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He nearly fell through the cracks of the education system, but Eric Burdge eventually found his way.
MICHAEL L. DIAMOND/STAFF VIDEO

SEA BRIGHT – Eric Burdge built a West Virginian-style Chippendale chair from an eight-foot-long board without a single nail or screw in a little more than six weeks, turning it into an elegant piece of furniture that is so sturdy it forces you to sit up straight.

Burdge never took a geometry class in school, but that scarcely matters. He can see the chair come together in his mind. Everything makes sense.

“It fits together, one piece to the next,” Burdge said.

Burdge, 25, owns DRH Furniture, a year-old woodworking business that is trying to find a market for 17th- and 18th-century-style handmade furniture — and to demonstrate that there can be a hopeful future for students who have fallen through the cracks of the school system.

His story is turning heads. He was invited to speak at TEDxNavesink, the annual forum for cutting-edge ideas, scheduled for May 20 in Asbury Park. It is timely, too. The nation is struggling to find ways to protect workers whose jobs have been imperiled by technology.

If Burdge is a guide, the answer might simply come down to a cultural shift from educators, families and students themselves who decide that veering from the path of a four-year college degree doesn’t necessarily spell doom.

“That’s what pushes a lot of people to go to a baccalaureate institution, when that might not be the best decision for them,” said Carl Van Horn, director of the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University.

Another way to succeed

There is another career track that can teach students to be plumbers or electricians or even specialists in 17th-century woodworking. The key: “Giving young people the space to realize that’s a successful life, too,” Van Horn said.

For Burdge, it almost didn’t happen. He attended Rumson-Fair Haven High School but was shuffled through the system in remedial classes with the same group of students. He doesn’t blame his teachers; he just couldn’t figure out how to connect the dots. He grew increasingly frustrated and began drinking, he said.

His grandfather, Daniel Hertz, however, saw an alternative.

Hertz, now 86, is chief executive officer of Seals Eastern Inc., a manufacturer in Red Bank that makes rubber seals, gaskets and o-rings. And he remembered the skill Eric showed when he was maybe 9 years old and helped him build a bridge over a stream that ran through the property of his Little Silver home.

It appears that Burdge held his grandfather in high regard. With his grandson nearing high school graduation and facing a dead end, Hertz encouraged Burdge to stop drinking, and he steered his grandson to the American College of Building Arts in South Carolina.

“We came within months of losing him totally, I think,” Hertz said.

Burdge didn’t love the school; the curriculum included liberal arts that didn’t resonate with him. But he kept at it, moving to New England Institute of Technology, where he got to spend four hours a day in shop and felt truly content. And then, after being put on the waiting list, he went to the North Bennet Street School in Boston, which teaches craftsmanship.

As Burdge tells it, he got tired of waiting and marched into the school, essentially forcing them to let him in. But Rob O’Dwyer, the director of admissions and student success, said that wasn’t necessarily the case.

“It may take some time to get qualified students started here due to a combination of high standards and limited bench space,” O’Dwyer said in an email.

“While I appreciate his version of admission here, I want to be very clear that we admit based on mechanical aptitude and overall quality of prospective students, and we are not swayed by sheer power of will or persistence.”

Burdge graduated from North Bennet Street a year ago and opened his furniture business soon after. He called it DRH after his nickname, Dr. Hodge, that stuck with him when he was a teenager. He spends most of his days in the Sea Bright shop next door to his apartment, with his dog, Herman, a lab-pointer mix, lying on the shop floor nearby. It seems like a nice life.

What does Burdge want you to know?

1. It takes inner strength to be an outcast.

“Not a lot of people do this and even less people take the time to get the education I did. So I would say I’m a little bit of an outlier in most social circles because of what I do. And I’m OK with that. I love doing woodworking, and I love learning more about it. So I’m OK that I can barely send an email, and I definitely can’t fire up Word on a regular basis. I have no idea how to make a PowerPoint. It doesn’t really bother me because I spend my days doing the thing I love to do the most. And I would rather do that and make $25,000 a year than go and sit in an office and fill out paperwork. I really would.”

2. A four-year degree isn’t for everyone.

“Now it’s ridiculously expensive for anyone to get a degree. You’re crippling yourself in debt in order to get a degree in a job that you don’t necessarily have any passion around, but it’s what you were told would be sustainable. … I think our education system is programmed to do that right now. It’s programmed to get people to sit behind a computer, to use the internet as much as possible, to try and better ourselves financially. I don’t think you should base education on the betterment of ourselves financially.”

3. The trade off.

“I would love to build more furniture, but most of what people want is cabinets and office units built in. That’s typically where the market is going around here, because they want the capital improvement in their house. They want a new bar in the basement, or bookshelves, so that’s most of what we do. I would prefer to build tables and dressers, but you’ve got to find someone whose willing to pay you $30,000 for a table. To get a full-size table, with eight chairs for your dining room, yeah, it would take me months to build. It’s not popped out of the box done. … I hope to find the demand. I think it’s out there, but eight months into business you do what you can. You do the projects that people put in front of you.”

4. You can’t do it alone.

“I am the luckiest human in the … world. I wake up every day and thank God. My family has done very well for themselves in the manufacturing world and was able to help me achieve this. And my grandfather believed that I could, and he was able to show me that what the education system said of me wasn’t my fate. I was able to pursue my education further into the world of woodworking. I think I’m an incredibly lucky human. I’ve brought on three interns so far, hoping to find another person who needs a little bit of (someone saying), ‘You are capable of doing this.'”

Michael L. Diamond; 732-643-4038; mdiamond@gannettnj.com