Cool Jobs

“Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.”

Most people just wish they could follow that old adage, but some people do heed the advice and find amazing careers. From helicopter pilot to ballerina, astronomer to cowgirl, Columbia has cool jobs covering every imaginable interest.

What do you want to be when you grow up?

Laura Flynn-Smith, Flying 45 Ranch

Laura Flynn-Smith was just 18 when she married her husband, Travis Smith.

“We didn’t start with much, and we weren’t fortunate enough to have land passed down to us, but acquiring our own little ranch has been more than worth the blood, sweat and tears,” she says.

Today, with the help of their two children, Katie, 18, and Zane, 7, they raise a small commercial herd of black Angus-cross cattle and American Quarter Horses. They train the horses themselves for the sport of cowboy-mounted shooting, in which swiftly riding contestants shoot targets with .45-caliber single-action revolvers.

“We are on the road competing nearly every weekend during the warmer months,” Flynn-Smith says.

The family also has a small business creating livestock branding irons.

The best part of ranch life, Flynn-Smith says, is seeing her children grow up close to the land. She recalls how Katie — then 12 years old and home alone in the early spring — saved a calf that had slid into the creek and stood freezing in the water. Katie saddled the family’s best horse, roped the calf, drug it out of the creek, toweled it off and took it to its mother to nurse.

“Our goal has always been to raise children who are capable, tough, kind, wise and strong — both mentally and physically,” she says. “While we believe strongly in a higher education, we also believe that kids just really can’t get that strong core anywhere better than the farm.”

Angela Speck, University of Missouri

Angela Speck was 5 years old when she decided she wanted to be an astronaut. Now a University of Missouri professor of astrophysics and director of astronomy, Speck has ended up very close to that goal.

“My research involves analyzing and modeling astronomical observations,” she says, adding that although most of her work is done on a computer, she and her team also collect their own observations, “which means going to an observatory and working nights.”

In addition to her own research, Speck helps students conduct astronomical research, and she teaches — she won a Kemper Fellowship for Teaching Excellence in 2013. Her roles combine “analysis, creativity and communication of ideas,” she says, “which is very open and allows for lots of new experiences all the time.”

Other perks that come with studying the stars include traveling — “I have been to every continent except South America and Antarctica,” she says — and because most observatories are at high altitudes, she gets to “see things from an amazing perspective.” Plus, she occasionally gets to hobnob with astrophysicist and “Cosmos” host Neil DeGrasse Tyson.

But the best part of being an astronomer is more basic.

“I get to think about the nature of the universe for a living,” she says. “What’s not to like?”

Forensic Investigator
Stacey Huck, Boone/Callaway County Medical Examiner Office

As a forensic investigator, Stacey Huck goes to crime scenes, accident sites and suicide scenes to work death investigations for the Boone/Callaway County Medical Examiner Office. Much of what she sees is “heart-wrenching,” she says.

“But what we do with that can make a difference for the family, and that to me is worth every minute of it,” she adds. “We can answer questions that no one else can, and we take that seriously.”

She traces her career choice back to her father. He worked in law enforcement, and when he retired, he became chief of investigations in the Kansas City Medical Examiner’s office.

“I admired him so much for his strength in dealing with such tragedy,” she says. “I knew I wanted to be just like him.”

Huck notes that cool is “probably a bad term to use in this line of work,” but adds she has gotten to experience cool things in other people’s professions while working.

“For example,” she says, “in order to get to one scene, I rode the fire truck ladder up and had to climb out on an overhang. Taking pictures in the air with no safety net was interesting, to say the least. At one point, I was literally on the edge, trying to hang a drape. After that day, I realized nothing was off-limits in this job.”

Bo Bedilion, Columbia College

Bo Bedilion fell in love with pottery as soon as he began experimenting with the art form as an undergraduate.

“After a few years of traveling around to art/ceramic centers as a kiln technician, pottery studio manager and resident artist, I decided to pursue an advanced degree,” says this assistant professor of art at Columbia College. “After receiving my Master of Fine Arts in ceramics, I began teaching.”

As a potter, Bedilion has gleaned many rewards in his profession.

“When I make pots, the process satisfies my desire to create useful objects with my hands,” he says. “Pots have been made for at least 20,000 years — I like to think that making pottery speaks to certain ideals of humanity that reach far into the past and will continue long into the future.”

He also finds inspiration in creating “beauty in simple objects, such as a mug for morning coffee or serving bowls for a friendly dinner.”

“As a maker, the biggest reward is when the pottery enters others’ daily lives,” he says.

Teaching brings its own rewards.

“Teaching the craft provides the delightful reward of witnessing students develop their own ideas of how handmade pots can enhance their lives and perceptions of the world around them,” he says. “I love sharing my information about the process, techniques and history of ceramics with students.”

Radio DJ
Andrea Collette, KBXR-FM 102.3

As a sales assistant and disc jockey for KBXR-FM 102.3, Andrea Collette voices commercials, scopes out new artists, attends community events and hangs out at concerts. Then she’s on air on the weekends.

“It definitely keeps me busy!” she says.

She discovered her passion for radio when she interned last summer with Cumulus Broadcasting’s promotion department.

“I loved the atmosphere and personalities,” she says, adding once she got to voice the news and fill in for a morning show, “I was hooked.”

Now there are several reasons she loves coming to work.

“We always have interesting guests coming in, so I get to meet amazing people and work with some of the best in the business,” she says. “Being able to connect with people in the community is intrinsically rewarding to me. Of course, meeting the bands in the studio and going to concerts is also a great perk. I got to introduce bands at this year’s Roots N Blues N BBQ and hung out backstage with St. Paul and the Broken Bones. I’m still trying to get over that.”

When she tells people about her job, she says the usual response is, “Wow, that’s cool!” followed by a song request.

“Then we start talking about music and get carried away,” she says.

Fun Conductor
Ian Franz, Veterans United Home Loans

Officially the director of employee relations, Ian Franz is better known as the Veterans United fun conductor. His specific duties include teaching and reinforcing VU company values, overseeing the perks program and employee recognition pieces, and fostering a fun, relaxed and values-driven environment.

“A lot of the time the stuff I do is just plain fun — things like making videos, performing on stage at our company holiday party and just joking around with employees,” he says. One of his favorite duties is leading the team that puts on the annual Field Day, which actually lasts two days.

“Our employees get to be kids again,” he says. “We take over Cosmo Park and compete in all sorts of games and activities. We really get to know our co-workers. Teams are split up, and people are interacting with new people. It’s funny, but I feel like a proud dad watching all my kids make new friends.”

So much fun, and Franz very nearly missed his chance to lead it. He started at Veterans United as a loan processor and a couple of years in, was offered his current position, which was just being created.

“The crazy thing is I very nearly turned it down because it sounded almost too freeform and autonomous — it was outside of my comfort zone,” he says. “Boy, would I have kicked myself for that.”

Tasting Room Server
Austin Gacich, Les Bourgeois Vineyards

In college, Austin Gacich couldn’t figure out what he wanted to do. He changed his major from business to marketing to biology to biochemistry and plant science.

“When I started working with wine, I found where all my interests come together,” he says.

Today, he works as a server in the Les Bourgeois Vineyards tasting room, where he tells people about each wine and recommends food and wine pairings. He also leads tours of the winery facility, walking “guests through the winemaking process, from fresh grapes to finished bottle,” he says.

“The coolest thing for me is when I do a tasting with people who are new to wine,” he says. “It is so exciting to be a part of their first foray into the world of wine.

“I also love doing tastings for people who only drink one kind of wine. There’s something like 6,000 varieties of grapes used for winemaking around the world. Choosing just one is akin to eating only one food — rather boring.”

Other perks he enjoys include meeting interesting people from all over the place — many of whom are passing through on Interstate 70 — and an increased appreciation for food and improved cooking skills, which he attributes to spending so much time thinking about taste.”

“And, of course,” he says, getting to the best benefit, “I get to taste many wines.”

Caitlin Younker, Missouri Contemporary Ballet

As a company member of Missouri Contemporary Ballet, Caitlin Younker is in dance class from 9 to 10:30 a.m., Monday through Friday, and then in rehearsal until 3 p.m. for upcoming shows.

“People always think it is really cool that I am a professional ballerina but don’t realize how much hard work goes into being a dancer,” she says. “They are usually shocked to hear we dance for six hours a day, as well as work other jobs at night to be able to support ourselves.”

It’s worth it, though, Younker says, to get to do what she loves.

“Growing up, dance was the only thing I was truly passionate about,” she says. “When I discovered I could turn my passion into a career, I started working even harder toward my goal of joining a professional ballet company.”

In addition to performing in Columbia, the company goes on tour to other cities, states and even countries.

“The coolest thing I have gotten to do is go on tour to South Korea with MCB,” Younker says. “Dancing in Columbia’s sister city, Suncheon Bay, was a huge honor.”

Dancing also lead Younker to her second passion, teaching.

“We are lucky to have a school affiliated with the company, the School of Missouri Contemporary Ballet, which I became director of this year,” she says. “I am very grateful for the opportunity to pass on my knowledge and love for dance to the next generation of ballerinas.”

Helicopter Pilot
Kyle Rehagen, Staff for Life Helicopter Service

From the time he was about 10 years old and his dad started taking him to air shows, Kyle Rehagen knew he wanted to be a pilot.

“I love to fly,” he says, “but above all, knowing that what I do benefits others who need rapid medical care is very rewarding.”

Rehagen, a Missouri Army National Guard veteran, is the senior lead pilot for the Staff for Life Helicopter Service. He begins each shift with a preflight check and then completes a crew briefing with the flight nurse, flight paramedic and communication center. Then they wait for a patient flight request to come in — a set of tones on a handheld radio.

“When this happens, we stop what we are doing and go straight to the helicopter,” he says.

From the first alert, it takes eight to 10 minutes to get off the ground. Once at the accident scene or transferring hospital, Rehagen talks with ground control — usually a local fire department — to assist in looking for hazards at the site. When the helicopter is down and secure, the medical crew exits the aircraft and begins patient care, while Rehagen secures the aircraft and prepares it for its return flight.

Helping others is the most rewarding part of his job, but Rehagen says the coolest part for him is the special clearance he receives to fly in low cloud cover and reduced visibility situations.

“Others would be grounded in similar situations,” he says. “I have always liked flying in the clouds.”

Mike Atkinson, The Candy Factory

Mike Atkinson has two primary jobs as a co-owner of The Candy Factory: overseeing candy production and confectionary research and development.

“Each summer, I forecast production numbers for the following 12 months of production, divide up the workload between myself and the other candymakers and create the master production schedule,” he says. “Research and development is my absolute favorite part of my job. I love to mix and match flavors with our chocolates to come up with new ganaches for truffles. I take different foods and snacks and break them down, mix ’em up and turn them into new confections. I have no fear. In my mind, everything has potential to be great when mixed with chocolate. I’ve created confections with chocolate that include cheese, wine, pancetta, guava, popcorn, ginger, potato chips and much more.”

Atkinson co-owns The Candy Factory with his parents, Sam and Donna, and his wife, Amy. Although he developed candymaking skills as a teenager working for his parents, he didn’t expect to come back to the business after graduating from Baylor University with dual degrees in marketing and entrepreneurship. He was hesitant at first, worried about family dynamics, but he and Amy prayed about the decision and, today, say they are grateful they accepted the offer.

“We have managed to create an amazing work environment and enjoy each other’s company,” Atkinson says. “It is a privilege not many families get to have, so I appreciate it very much.”

Concert Booker
Nathan Anderson, University of Missouri

Part of Nathan Anderson’s job as manager of the University of Missouri’s Event Production Services is booking the acts for the University Concert Series.

“I talk with agents and see what they have to offer and what open dates we have and try to broker the best deals that I can,” he says. “It could be a ballet, an orchestra or somebody like Willie Nelson or Itzhak Perlman.”

Anderson’s career with the Concert Series goes back to his work-study days. He followed that job with an internship and then a full-time sales position. A decade later, he moved up to Concert Series assistant director, a similar role to what he holds now.

He freely admits that the chance to meet celebrities was part of what attracted him to the job, as well as a fascination with watching big productions come to life and the satisfaction he feels hearing wowed audience members express their delight.

Anderson’s favorite experience so far was finally bringing Boyz II Men to Columbia, after pushing to get them for years.

“It’s one of those nights that I’ll remember because one of my biggest worries was, ‘I’m going to meet these guys and they’re going to be jerks and it’s going to forever sour my interpretation of them,’ ” he says. “But they could not have been nicer; they could not have been more gracious. They stood for more than an hour and took pictures and signed autographs and thanked everybody. It was really an exciting night for me.

Escape Artist/Magician
Mario Manzini, Mario Manzini Entertainment

What’s it like to be put in a straitjacket, handcuffed, tied around the ankles with 1-inch-thick rope, pulled about 1,000 feet in the air and left dangling upside down while the middle of the rope is set on fire?

“It’s a weird feeling,” says magician and escapologist Mario Manzini, “because I don’t know if I’m going to make it or not. I’m 99 percent sure, but it’s — I don’t know. After I escape and get to safety, it makes me appreciate life even more.”

Manzini’s lifetime of feats include escaping in 8.5 seconds from a straitjacket while suspended 20 feet in the air — a Guinness World Record; jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge for a publicity stunt — which got him arrested but he escaped the handcuffs in the police car and then escaped the holding cell, twice; and jumping handcuffed out of a plane for the TV show “That’s Incredible!” He’s been a member of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and also performs illusions, comedy magic and an Elvis Presley tribute show.

“I love to entertain people,” he says. “When I do the exciting, thrilling, dangerous stuff, people are on the edge of their seats, and when I escape, it’s like they’re escaping with me … Some say, ‘You’re crazy,’ and I say: ‘I’m crazy? Drive down the highway and see who’s crazy — these people who cut you off, don’t signal, tailgate — that’s crazy.’ I’m not crazy; I’m careful. I know exactly what I’m doing.”

Book Author
Laura McHugh, The Weight of Blood

For Laura McHugh, losing leads to winning.

“I always loved to write, and after losing my job as a software developer, I decided to take a chance and write a novel like I had dreamed of doing,” she says.

That chance resulted in The Weight of Blood,a book Publishers Weekly describes as “an outstanding first novel, replete with suspense, crisp dialogue, and vivid Ozarks color and atmosphere.”

McHugh now spends most of her time writing and revising, but publicity is also a big part of her job.

“I give book talks and interviews, attend conferences and parties, visit book clubs, respond to inquiries on social media and anything else my agent, editors and publicists ask me to do,” she says. “I get to meet so many wonderful people, and it’s great to hear that someone has enjoyed your work or to see your book mentioned in publications like Entertainment Weekly and Southern Living. Anna Quindlen, a writer I’ve always admired, emailed to tell me how much she liked my novel The Weight of Blood. Then she emailed again to tell me that Gillian Flynn had mentioned my book in The New York Times. That was a good day.”