Students revved up about teacher, Nisky Garage

Rich DeSimony helps a student fine-tune part of an engineering project.Photo by Rebecca IsenhartRich DeSimony helps a student fine-tune part of an engineering project.<br /><em>Photo by Rebecca Isenhart</em>
Rich DeSimony, left, stands on a table to help students identify a problem with a piece of the Ducati.Photo by Rebecca Isenhart

Rich DeSimony, left, stands on a table to help students identify a problem with a piece of the Ducati.
Photo by Rebecca Isenhart

By REBECCA ISENHART
Gazette Reporter

NISKAYUNA — If you’re looking for Rich DeSimony on a Friday afternoon, you’ll find the Niskayuna High School engineering technology teacher tinkering with a custom Ducati in his garage.

Well, not his garage, exactly. And not by himself, with a beverage and a radio. Instead, he does his work in the Niskayuna High School technology wing, guiding six or seven high school kids. They’re about the same age he was when he puzzled together his first motorcycle.

“Something over here, when you wiggle it, something’s getting hung up,” he says, leaning forward and poking at a piece near the handlebars. “You guys can noodle it out.”

DeSimony has a surprisingly hands-off approach to the project, considering the personal investment he’s poured into it. This is about the eighth year he’s led Nisky Garage, which is recognized, but not paid for, by the school district.

“All of this is funded by me,” DeSimony said. He pays out-of-pocket for spare parts and services like powder coating. Friends in the motorcycling community help keep the projects affordable.

“I’ve got a good network of people all over the country who have helped quite a bit,” he said. Not long ago, a Canadian business owner he often works with called just to see whether he and the students needed anything.

Once the bikes are done, DeSimony puts finishing touches on them, and sometimes takes them to shows. He then sells them to help fund future projects, even though he often takes a loss.

The first bike DeSimony and his student crew completed was a Honda CB350, an older model that eventually sold to a collector in Washington state.

“People in the vintage community were really psyched,” he said.

The next had a one-of-a-kind frame and took a long time to complete, and eventually was sold to a buyer in New Jersey. The third went all the way to Hong Kong.

The Ducati, when it’s done, will be the fourth motorcycle build DeSimony’s students have completed.

Nick Lethco, back, and Matt Haber, front, work to stabilize a part on the Ducati.Photo by Rebecca Isenhart

Nick Lethco, back, and Matt Haber, front, work to stabilize a part on the Ducati.
Photo by Rebecca Isenhart

‘Made it our bike’

“This is pretty much his baby at this point,” said Matt Haber, a senior who has been involved in Nisky Garage since he was a freshman.

“Previous bikes were more kit kind of stuff,” he said. “This is so custom.”

Many of the parts are even handmade. On a recent Friday, Haber and Nick Lethco, a junior, were working on hand-designing an air vent out of putty mold and foam. The prototype will be sent out and used to cast a mold, then re-created out of carbon fiber.

“It’s original. We’ve built pretty much all of it except the frame,” Lethco said. “We made it our bike.”

The headlight holder on the Ducati is custom, too, made from aluminum using the school’s equipment.

“We cut it out with one of these CNC machines,” Haber said, gesturing to the computer-controlled, khaki-colored giants that buzzed electronically nearby.

DeSimony said he plans to help the students finish the Ducati this year, the fourth academic year they’ve been working on it. He acknowledges it was a huge project to take on.

“This one, I got a little starry-eyed,” he said. “I’ve owned a couple of Ducatis in my life.”

Without question, DeSimony, who used to teach classes in auto and small engine work when he first got hired at Niskayuna, could finish a motorcycle much faster on his own. But he enjoys helping the students, perhaps because they remind him of himself.

“My first motorcycle came in three milk crates,” DeSimony said. “It was the only way I could get it by my mom.”

She never would have let him buy a motorcycle, but once she saw how much time and concentration he had put into that first bike, she let him keep it.

These days, DeSimony said, many kids’ schedules are too packed to allow time for tinkering in their home garages. That’s part of the reason why he provides this space for students, where they can work with their hands during free periods and Fridays after school.

Appreciative kids

The kids who participate in Nisky Garage have no shortage of appreciation for all DeSimony has put into helping them learn to create.

Haber, for example, said he’s more into cars, but working with motorcycles has expanded his understanding of the way engines work.

“It’s more or less the same mechanics,” he said.

Senior Noah Chaskin said DeSimony had a hand in helping him develop dreams of becoming an engineer. And his influence on students leaves a lasting impression. A former student, Charles Winegar, who graduated from Niskayuna High School in 2010, named DeSimony as one of his most influential mentors when he won an Outstanding Undergraduate Scholar award from Rochester Institute of Technology in 2013.

But what students remember most is how much fun they had in the garage, unwinding by creating something entirely their own.

“As a freshman, it was a lot of dismantling the bike,” Haber said, grinning. “It was great fun getting dirty.”

About the Author

Rebecca Isenhart
Rebecca Isenhart is the reporter/writer for Your Niskayuna, presented by the Daily Gazette of Schenectady.