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Passion for excellence provides opportunity 

Early in his life, Jim Van Vleck wanted to be a teacher, buoyed by the impact of several exceptional educators.

 

One professor was so inspirational that Van Vleck gave up his senior year of playing college baseball to search for a sparrow hawk’s nest. He had originally decided to take an ornithology class because he thought it would be easy. But the teacher was so motivating that Van Vleck’s newfound enthusiasm for birding overtook his desire to win that fourth letter in baseball.

 

Ultimately, his goal of becoming a professor was replaced by the immediate reality of supporting his family. He and his wife, Joan, had already had the first of their two daughters and realizing that completing his Ph.D. thesis at the Harvard Business School could take several years, Van Vleck took a job with The Mead Corp. (now known as MeadWestvaco). He stayed with Mead his entire career.

 

Jim VanVleck standing outside with the University's biology building in the background “But the minute I retired, I went back and started doing what I always wanted to do,” he said of his love for teaching.  

 

Van Vleck has taught classes at Harvard, as a doctoral student; the University of Dayton, as an executive-in- residence; and at the University of North Florida, as an adjunct. As good teachers do, he learned many lessons along the way. One was seeing how difficult it was for untenured professors to juggle the full-time e ort of being a good educator while also doing research to attain tenure. Another was the value of having a good mentor, particularly for untenured professors.  

 

Van Vleck shared an idea with Dr. George Rainbolt, dean of UNF’s College of Arts and Sciences, to address those issues and provided funds to make that idea a reality. This year is the first year of The Van Vleck Early Career Teaching Excellence Awards, which provide $4,000 to two untenured educators for a course release, supplies, equipment or travel, while their tenured mentors will receive $1,000 for supplies, equipment or travel.

 

Van Vleck said the dean’s enthusiasm made him feel there is something fundamentally good in helping quality teachers and giving a mentoring experience that is as good for the mentee as the mentor.

 

While Van Vleck has generously funded several programs at UNF, this one is probably the most satisfying to him personally. “It comes out of my own experience and has the potential to achieve several desirable objectives,” he said.

 

It was an experience stimulated by an inspiring teacher and the search for that sparrow hawk’s nest — which he ultimately found.