Andrea Dello Russo just replaced her first-ever head gasket. Now she drains the fluids and prepares to install the thermostat.
“You see how the color is like cappuccino milk? It’s because when the head gasket leaks, all kinds of stuff gets mixed in,” she says. “This should just be oil draining out of here, but because the coolant gets in the passageways and the valves it all mixes in with the oil. Which is why it is majorly important to clean it, because this is not what your engine wants to be running with!”
Any mechanic (and any lay person who’s been presented with an estimate) knows that the head gasket is one of the most labor-intensive jobs she, or he, can do. Having successfully completed this challenge, Ms. Dello Russo, 35, has advanced to another level in her career as an auto mechanic at McIntosh Motors.
“She’s a fast learner,” said Bruce McIntosh, walking by to check on her progress. Ms. Dello Russo removes the thermostat and replaces it with a new one, explaining each step along the way — sharing the knowledge that she has gained working at the Edgartown garage for the past three years. She also shares this knowledge at a course in Basic Auto Maintenance for Women taught through ACE MV. Her next five-week class begins this Tuesday, Oct. 8.
“I think a lot of times, especially in this industry, women tend to feel like they’re being taken advantage of because of how little they know about what’s going on,” she said, her aqua painted fingernails readily visible. “I wanted to create an environment where women would feel comfortable learning and not feeling like the questions they were asking were stupid.”
Ms. Dello Russo knows firsthand how it feels to be treated differently because of her gender.
In 1999 she entered the Navy after graduating from Norwich University in Vermont. Though she had studied English and literature at Norwich, the Navy had a need for engineers so she pursued that as a vocation. While serving on the ISS Kearsage, Ms. Dello Russo found being one of the only women on board extremely challenging.
“There were a lot of people that were for it and made it really welcoming, but there were so many people that weren’t at all welcoming to the idea of having a woman in charge,” she said. “People had a really hard time taking orders from me, but eventually I made it work.”
“When I got to my ship I was super overwhelmed,” she added. “I had a senior chief who saw that I was legitimately interested in learning, so he helped me by teaching me how to work on cars on the side. Whenever we were back on shore and not out at sea I would go over to his house and he would teach me how to start doing little things on cars. It was a lot of work but it paid off.”
After serving six years in the Navy, Ms. Dello Russo returned to the Vineyard where she grew up with a clear intent to work at a farm — something that would be completely different from the work she had been doing on ship. She worked as stand manager at Morning Glory Farm and then, wanting to have her “hands in the dirt,” she took a job as a farmer at Whippoorwill Farm. It was there that she reconnected with her passion for mechanics.
“When I was working for Andrew [Woodruff] he started teaching me how to work on the tractors. How to do an oil change, how to change the air filter,” she said. She worked in the fields and maintained the equipment for three years while also waitressing and raising her two children, Summer and Hudson.
And then she started asking Bruce McIntosh for a job at his garage.
“Andrea, did you tell the story about pestering me? It was the best pestering that I ever got,” said Mr. McIntosh. “It was the best thing that could’ve happened.” “I asked him for a job for three years, maybe?” Ms. Dello Russo recalled. She finally got her chance when, after repeated trouble with her car’s water pump, she asked if she could watch the mechanics fix it so she could learn it herself. Instead Mr. McIntosh said, “Why don’t you come by? You can use all the tools at the shop, just do it outside and we’ll be here and you can ask questions.”
Ms. Dello Russo bought the manual for her Isuzu Trooper, along with the parts she needed, and tackled the water pump in the garage’s parking lot.
“He went for the test drive with me when I was done and that’s when he offered me the job,” she said. “It was awesome.”
Now, three years later, Ms. Dello Russo is a mechanic, a waitress, a teacher and a mother. “My children are so wonderful. They are like little teachers,” she said. “It’s hard, hard work, but so rewarding.”
Though her busy schedule has her juggling many roles at once, and often all in a day, there is one day that Ms. Dello Russo devotes entirely to her family.
“Sunday is family day,” she said. “Sunday fun day!” And twice a year, once in the spring and once in the fall, the family takes a week-long camping trip to Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park where she devotes all of her attention to spending time with Summer, 10, and Hudson, 7.
While her years serving in the Navy were difficult, she has no regrets.
“That was a long journey,” she said. “I wouldn’t be who I am today without those experiences. It just makes me a better person, especially with the way I treat people.”
Back at the garage, with the thermostat installed, Ms. Dello Russo moves on to replacing a car battery, then checks on the flower garden she planted at the entrance to McIntosh Motors, where the morning glory have overtaken the sign. In a few hours she will switch gears and head over to her serving shift at State Road restaurant. Then home to Summer and Hudson.
“Balance,” she said, smiling. “I’m a Libra so I have to get the balance, but it’s good.”
Basic Auto Maintenance for Women taught by Andrea Dello Russo begins Tuesday, Oct. 8, and runs for five successive Tuesday from 5 to 6:30 p.m. The cost is $139. Visit acemv.org.