Teutopolis man describes rise from humble beginnings to innovative leader

TEUTOPOLIS — Business people, educators and CEO students from Effingham County gathered Wednesday at the Teutopolis Banquet Hall for the Effingham County Vision 2020 Community Celebration of Excellence Breakfast.

Tom Wegman, board chairman for Stevens Industries, was the featured speaker at the event with his talk on "Cows, Slide Rules, Spacecrafts, Sawdust, Church and Family." The Teutopolis native shared his story about how hard work and determination led him to extraordinary jobs, and faith and family have kept him rooted throughout his life.

"I grew up on an old farm here four miles east of Teutopolis. It wasn't much of a place. The house was very old, and we didn't have running water," Wegman said. "I don't know if you realize this, but back in that time, there were 700, 800 people in Teutopolis. There were five grocery stores in this town."

Wegman recalled a time when Huckster trucks would deliver goods to his family farm, and he would work with his dad and family to tend to cows and a variety of farm animals. When he was still young, his family's farmhouse burned down, and the Wegmans were left with nothing but the clothes on their backs, forcing them to start all over.

Wegman said starting over didn't bother his parents, and they rebuilt the farm. He said it was that determination and willingness to work that gave him the work ethic he still has today.

"After I thought back, they were always working," Wegman said of his late parents. "They were always really open and thoughtful. They always had opportunity on their mind, and they persevered. They were high energy, and they got results."

Wegman decided to attend the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology instead of taking over his father's farm. There, Wegman earned a bachelor's degree in engineering, and he eventually received job offers from General Motors, Ford, Boeing and NASA.

While with NASA, Wegman said he assisted in building and testing the organization's first and only Skylab, designed to house astronauts for months at a time. The Skylab eventually broke up in the atmosphere, and pieces of it fell to Earth.

Wegman said his work with NASA came full circle during a trip to a space camp facility in Huntsville, Alabama, with his granddaughter. There, he saw pieces of the Skylab he worked so hard to engineer 25 years later.

Following his time at NASA, Wegman said he returned to Teutopolis and began working at Stevens Industries at the request of owner Charlie Stevens. In 1998, Wegman bought part of Stevens Industries and became a partner in the business. After 45 years with the organization, Wegman retired in 2015. But he still serves on the company's board of directors.

The business has grown from humble beginnings to a 16-acre plant in Teutopolis and a future site in Effingham, and Stevens Industries now sells products to dozens of big-name companies across the country. This growth is largely due to Wegman's innovative, forward-thinking additions to machinery, production and employee management.

Wegman said at the heart of his successes lies a philosophy he's developed over a decadeslong career. The philosophy is based on Wegman's acronym WOPPER, which stands for "work, opportunity, perseverance, passion, energy and results."

"Without passion, you're not going to do anything. There's a lot of entrepreneurs in this room, and they have passion for their business. They put it all on the line sometimes. That's how we get there," Wegman said.

Wegman said he would not be where he is today without faith and the support of his family. He said in order to get to heaven, one has to be significant, which he said he does by being present in his family's lives.

Attendees also heard from Chelle Beck with Impact 2030, a group aimed at carrying on the work of Vision 2020 after the year 2020 ends. Beck said six area teams have already been formed to promote things like creative learning, safety and health, strong communities, vibrant economies, quality environments and connected citizens.

Beck said anyone in the county can volunteer for the teams and can contact the Effingham County Chamber of Commerce to learn more about the initiative.

Article from the Effingham Daily News