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A woman with fiery fascination

Last week a man walked into Machelle Vanderlick's welding shop in Palm Harbor and wandered over to the forge, where she was working on white-hot iron piping.

He observed her thoughtfully for a few moments. Then he said, "I guess the welder's gone out."

Vanderlick, 31, straightened up and gazed at him without warmth. "That's right," she said finally. "The welder's out. Why don't you take your work to another shop."

Not many people underestimate Vanderlick these days. Construction workers in particular know and accept her, after they see her drive up in her truck-crane and watch her elevate the crane to its 75-foot height and then operate it.

Vanderlick's shop, Van Arc Welding, on Alternate U.S. 19 alongside the Pinellas Trail, is a mom and pop business, except pop retired 10 years ago. "Machelle runs the place," says Robert Vanderlick, her father. "I just help out with the work load."

Mom is Barbara Vanderlick, who keeps the books and has an honest bookkeeper's stubborn nature. "People expect our daughter's name to be spelled with an i. Well, it's not. It's spelled with an a, and why not _ when everybody pronounces it Ma-chelle?"

Robert Vanderlick is proud of his daughter, and ought to be; he helped mold her in his machine shop in Hadley, Mass.

"When I was 9 or 10, I'd come to his shop after school and he'd give me an arc welder to play with. He'd put a helmet on my head, and hang a blanket over my clothes so I wouldn't set myself on fire. Then I'd try to make something out of the junk metal lying around the shop.

"The things I made looked like nothing and amounted to nothing, but I was proud of them."

"She was a natural," says her father. "At 13 she was running a 100-ton capacity metal-working machine. A couple of years later, I was sending her out on jobs."

As a family, the Vanderlicks are as supportive as so many Kennedys. "I realized soon enough," says Machelle's mother Barbara, "that my two girls weren't the ballet lessons and lace dresses type. So I never forced it on them.

"Machelle went to twirling class once. Her idea. She lasted about three weeks. My other daughter, Tammy, is the scholarly one. She's a professor of engineering at the University of Pennsylvania."

Machelle went into the Army after high school. She put in a five-year hitch, mostly in Germany, and became a sergeant in the motor pool.

"When I came home, I knew I wanted to do metal work. My parents had retired to Florida by then and Dad was bored. So I called and said, "What would you think about us going into business together?'

"He said, "Wonderful.' I had some money saved up from the Army, and Dad helped pick out machines for the shop and knew where to get a good used crane."

The shop does a lot of business in gates, traditional iron gates, fancy ones, gates with built-in glass. She goes as far away as Fort Myers on gate jobs. She went to California to learn "verdigres," the trendy technique that imparts the popular tarnished-green look to new gates.

Among her notable jobs was the steel rooftop foundation for the concrete helicopter pad on one of the buildings at the VA hospital at Bay Pines. Also, "The Wave" _ a beach house gate that seems to move like waves," she claims.

Sometimes she gets nostalgic for traditional blacksmithing. "People bring in a horseshoe now and then, but never a horse," she says regretfully. "They want me to make a coat hanger out of it."