“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.” – Mahatma Gandhi
We are never done learning, and when we aren’t in learning mode, we should be teaching, passing it forward. We are life learners and I wanted to pay respect to many who have helped me on this journey. In recent times, instead of praise and thanks, teachers are criticized and targets of negative public policy. Most of my reflections are positive, but there were a few bad apples in the bunch. As I dug my memories out of deep storage, I will admit they are worn by the passing of time and experiences that became anchored in my psyche. Let’s begin with my earliest memories.
Back in the early 1960s, I do not know too many kids that went to preschool. I did not, so my educational journey began in the half-day kindergarten. The first elementary school I attended was Lincoln Elementary School in Parsons, Kansas. It might even have been called a primary school then. My kindergarten teacher in Parsons, Kansas, was named Mrs. Olmstead, but other than being in the afternoon class, I can’t tell you anything about her or the experience. This mental block continues into the first grade as I cannot recall my first grade teacher. Second grade was another experience. Miss Rosie was her name and her previous job was in charge of discipline at a Soviet Gulag. Her favorite method of motivation was spanking kids, and it didn’t matter the reason. Students in her class, including me, came to school with a feeling of dread. We lived in constant fear of punishment. I recall that she frequently punished a kid who sat next to me because he was a slow learner; she would grab him by the arm and lead him to the cloakroom where she paddled him. The paddle was her teaching aid and teaching methods at that school were not very enlightened. Finally, I told my mother I wanted to be transferred to another classroom, so she took me back to school, and with the principal and Miss Rosie, I was asked me why I wanted a different teacher. I could feel Miss Rosie’s nuclear glare on me and I backed down. I had challenged her and she did not like that. I stayed in her class, but thankfully we moved to a different town a couple of months later, and I escaped Stalag Rosie. I can only hope that the karma wheel caught up with Miss Rosie, repeatedly. A year ago, I stopped through town and saw where the old school used to be and where they built the new one. I hope they also replaced some of their teaching methods.
My new second grade class at Sunset Hill Elementary School in Lawrence, Kansas was a much different experience. I remember that first day, the principal, Ken Fisher, welcomed me and even made a joke. Different from a rap on the ear by Miss Rosie. Mrs. Glass was kind and I met kids that I am still friends with today.
My third grade teacher, Mrs. Billings was my favorite teacher of all time. She actually made learning fun. Looking back, she was nurturing, taking an interest in each of us. Third grade became the measuring stick for me on what a classroom experience and a relationship with a teacher should be. The Pat Dawson Billings Nature Area is named in her memory in Lawrence, Kansas.
Fourth grade was a strange experience, I was assigned to a combination third and fourth grade class. Teaching two different grades is a trick. I doubt that either class felt like they received adequate attention. Mrs. Land was older and I found her cold and not very approachable. This felt like a step backward for me.
My fifth grade teacher was George Mack, who taught class in a trailer next to the gym. Both fifth grade classes were in trailers. Being outside of the school building was a great experience. It felt like we had more freedom, and Mr. Mack certainly encouraged our sense of being very grown-up fifth graders. It was a fun year and I misbehaved accordingly. What I remember about that year was the encouragement and he stoked my individual growth. In sixth grade, we were back inside the building. Mr. Krannawitter was somewhat like Mr. Mack, he was a young, married teacher just starting off on his career. In the middle of the year he had an accident on a scooter and missed a good portion of the year with his injury. His replacement was Mrs. Daniels who had been around the block a few thousand times. The thing I remember about that year is we took a lot of standardized tests, and we played rock and roll records in the morning before school started. It was a thrill when it was your week to pick the tunes. Those kids and their rock music.
Junior High School
In those days, junior high was grades seven, eight and nine. Going from class to class with six different teachers was quite a transition. Having a “home room” was supposed to give you a base of operation. Those three years blended together and while I do not remember all of teachers from West Junior High, a few stand out in my memory.
Mrs. Wilbur encouraged me to read more
challenging material and I tackled the novel Catch-22. She didn’t cut me any slack, which I may not have appreciated at the time, but she did it in a way that motivated me. I enjoyed reading books from authors that pushed me beyond the ideas and life experiences I knew. My love of reading grew from my eighth grade class with Mrs. Wilbur. Marian Wilbur taught at West for many years and husband Ray taught at Lawrence High School. They made a difference in the lives of many students.
I also discovered an interest in science, something I have to this day, though it was far from my strongest subject. I recall the first Earth Day celebration, and a deep interest in the environment still resonates with me more than 40 years later.
Hubert Carson taught music and sponsored the chorale singing group, which I participated in and I took several music classes from him. I enjoyed his choices in music; he mixed some traditional songs with some very current ones, and presented them at school presentations. I grew to appreciate some of the more standard musical selections; he made you connect with what was great about them. A pal (who will remain nameless) and I, often changed the words to the songs, and Mr. Carson never quite knew where the new lyrics were coming from. Shame on us. Only after he died did I learn that Mr. Carson served in World War II and held the rank of staff sergeant. It is hard for me to picture Mr. Carson, this kind and gentle man, leading a group of men into battle.
The world of metal and wood shop was interesting but I found the teachers unable to connect with many students. I remember building a book shelf, which I still have and some kind of metal box. Subject matter experience alone did not make a good educator. Misters Ohmart, Clevenger and Woodward were fine math teachers; I found them to be highly qualified and good teachers, but why is math such a serious subject taught by serious people? What they taught me I use, so I’m appreciative of their work. I did above average work in math, but never found it very interesting or stimulating. And then there was gym class.
Drill sergeant Dick Edmonson was our version of R. Lee Ermy. A lot of guys had great experiences with him, but many didn’t. Somewhere it was written that junior high gym class was supposed to make a 12-year old boy into a man. In Dick’s world, if you weren’t an athlete he didn’t seem to have much interest in you. He missed the chance to connect with a lot of boys and help them appreciate health, embrace exercise and improve their coordination. I was a fairly good backyard gymnast so he tolerated me. Once while doing something tricky on the high bar, I fell off, crashing head-first onto the mat. Instead of being concerned about whether I was injured, he stopped drinking his coffee to yell at me, actually he berated me in front of the class, to get back up on the equipment. Dick was later fired by the school district but he licked his wounds by making millions in real estate development, so I guess it all worked out.
In the early 1970s, there was only one high school in town, Lawrence High School. Social studies, history and English were the subjects that got my attention. A lot of kids undergo a metamorphosis during their high school years. For me, not so much. I found most classes beneficial and teachers generally committed to finding ways to make the subject matter interesting. Reece Wiley, Art Sloan, Sharon Robinson, Tony Gauthier and Cindy Whitenight made the most impact on me. They were approachable, took an interest, and each gave me something that stayed with me, even to this day. A friend recently commented about the huge impact of books read in high school and I totally agree on the significance of both classic and contemporary literature. At the time, reading Madame Bovary or Great Expectations held little interest for me. The Martian Chronicles and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest were much more enjoyable. These were all books, whether they were historical, fantasy or science fiction, that challenged you to think, to paint grand paintings in your mind and to read deeper than the words on the page. Completing The Fountainhead or The Lord of the Rings was like finishing a marathon; your mind was exhausted, but you felt wonderful. I made a list of many of the books I assigned to me to read in high school; it is an impressive list.
High school was a very important time in preparing for college or the next step in life. High school sharpened my focus and I made some important relationships. And I read a lot of books.
Tony Gauthier in particular sparked my interest by using news articles and film in his class to interest me both historical and current events. We read about CIA sponsored events in South America to understand the role of U.S. corporations and political influence in elections and toppling foreign governments. We also watched a film called Night and Fog, about concentration camps in World War II. The fact that I remember those things speaks to the impact they had then, and now. He left teaching to attend law school and now specializes in family law.
In college, I found more teacher interest and personal encouragement than I ever did in high school, which is interesting because I thought it would be the opposite. It was not uncommon for classes to be taught by graduate students, or the large classes to be taught by professors but who handed everything off to grad students and you have no contact with the professor. Most of my classes at the University of Kansas were taught by full professors, who had been teaching the same material for years, like getting Milton Berle’s primary comedy routine, polished and proven.
I selected political science as my course major, but I spent some time in the journalism school and the geology department. Chuck Berg, a radio-TV-film professor, fanned the flame of my love for film. We watched many classic films in his class and he taught me how to peel back the layers on a film to understand all of the moving parts. His approach to
understanding a film could be used to look at the complexity in life. In has also in a jazz combo, a horn player, who was one of the most popular faculty members on campus. He passed away at a young age but I will always be grateful for showing me how to really watch a film. Another J-School professor was Dale Alan Gadd. He taught a film writing course. I loved it but honestly did not learn much about script structure, I learned that on my own much later. He provided the environment for me fail, which I did. I passed the course but I should have used every minute of that semester to write, but I didn’t. That is the one class I wish I could repeat and better apply myself.
I took many science classes in college: astronomy, microbiology and geology were some of the most beneficial subjects, not for my degree, but for life. Ernie Angino, the chair of the geology department, taught a class in earth resources. What I learned in that class fuels (pun intended) some of my environmental views today. Ernie was a friend of my
stepfather, they played cards together, and I appreciated his pragmatic view, toward many things beyond geology. Bob Friauf taught astronomy and he gave some of the best lectures. He was well-organized and his material was fascinating, as was the companion lab class. Looking at the planets and stars in the Fall sky still brings back great memories. At time, I will look at the sky, see the stars and plants, and feel like I’m 18 years old again.
My economics professor was Harry G. Schaffer and he had a gruff voice but he was a lovable and humble man. Dr. Schaffer convinced me that I could be successful in advanced economics, but I couldn’t get beyond intermediate economics.
Man, was Dr. Schaffer wrong about my economics potential, but I appreciated the encouragement. I was saddened when I read of his death several years ago. I remember his evening lecture class and those cold nights walking to his class.
Western Civilization was a requirement for liberal arts students. This class was taught by a grad student, a woman who reminded me of a gypsy. It was 1976 and there were gypsies and hippies everywhere. Not all of the material in this class I found interesting at the time, but I have since have come to appreciate the curriculum. She was a hard grader but she was 100 percent invested in what she taught. Had I been more appreciative of the subject matter I might have found the course more valuable. I should find the reading materials from the course and re-read them. Many people discount the value of a liberal arts education because it may not directly translate to the job market. Forty years later, I use what I learned in those classes every single day in how I think, make decisions and interpret the world.
Some of the best University minds were in my field of political science. Clifford Ketzel was my advisor and I took several classes from him; his area of focus was international relations. I loved his classes. He wore a bow-tie and had his glasses on chain because he took his glasses on and off. He usually wore a suit and projected a very dignified, scholarly look. He had worked in Pakistan for several years and he often referenced that experience in his lectures. I learned that in the summer months, when not teaching, he worked as a handyman. I wonder if he wore the bow-tie with the overalls. Sadly, he passed away soon after his retirement.
Burdett Loomis taught me about government systems and how politics influenced the bureaucracy. That subject matter made a lot more sense as I worked my way through my career in city and state government. At the time, he represented the younger generation of professors in the department, and even though he is now retired, I continue to read his perspective on politics and state government in online publications. James Drury taught Kansas government and even wrote a book on it. He had been secretary of administration under Governor Robert Docking. Dr. Drury was toward the end of his career when I took his class, and he had very much lived what he taught. I wonder what his views of Kansas government would be today? I think he would be very disappointed, as are a lot of us. All of my political science professors treated their subjects with dignity and reverence. As a postscript, I had the pleasure of being elected as one of two student representatives to the political science department. As such, we attended faculty meetings and got to vote on a variety of department issues. Peter Hancock, who became a journalist and currently covers the
statehouse for the Lawrence Journal-World, was the other student representative. It was a great experience, and amazing that the department allowed the long-haired Peter and I equal votes on
important decisions, like tenure.
As a college student, I spend my undergraduate years working to help collect data for a research program in the physics department. I spent a lot of time around grad students and professors, and I gained an appreciation for their dedication to science and research methodology. Lee Herder, who was pursuing his PhD at the time, hired me to review filmstrip of particle collisions. Most of the projects and research they were doing was beyond my understanding, but it felt good being a part of a groundbreaking research program. These folks wrote scientific papers (which I didn’t read) and often gave lectures, some of which I did attend. Even though I did not end up with a science major, what I learned about physics and particle theory was valuable and instilled a respect for science and the rigors of validating scientific discovery.
Never stop learning. In my career I have continued my learning and professional development. Of all the classes and different program there have been three very memorable instructors or consultants that forever contributed to my forward journey. Charlene May, Marvin Stottlemire and Charles Jones. All three served on the University of Kansas faculty in the public administration program or the public management center. All three provided important keys to leadership and helping me know myself better. In my current job, it has been a pleasure to know and work with Pam Kisslinger, our development officer. Her vast knowledge of leadership principles and how to apply them with meaning to your life has made a huge impact on our organization; and to me in my continued growth. Thanks to Pam, I have more leadership moments than senior moments.
Overall, I had a very good education. Most of the teachers I was exposed did their job well. Teaching is hard work and the expectations we have of teachers, particularly elementary school teachers has increased through the years. I have known teachers who conveyed their love of reading, or of solving mathematical problems, of creating art, or in scientific exploration. I know many teachers who subsidize their classroom activities from their own pocket, find clothes and other needed items for their students, and shed tears over the personal difficulties of students and their families. These folks really care. Society is ready to heap the blame on teachers and schools when students do not succeed or meet expectations. It is often more complicated than that.
Teachers come from the same pool as the rest of us, so you get a few bad apples, but you get many more that are wonderful. Reflecting on the teachers in my life helped me to see who had the largest impact on me, where I got inspiration, where I struggled, and what subjects became part of my knowledge foundation. It great to see where I am on this journey and to know it is far from over.