Twenty-three-year-old U.S. Army Corps of Engineers employee Alexander Harper wouldn’t call himself a “Mad Hatter” (an 1800s term used to describe the sometime odd behavior by hatmakers exposed to mercurous nitrate) but did admit to being “… just a little mad” when describing himself as a self-taught milliner.
As a high school intern, Harper came to know the ‘engineering world’ of the “Corps” where the world of design and construction surrounded him.
As such, it’s no surprise that the young entrepreneur – who worked three days a week at the Saint Louis District with nine other interns as part of the Clyde C. Miller Career Academy - that ‘a focused’ Harper was assigned as the intern’s group leader.
“I really wasn’t interested in joining the Army at the time but my school counselor made me take it – and now it’s a career,” remarked the life-long Saint Louis native who is one of four children but is expecting a baby sister within weeks.
He says now that he doesn’t hold the ‘demand’ against his high school business administration counselor Judith Sams – “no,” said Harper, “not at all.”
He says he enjoys the steady and diverse work he receives as the new front-office Human Resource lead and, according to Sams, “Alex came back after only one week with the Corps and gave me a great big hug. He said that ‘he loved it,’” explained Sams who admitted that Harper had trepidations about joining the Army.
Sams went on to detail that the Corps… “Was the very best internship choice we had. They were very good at showing the students what the real world of work looks like,” she said.
Harper turned the internship into a full-time job after graduating from University of Missouri-St. Louis with a degree in business administration and a minor in communications in 2020.
However, for this ‘stay-at-home-minded’ graduate, some of his first experiences with USACE placed him way outside of his comfort zone.
Indeed, it was the tough talking combat-experienced Major John Miller who ordered the young Saint Louisan off on official orders to the USACE Albuquerque District to learn the ropes of his new position from Jeannette Alderete who provided the training he needed to step into his new HR-focused role.
He admitted it was important trip to help him focus his career but admitted that he had some anxiety about being away from his family. “That’s the furthest away I’ve ever been from home,” exclaimed Harper who also simply hates to fly. Ultimately his New Mexico training became one of the most important challenges Harper recalls when asked about hurdles he’s faced in the Corps.
One of Harper’s newest tasks upon his return from the “Land of Enchantment”, beyond preparing awards and organizing all-hands training, has been to launch, market and then promote the newest MVS endeavor; preparing ‘want ads’ to compete on LinkedIn, a social media giant that has overtaken Facebook recently as the U.S. Army Corps’ most active online platform.
And, aside from his day-to-day ‘at work’ service tasks, it was Harper’s mother Aflton, or more specifically his desire to provide her a classic Cloche Hat, but not having the funds to do so, that inspired him to make a solo entry into not just making a single hat but to eventually launch a line of home-made beauties that have become quite popular.
Harper explained that he had trepidations at first and many of his calls to hat makers went nowhere as he sensed that “…nobody in the business wanted to give away their trade secrets.” But undaunted, Harper continued to learn and was eventually able to reach and discuss the tricks of the hat trade with new contacts in Texas and in Pennsylvania. He also racked up many hours on YouTube and other online resources learning the differences between gingham, Glen Plaid and a Gaucho – as any designer should.
Harper looks back and admits that he “messed up” his mom’s first attempted hat… “but she loved the second one,” he noted with pride. But those early days are but a memory in this young man’s life. He’s stepping up his game and has become quite competitive in showcasing his felted-wool spring lineup and interest has been skyrocketing.
With USACE as his anchor, Harper has achieved a work-life balance where engineering fashionable headwear on his off-time melds quite well with the employee services he renders to engineers during the day.
It’s a lifestyle that many inventors and craftsmen twice his age would envy and a claim that Harper’s counselor, Judith Sams, can take some credit in.
“Harper was one of my best students. He was punctual, respectful and dressed well,” she said. “But, most importantly he had an entrepreneur’s mindset and I knew the Corps of Engineers was the best fit for him,” she added.