What really sounds fun? Think of it that way first, and then follow the money.” He responded with, “I think it would be awesome to work with classic cars in any capacity. If I can be successful in that industry, that’s what I want to do.”

Koehn took a look at McPherson’s programs and liked them. He and Kristen decided to downsize and move into a fixer upper in Wichita, and he would commute to McPherson. “I’m constantly driving a hundred miles a day in an old banged-up Prius that has issues once in a while,” he said, “and I have to work on the house while realizing that I have a test I should be studying for. Balancing these things is really difficult.”

But Koehn’s tenacity powered him forward. “I had an internship this summer at an upholstery shop in Wichita, and I have a mentor who works for Hagerty Insurance. He’s been giving me some guidance. I still haven’t determined my trajectory or career path yet, but he is helping me narrow down some options.”

Receiving the Piston Scholarship Award

Koehn is grateful for the Piston Foundation Scholarship he received in 2022. “It’s taken a lot of financial stress away,” he said. “It’s a cloud that hangs over you. Being a non-traditional student, there’s only so much funding for someone in my position. I appreciate the Piston Foundation’s openness to someone in my position. Yes, I’ve gone to school before and, yes, I’m going back, but I’m trying to do it right this time,” adding, “because of all the loans that I took from the first round – which I paid off by the time I was 30 – it was really hard.”

Today a McPherson Student, Tomorrow a Graduate, Always an American Car Lover

Koehn’s heart is still with American cars, although he recently was introduced to hundreds of Ferraris at the Cavallino Classic in Palm Beach, Florida, in January. “When I was a kid I thought a Chevy Monte Carlo was the coolest car and when I got older, I saw a Buick Regal Grand National and thought that was even cooler,” he said. “The GM cars appealed to me a little bit more because they were tangible and there was nostalgia tied to them. I didn’t see a Ferrari until I was probably 20.”

As a McPherson senior, Koehn has opportunities to work on a variety of cars. “I have a senior project where I’ll get assigned a vehicle,” he said, “but I’ve worked on a 1941 Packard and I worked on my friend’s DeLorean with him for our chassis class. I did some welding on a 1971 Corvette windshield frame. We have a few dozen cars at the school to work on. And it just varies by the class and the assignment and what needs to be done.”

He participated in a Piston Foundation panel discussion at the Cavallino Classic, along with fellow students Zoe Carmichael and Sean Whetstone. Piston’s Sperry Hutchinson was the M.C., and he was joined by Piston’s Jeff Mason and car restorers Paul Russell and Jon Dega.

“It was a great networking event and I was able to meet a lot of people from very different backgrounds, all meeting in the same place to discuss similar things and interests,” Koehn said. “There’s a lot of support and it’s a strong fraternity of car enthusiasts and it’s just nice to have people tell us to just keep going and pushing, evolving and learning.”

As for his future, Koehn is open to anything as long as it involves cars. “Because I used to work in the financial field, I’m trying to use those skills that I’ve acquired over the last 10 years and apply them to the car industry. That could mean I get involved in brokerage or in an administrative capacity.

“I like painting cars. It’s one of my favorite things to do. I also like working on engines and assembling them and machining them. With painting, there’s a lot of prep work, but it’s very satisfying.”

Koehn’s goals are simple. “My primary goal is to be happy,” he said. “My second goal is to provide for myself and my wife, in a decent paying job, with decent insurance.” As he continues his education honing his car restoration skills, Koehn is hopeful his original “pipe dream” is heading towards reality.

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