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Making the road a safer place; Kelliher driving instructor teaches across three Minnesota towns

Ron Heim stands next to his car with Philip Anderson in the front seat. Heim owns and operates Awe-Saum Driving School based in Kelliher. Photo by Christen Furlong.

Since 2005, Ron Heim has been teaching hundreds of area students how to drive safely and properly by way of his private business, Awe-Saum Driving School.

Most students in Blackduck, Kelliher and Northome request Heim's services when learning to drive because, other than Bemidji, Heim is the only behind-the-wheel driving instructor in the area and prides his instruction as being one of the safest programs around.

Until 2005, Heim served as an industrial education teacher at Kelliher High School for 20 years where he doubled as the school's driver's education instructor. But his driver's training career actually began back in the early 1970s at St. Cloud State University where Heim took drivers instruction courses and eventually graduated from Bemidji State University with a bachelor's degree in industrial technology and a certificate in driver's training. His first job was at Thistledew Juvenile Correctional Facility in Togo, Minn., in 1975 where he spent three years helping troubled youth get their driver's licenses.

"A lot of the students there had dropped out of high school and were getting their GEDs," Heim said. "They never learned to drive because they missed that part of school so they got their license while they were there."

After the stint at Thistledew, Heim moved on to Kelliher where he would remain a large influence to young drivers for over 20 years.

But, in 2005, when Heim's retirement finally came, so did cuts to Kelliher's driving program.

Much like what happened at Blackduck Secondary, the program was removed from high school curriculum.

Although technically retired, Heim was called up to teach the classroom portion once a year and, because the community didn't maintain a car, Heim created "Awe-Saum Driving School," a company that provides the in-car instruction portion of training to area residents.

According to Heim, because he had so much background in the field, getting his new business off its feet was far easier than it would have been for someone just entering the field.

"I was getting a lot of calls," he said. "I already had the certificate. I didn't have to do all the training for a private company. I took a few tests and started the company."

Most of Heim's students come from the Kelliher and Northome area and, because Blackduck Secondary also lost the driving program from its curriculum, many Blackduck students were recommended to Awe-Saum by former Blackduck driving instructor, Scott Anderson.

For the past eight years, Anderson has been teaching the required 30-hour classroom portion for the community education program. Within the last two months, Anderson has permanently stepped down from the position after teaching drivers education for over 40 years.

"Mr. Anderson would put in a good word for me, along with a few other schools," Heim said.

With Anderson now fully retired and Heim looking to continue his work for another four or five years, the Blackduck Community Education Program is attempting to get Heim on board to take over Anderson's classes.

"It's not official yet," Heim said. "But its in the works that I will be taking Anderson's position." He added that the last step is to be approved by the Independent District 32 School Board.

The Blackduck class would take place during the winter break period of the school year and the Kelliher class occurs in June after school has been let out for the summer.

The behind-the-wheel instruction can be scheduled throughout the year but often skips the winter months for safety and time concerns.

Heim's student driver car is hard to miss out on the roads. It's 2007 white Toyota Camry that is nearly covered in student driver stickers. The rear and front bumper both warn of an inexperienced driver in addition to a sticker across the top of the windshield that reads, "Rookie Driver."

"I've never gotten into an accident with a student," Heim assured. "We've had some situations where the students have gotten confused, but they've never caused an accident."

The car used for Awe-Saum Driving School and Heim himself are both required to carry multiple insurance policies at all times. The car is insured for comprehensible coverage up to $1,000,000 in case of an accident or injury to teacher or driver.

Heim is also required to carry liability insurance to protect the company and he is also bonded for $20,000 should he ever be summoned to court. According to Heim, these types of policies are pretty standard for private drivers instruction companies across the nation.

Because of his strict adherence to safety, Heim has never had to use them.

"I always tell (my students) to be very careful and to not let peer pressure, pressure them," he said. "(The government) has done some things that have changed a lot for new drivers."

Those laws include bans on juveniles in the car with new drivers, cellphone use and strict curfew hours.

"Automobiles are the No. 1 reason that new drivers die," Heim said. "Inattentiveness, speed and inexperience --EMDASH-- when you put all three together, it's deadly."

That is why Heim teaches students to be aware of their surroundings, hug the side line rather than the center line and always keep an eye out for signage.

"You have to be aware of those things," he said. "Some of them get really nervous and they just crawl around town. But the (DMV testing) instructors mark that as a risk. It's too cautious, they call it."

To prepare his students for the road test, Heim has each student drive down to Bemidji to get a feel for congestion, stop lights and four lane streets. According to Heim, you have to go to a bigger city to get the needed experience. Most small towns don't even have a stop light.

"The test happens downtown," Heim said. "(Instructors) want you to interact with pedestrians, cars, yield, right of way and deal with jaywalkers."

After more than 30 years of teaching drivers education, Heim's retirement from teaching didn't mean stopping work completely. Awe-Saum keeps him busy.

"I like to think I'm making better drivers," he said. "Hopefully, someday I can pass the company on to someone else who wants to do the same thing."