COLLEGE PARK -WEST BOULEVARD
By ANN ELISE TAYLOR
When Melvin George stands at the front of a classroom, he commands it.
In his class on Thursday, May 2, George’s voice, clear and warmly rounded with age, filled the space with energy. The 75-year-old strolled across the length of the classroom and read animatedly from a packet of papers in his hands. Occasionally, he leaned forward on his desk towards the students and peered over his large, silver-rimmed glasses to emphasize a point. When he made a joke, his students erupted into laughter.
Although it was the second to last week of classes at MU, George’s students seemed entertained and engaged — quite a feat for any professor competing against laptops, cell phones and warm weather for students’ attention. But after 52 years of working as an educator, George has learned a few things.
“I think the secret to success is to like students,” George said “If you sincerely like students, it’s pretty easy to show that. I think students respond positively to people who really enjoy them, respect them and understand them. I think that’s the key to it.”
George said his passion for students and learning is what has kept him working in academia since his first regular faculty job as a professor in MU’s mathematics department in 1960, just after he graduated from Princeton with his doctorate degree in mathematics. Since then, George has held a myriad of positions ranging from presidencies to deanships at the University of Nebraska, St. Olaf College, University of Minnesota and MU.
“When I put it all together, it sounds like I can’t hold a job,” George said, laughing. “But I’ve had a good time during my career.”
Though George officially retired in 1997, the MU Honors College asked him to return around 2001 to teach classes of his choice and design. He taught a course called Music and Mathematics until 2004, when he began teaching his current class, Theology of Tolkien.
“I loved Lord of the Rings when I first read the books,” George said. “Then a book came out some years ago that I bought because it sounded intriguing to me … This book really opened my eyes to how much theology was really embedded in Lord of the Rings. I read it and was very fascinated by it. Tolkien wrote Lord of the Rings as a Catholic novel, even though there’s never any mention of a God, there’s never any worship and there’s never anything overtly Christian about it.”
The book, Ralph Wood’s The Gospel According to Tolkien, gave George the idea for his current class.
“I thought it would be fun to do a course based on this book,” George said. “It was just fascinating to me.”
MU junior Lauren Manring, who took Theology of Tolkien this semester, said she has appreciated the course’s content and professor.
“It’s been a really interesting class,” Manring said. “He’s a really funny professor. He’s so active and so funny and literally knows everything about Lord of the Rings.”
George clearly cared about his students, Manring said.
“He was very interested in student learning,” she said. “He wanted everybody to come to his office hours and would even let us make our own office hours with him because he wanted to know us on an individual basis. He actually cared about what we found interesting outside of class. So he not only paid attention to that, but was such a nice professor. He even had us over at his house and made us dinner one night.”
George’s wife, Meta George, said that this type of behavior is typical of her husband.
“Besides being very intelligent, he really cares about what students are learning,” Meta George said. “I think another thing that makes him a good teacher is that he regards teaching as a two-way street. That is, he learns as much from the students as they learn from him. So they have a good give and take and love for learning.”
Melvin and Meta George met when they were undergraduate students at Northwestern University and have been married since 1958. They have two daughters, Elizabeth George and Margaret Eggenberger, and one granddaughter, Hanna Eggenberger.
“We always go visit for Hanna’s birthday,” Melvin George said. “She’s the only granddaughter we have, so we have to spoil her.”
In addition to traveling to visit family, the Georges have traveled extensively for another one of Melvin George’s passions – penguins.
“I first saw penguins when my wife wanted to go to Patagonia, the southern tip of South America,” Melvin George said. “That was the first time I ever saw penguins on a beach, and they were so adorable and so human in their behavior. So I said to my wife, ‘We’ve got to go see all of the species of penguins in the wild.’”
Over the next 10 years, Melvin and Meta George did just that. The couple traveled to New Zealand, Australia, the Galapagos Islands, Chile, Argentina, the South Georgia Islands, the Falkland Islands and South Africa, eventually reaching their goal of seeing all 17 species of penguin in the wild.
While Melvin George said New Zealand was his favorite place he has traveled in search of the aquatic birds, choosing a favorite species of penguin was an entirely different matter.
“I don’t answer such questions,” Melvin George said with a grin. “I mean, they’re just remarkably adaptable creatures. When you think of the emperor penguins – Antarctica used to be a tropical island, and then it started drifting south, and most of the wildlife left. But not the emperor penguins…their behavior just fascinates me.”
Melvin George’s office in MU’s Ellis Library is brimming with penguin paraphernalia – penguin cards, trinkets and pictures line the perimeter of his desk. A calendar featuring a group of the birds hangs on the room’s left wall; a penguin comic strip, neatly cut out of a piece of yellowing newspaper, is taped up across from it.
Melvin George pointed to a crayon picture of a bird in a large frame next to his computer.
“That’s a penguin drawn for me by my granddaughter,” Melvin George said. “People get me any item associated with penguins. It makes it easy to buy presents for me.”
Melvin George fills what spare time he has when he’s not traveling or teaching with organizations, causes and clubs, Meta George said. Most of them are related to teaching and improving students’ academic experiences.
“I’m passionate about students,” Melvin George said. “My favorite thing about teaching is the contact I have with students. I get very engaged. I find students fascinating and interesting.”
Melvin George said this is what motivates him to continue to teach.
“I want to sit with a student and hear their questions, watch their faces, hear them laugh, that kind of thing,” he said. “For me, they’re a sign of hope for the future.”