A booming second career

Steve Hall recently earned his master's degree in explosives engineering. Photos by Sam O'Keefe.

Steve Hall recently earned his master’s degree in explosives engineering. Photos by Sam O’Keefe.

It was 1974 when Steve Hall first crossed the stage in Gale Bullman to receive his chemical engineering degree. This spring, exactly 40 years later, Hall made the trek again, this time to pick up his master’s degree in explosives engineering.

“I’ve always loved fireworks. I became a chemical engineer because I was fascinated by high-energy materials,” says Hall. “I started taking firecrackers apart when I was 6 years old. I guess I just never grew up.”

A full-time chemical engineer, Hall spends much of his free time as a fireworks display operator in and around his hometown of Louisiana, Mo., and at his cabin in Pacific, Mo.

“The first couple of shows I shot without a BATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) license,” he says. “It was before 9/11. I actually made my own fireworks and shot them in a private show for my friends.”

Hall is a member of the Pyrotechnical Guild International Inc., a group of about 2,000 fireworks enthusiasts who meet at an annual convention for seminars and to put on spectacular public fireworks displays.

“It’s a great big party — we build the fireworks there and shoot them from about 4 p.m. until 1 a.m. for six days,” he says. “That’s where I really got hooked and learned how to build fireworks.” The August 2014 convention will be his 20th consecutive one.

Did you know that Missouri S&T now offers the nation’s first Ph.D. in explosives engineering?

Hall was laid off from his job after 37 years with Ashland Inc. in 2011. “They closed down about three-fourths of the plant, so I was forced into retirement,” he says.

After receiving a year of severance pay, he visited his alma mater, S&T, which had just started to offer the nation’s first master’s degree in explosives engineering. He began school that year, staying at his cabin during class days. But within nine months, Hall was called back to work.

“They wanted someone to do research and development full time,” he says. “It involves making synthetic lubricants in glassware.”

So Hall returned to work and managed to earn 18 credit hours that year for the 30 hour master’s program. Since then he’s completed his degree requirements with a mixture of on-campus and online courses.

He helps with S&T’s popular Explosives Camps and teaches the Fireworks Manufacturing class at S&T part time. This spring he taught the course to ATF agents during an intensive three-day weekend, as part of their explosives technology certification.

“They wanted a pyrotechnics course so they can deal with people who do it illegally,” he says. “They were fantastic guys — said I came from the ‘same herd.’”

They got along so well that the agents invited Hall to their National Center for Explosives Training and Research in Huntsville, Ala., to do bomb squad training.

Does he have any plans for retirement?

“At this point in my life, I’d like to stick with the great things – and that’s what I’m doing now,” Hall says. “And that includes my full-time job, as long as I still enjoy it.”

Some highlights from this year’s Explosives Camps:

  • Explosives Camp at the Experimental Mine.      Sam O'Keefe/Missouri S&T

  • Explosives Camp at the Experimental Mine.      Sam O'Keefe/Missouri S&T

Story by Linda Fulps
Photos by Sam O’Keefe