John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Fifty Years Anniversary Posting—But Who’s Counting? I Am!

January 30, 2017Julie HellerInsights0

Fifty Years Anniversary Posting—But Who’s Counting? I Am!

Milestones, life markers, whatever we might want to call them, are important, for us professional higher educators and for our students. For those of us working with first-year students or seniors, the 2016-17 academic year would be very fitting to suggest to them as a life marker. You could encourage them to be noting some contrasts between world and national events, trends, and the major events of their lives, like starting college or preparing to graduate.

I had one of my own on January 10, 2017. That marked the fiftieth anniversary of my arrival in South Carolina and the commencement of my journey as a higher educator, a citizen in service to his country. I would never have dreamed on January 10th 1967 that any of the major events of my career would have taken place. Not that I was exactly a tabula rasa. I had been influenced and prepared by my own outstanding liberal arts education to take maximum advantage of opportunities that were both going to serendipitously present themselves to me and/or other opportunities that I created and seized the moment therein.

Once upon a time, on a mild, what passes for a winter night, in central South Carolina, I arrived on a Wednesday night, and checked in at my duty station: Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter, South Carolina, and specifically the 363rd Tactical Hospital—not as a patient, but as the newest member of the hospital staff, a young, idealistic, mildly anxious, brand new psychiatric social worker. I had arrived in my Karman Ghia sports coupe with all my worldly goods inside, which mainly consisted of many of my books from college and graduate school; some of my college notebooks (yes, hard to believe, but I was so attached to them I had brought them along for the ride); my “record” collection; my uniforms; and some civilian clothing.

I had driven down from my parents’ home in New Canaan, Connecticut. Shortly after crossing over the South Carolina border I passed through two small towns, Latta, and Timmonsville, where I couldn’t possibly have imagined at that time, I would return time and time again to the homes of two different women that I married (in succession, not simultaneously).

When I signed in to the hospital an NCO told me to: “Relax. We don’t salute or wear hats in the hospital area and we don’t shine our shoes!” I would soon get an alternative directive from my first supervising psychiatrist (whom I now “Skype” with in New Zealand where he lives a saner life than is possible in the US) that I was to “spitshine” my shoes so that my career military patients could see their reflections in the shine on my shoes and thus feel more confident and comfortable in sharing their life histories with a very young looking social worker. My boss admonished me to look “military” and so I always wore freshly dry cleaned white medical uniforms to further inspire rapport. I don’t know whether or not the tactics worked, but they did really open up with me.

So the first day, not on campus, but on the base, it was de rigueur for the hospital squadron commander to call new personnel in for a welcome and orientation. This consisted of him bracing me at attention with a copy of my record open on his desk at which he continually glanced up and down. Soon he told me “Gardner, you will have more education than anyone in my squadron except for the doctors.” This included him but it was not evident at all that he held that against me. In fact, it was the basis for him giving me the gift of what is now my fifty-year professional life.

He went on to say that because of my educational level (BA and MA at age 22 just 3 weeks short of my 23rd birthday) “This means you are going to perform community service.” I had only been in the Air Force for a little over three months in basic and officer training but I knew at least that the operative expected reply to any statement from a superior officer, regardless of gender, was “Yes Sir.”

But I knew I was free to ask a superior officer a question. So I asked him “But Sir, what does that mean?”

And he replied: “Gardner, it means you are going to do some college teaching.”

I was flabbergasted. It had never occurred to me to become a college teacher. I had only gone to graduate school to avoid the draft and had been drafted anyway. Then I volunteered for the Air Force to avoid the Army and the Air Force in its infinite wisdom and total control over my body, and mind, put me in its medical corps and sent me involuntarily to South Carolina, the last place in the US I wanted to be. I was a white, liberal, Connecticut Yankee, college grad and South Carolina was just 2.5 years beyond the Civil Rights Act. I had even volunteered for Vietnam in order to choose another duty station than in South Carolina. This process was known as “The Dream Sheet.” You got three choices. I chose Lakenheath England, Weisbaden Germany, and Vietnam. I got Sumer South Carolina. Go figure.

On the base everything was racially integrated. Cocktails were freely available and condoms were on highly visible display at the check-outs in the Base PX and food establishments. But the minute I drove off the base I entered a world of appalling segregation: schools, housing, movies, toilets, drinking fountains, the local hospital, restaurants that proclaimed “we reserve the right to refuse service to anyone”; doors into public buildings, etc. And here I was staring down at my squadron commander who happened to be an African American, who was about to exert the greatest influence on my life, short of my parents’ decision to adopt me. And also off base, there were no legal cocktails served anywhere and no public display of condoms either.

So I continued my response to my commander: “Yes, Sir. But I am not a college teacher, Sir. I have never taught anything. I am a psychiatric social worker (which I had never done either!).

His response: “That’s all right, Gardner. You will learn to be a college teacher. The Air Force needs college teachers to serve our on-base higher education program for our troops and we are desperate for qualified part-time faculty. This is South Carolina two years after the Civil Rights Act and we don’t have an abundance of good teachers moving down here wanting to teach. The Air Force needs you to do this. You will do this. You have a day shift job and you are –you were- free—in the evenings and now you will be teaching in the evenings.”

What else could I say but “Yes, Sir!”

He immediately sent me to the Base Education Office where the Base Education Officer also reviewed my transcripts (as had my commander who obviously was impressed by my grades at the beginning of the alphabet) and so this officer immediately called somebody at the University of South Carolina, 42 miles to the west, which was the provider of the college courses on the base to make an appointment to see me. I was then ordered to report to the University 48 hours later on Saturday, January 13, to have my credentials officially reviewed. In that era most colleges and universities had Saturday classes.

I drove into Columbia two days later and was interviewed by multiple administrators. The Sociology chair approved me to teach Sociology 101. The history chair (whom I met in his apartment and learned that he was a member of the extended “Ochs” family, the founders of The New York Times) approved me to teach four different courses: US and Western Civilization History. I told him that I had a mail subscription of the daily and Sunday Times sent to me at the base. I later learned that I was the only member of my squadron who engaged in such a practice. I had been doing this since I was a first-year student in college as The Times was not allowed by my father in our house who viewed it as Communist influenced paper!

In my closing interview that Saturday a senior administrator told me that I had been approved to teach these five courses and that there was a need for me to start teaching two weeks later at a campus in a town I had never heard of, Lancaster. It was a small, rural, regional campus that had been started in 1959; and all the students were either textile mill workers or the children of those mill workers. I didn’t know it then but I would be teaching at that campus when it admitted its first African American student whom I would have in my class.

I told this Dean that I couldn’t possibly begin teaching in two weeks, that I had never taught anything and that I needed at least six months to prepare a course. His response: “Mr. Gardner, anything that comes out of your mouth will educate those students!” I was astonished at such cynicism, but agreed to accept the appointment.  Sixteen years later in 1983 I went to work for this same officer as Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs for the University’s five regional, two-year campuses. How could I have possibly foreseen this on Saturday, January 13, 1967?

The basis on which I accepted my first teaching assignment was that I teach the course from 7.30-10.00 on Friday nights. The campus was so desperate for an adjunct faculty member that they agreed to it. My choice of Friday nights was driven by the fact that the campus was 65 miles from my base and that teaching on any other night of the week would have had me returning back to the base very late at night and I needed my beauty rest to be at the top of my game when I started seeing my patients at 7.30AM the next morning. And I didn’t see patients on Saturday so that was the deal. I must confess that most nights after my Friday evening class, I would go out drinking with my students! I dropped that practice pretty early in my career.

Within a few months though, I was also teaching two courses per night, 5.30-7.30 and 7.45-9.45, two nights a week per eight weeks for every Monday/Wednesday and Tuesday/Thursday sequence on the base itself with military students. And on Friday nights I had my civilian students in the textile mill town. And on Saturday morning I taught at a regional hospital for student nurses who needed Sociology 101 in a place called Orangeburg; I would be teaching there about 18 months later one evening in February 1968 when the bodies of 33 African American students were brought into that hospital, three dead, 30 wounded, all shot in the back by SC Highway Patrolmen while the students were peacefully demonstrating the continuing segregation of a bowling alley. This event subsequently became known in American history as: The Orangeburg Massacre.

Yes, it is now fifty years. My wife, Betsy Barefoot, whom I recently regaled with my fiftieth anniversary memories, is amazed at the detail of my recollections.

Ok I started teaching then, first week in February 1967. Friday nights. My students were NOT happy about having to be there on a Friday night. I was not initially happy either. Instead, I was initially quite anxious. So much so I would say I was having a mild “adult situational reaction” which is a diagnostic category straight out of the American Psychiatric Association Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for that year! Yes, I was anxious—and for good reason not having ever taught before and not knowing anything about the culture or lifestyles of my students and being only one week ahead of my students in terms of preparation.

And I looked so young. Had no hair. So some nights I wore my uniform to compensate. My students were so respectful. So polite. They addressed me as “Sir” almost like they were in the military too. I was so anxious on those first few Friday nights I couldn’t eat before class.

But after about six weeks my symptoms abated and I began to feel more comfortable about coming to class. In fact, I had to admit to myself that I was excited about coming to class. I looked forward to it. It was the highlight of the week.

And there it was, the most important epiphany of my life: I had discovered my vocation, my calling, my purpose in life. And all thanks to the United States Air Force and the University of South Carolina. What was the epiphany? It was that I realized that college teaching was permitting me to do simultaneously the four things I loved the most to do in life 1) talking—and to “talk” in front of a class, I had to do—-2) reading.  I had always been a reader. I loved to read. I had not been raised on television because my parents refused to have one as long as they had children in the home. 3) writing—after reading I wrote notes for delivery in class. I loved to write. And I was pretty good at it; and most important of all 4) helping people. And there it was: my adult profession in which I got to do talking, reading, writing, and helping people—and to get paid for it to boot. I had never imagined that I could earn a legal living, and one with redeeming social value, where I would be paid for doing those four things I loved to do.

After finishing my tour in the Air Force I was an instructor of history at Winthrop College in Rock Hill, South Carolina for two years. Was terminated there for my liberal civil rights activities. Lucked out, again, and immediately was offered an appointment at the University of South Carolina. Spent the next thirty years there moving up through all the faculty ranks from adjunct instructor to Distinguished Professor; and the same with administrative ranks from program director, national center founder and executive director and vice chancellor for academic affairs. Initiated an international reform movement to change the way higher education introduces students to higher education—and other crusades too.

And it all started 50 years ago. I feel like I have been on an adventure. I have been. And am still on it. Not quite sure where it is going now because I am not sure where my country is going. I never had a traditional lock step game plan and still don’t. But I did have a few great original ideas that made a difference. And I owe all of these life marker events to the Air Force, which taught me the importance of “service.” Nobody had ever said to me in college that I needed to perform “service.” Hard for me to imagine that now. Surely most of all us talk to our students about the importance of performing service, of what college graduates owe our country. But I was almost 23 and no one in authority had ever said that to me before until that African American commander of mine in the Air Force.

What are the lessons from my life that I would share with my students? They are legion:

  1. Let college prepare you for the unknown
  2. Be open to new possibilities
  3. Take healthy and appropriate risks
  4. Obey authority figures who give you legal and moral directives
  5. Yes, you do have an obligation to serve others
  6. Life is a journey. Make the most of it.
  7. Try your best to leave your community, employing organization, country, a little better than you found them.
  8. And, oh so much more.

Happy anniversary John. You made it this far. Who knows what else you might be able to accomplish?

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