Thank you, Judy, for that very kind introduction. Thanks also to all of you for coming this morning, and thanks to all of you who served on the screening committee, and all of you who voted. When I signed my first contract here on 8/8/88, this is about the very last place I thought I’d ever be standing. That date is supposed to be a lucky one; it has been. I’m deeply honored.
I must thank my wife Pam, who is not only a wonderful wife but also a great mother to our two sons, Justin and Jason.
I also thank my colleagues and friends of the last 17 years. I’ve consulted many of them over the last couple months about what to talk about in the short time I have this morning. The only consistent piece of advice I got was: keep in short, stupid. (And, I don’t see any of you shaking your heads no!)
I decided to talk about the subjects that have consistently gone through my mind from the moment I found out about this award back in the Spring. Specifically, I want to talk about three people. The first was born in 1940 just outside the small town of Saluda, South Carolina. JoAnn’s family ran a dairy farm; her mom was a schoolteacher. She had five older brothers and two sisters – her older sister died at one month of age. The eight children made her family actually small by the standards of her 22 aunts and uncles, and 62 first cousins.
Four of her brothers were much older than her. By the time JoAnn was born, the first two had finished college, and both volunteered for military service at the start of World War II – the eldest was with the Navy in the Pacific; the second was wounded and left for dead on the beach at Normandy, the packs on both his front and back shot to pieces. But he managed to crawl off the beach that night – and both her brothers ultimately made it home.
JoAnn’s childhood was one of hard work. Starting as a small child, she’d get up at 5:00 every morning to milk. On weekdays, she’d then go to the small school that she attended for all 12 grades. After school, she would come home to do the afternoon milking – and everything else required on the farm. She also did without – a lot. In high school, she played on the girls’ basketball team – going to practice and games after she finished the afternoon milking. There were 18 seniors in her graduating class – 9 boys and 9 girls; five of those girls, including her, made up the starting five on the basketball team. Of course…they won the state championship. At the end of her junior year, she started seriously dating the boy who ended up being the valedictorian of their senior class. Bob’s family were dairy farmers too, meaning that Bob also did his share of hard work. None of his extended family had a college degree. But after high school, Bob headed to Clemson A&M College (now Clemson University). Two years later, just before his junior year, Bob and JoAnn were married. Bob graduated in 1962, as JoAnn was pregnant with their first child, and spent the next year finishing his masters in engineering. Just after he finished, JoAnn’s mother passed away. Within two years, and already with a second son, JoAnn required major back surgery – at the age of 24. She’s had chronic pain ever since.
In 1965, Bob took an engineering position in private industry in Augusta, Georgia, where they’ve lived ever since, and where their third son was born. In 1974, they became founding members of the Augusta Old-Line Primitive Baptist Church, with a congregation of about 50. Through that little church, and through their daily walk and example, they taught their three sons the truths of God, love of family, gratitude, respect, responsibility, and charity. They just celebrated their 45th wedding anniversary. Bob still works with a passion that shocks colleagues and clients half his age. He’s the most honest and dependable person, as well as the most voracious reader, you’ll ever meet. JoAnn, who last month finally retired from the small business she operated out of their home for 23 years, is the most unselfish, pleasant, and giving person you’ll ever meet.
Today, their three sons hold six college degrees, and have great families of their own. Their youngest son lives and works in Atlanta, and is one of the few people you’ll find who has been a scholarship college golfer and a member of a major college football team. Their middle son is a former Mr. Georgia bodybuilding champion, and runs his own business here in Jacksonville. And their eldest son, the one born at Clemson, and the one with much less notable athletic accomplishments…stands before you today.
You see, in a life of great blessings already received, one of the greatest is to have the mother and the father that I have. If I have done anything of value for any of you, please give them – and God – the credit.
You may be wondering – that’s all very nice, but what does that have to do with UNF? The only way to fulfill that new commitment John talked about this morning, and the only way to truly make a better UNF, is for us to be individually and collectively more like those two: down to earth, hard-working, caring, selfless.
Stated otherwise, and to use a favorite phrase of mine, we need to be difficult – as in rigorous and challenging – without being difficult to deal with. We don’t draw that distinction enough, and we don’t value the combination enough. Both are necessary for quality education – but neither alone is sufficient for quality education. Students should get both.
If we are knowledgeable, challenging and rigorous, but are elitist, obstinate, obnoxious, self-centered, condescending, or lazy, we won’t fulfill that new commitment. It also won’t be fulfilled by being hard-working, pleasant, and humble, without combining those with knowledge, rigor, and challenges for our students.
Those that are difficult without being “difficult” are the most valuable people we have. Fortunately, there are many on our faculty who are exactly that – you’ve seen a lot of them here this morning. But there’s one in particular that comes to mind, one that should be standing here in my stead…but he passed away six years ago.
Ken Jennings was professor of industrial relations in our College for over 25 years. The last 11 of those were the first 11 of my own career here. I had the great fortune of having my office right across the hall from his from the beginning. He was greatly accomplished academically: his labor relations textbook was one of the leading textbooks on the topic. He was also the UNF pioneer on the study of decision-making in sports. His book, Balls and Strikes: The Money Game in Professional Baseball, was critically acclaimed by the New York Times and The Princeton Review, which named it one of the most significant books ever written on labor relations in the U.S. Ken had a huge impact on me and a host of other junior faculty, and on our students. As noted today, involving students in faculty research is part of our new commitment. Ken was way ahead of the game in that regard; he published dozens of papers with students in leading academic journals. Nobody else came close. But the best thing by far about Ken, and a reason that he had such a positive influence on colleagues and students, was the quality he shared with my parents: he was one of the most down-to-earth and least pretentious people you could ever meet. Literally, I think everyone in our college looked to Ken as a friend. He had a great sense of humor, and was great fun to be around. He loved talking about his Chicago Cubs and the Osprey baseball team, and he was a huge fan of the jazz program. In 1999, Ken died at the age of 55. I’ve thought about him every day since. He was nominated many times for the Distinguished Professor Award – but he never would put in his application materials. Had he done so, he would have won…in a landslide. Given his contributions to UNF, his absence from the list of Distinguished Professors is just not appropriate. I don’t know if this is possible, but I’d like to try to rectify that. There’s a wall in Building 1 that contains the picture of the Distinguished Professor award winner. I’d be greatly honored if Ken’s picture was put in my place instead. The list of distinguished professors is also shown there, and in various university documents – I’d be greatly honored if his name was inserted in place of mine.
One more thing: part of the $5000 that comes with this award went to my aunt, who has had some serious health problems of late, and bills to match. As for the remainder: about 25 minutes from where my parents grew up, there’s a place called Boy’s Farm, a home for disadvantaged boys aged 5-14 who are experiencing difficult family situations. They’re currently building a new house for boys who’ve been abandoned, abused, or neglected. I donated the money to that effort, in the name of my parents, and of Ken. I don’t deserve the title “distinguished,” but all those I’ve talked about this morning do. I thank for you the opportunity you’ve given me to tell you about them this morning.
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