OGLESBY — A light rain fell upon Jim Michael, 78, as he biked to Illinois Valley Community College on a recent morning.
Protected by a red rain jacket and St. Louis Cardinals baseball cap, it didn’t bother him much. He’s taken the 3-mile bike ride from his home in Oglesby just about every day of his 50-year career at the college, but his recent ride will likely be one of his last visits as he cleans his office and prepares for retirement.
Michael said it takes much stronger weather to get him in a car rather than on a bike seat.
“It’s very satisfying to get somewhere on your own power, I think,” he said.
It started with reading
The English and German professor started at the college in 1968 as an English instructor after getting his master’s degree from Northern Illinois University and teaching English in the Peace Corps while in Turkey, where he also learned Turkish.
He said a love of reading stories at a young age, such as Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and history books, steered him toward a career teaching English and literature.
Eventually he grew to appreciate the works of authors such as Jane Austen, William Shakespeare, C.S. Lewis and William Faulkner. He appreciates the way in which he can vicariously connect with another person’s life or story.
“I can experience things beyond my own experience. To experience what it was like for people living during the Civil War or in earlier times,” Michael said of his passion. “I was just interested in getting that kind of experience.”
Common works read in his classes included Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice,” Charles Dickens’ “Bleak House” and his personal favorite play, William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.”
Sabbatical in Germany
Michael then began teaching German at the college in the 1970s and became the college’s first professor to take a sabbatical when he went to Mainz in West Germany to receive his master’s in German.
He said the experience of being swept up and surrounded by the language was inspiring, and he was always interested in teaching German.
“A lot of people think German is a harsh sounding language and, well, it can be harsh, but it’s never seemed that way to me,” Michael said. “It depends more on the person speaking than the particular language you’re speaking.
“I think people talk about French as so mellifluous and Italian, and that’s true, but German can be too,” he added. “I think that’s the stereotype of the Germans as Nazis or (as they’re shown) on ‘Hogan’s Heroes’ and all that.”
He added the German and English are “like cousins” in that a lot of the basic vocabulary is recognizable such as summer being “Sommer” in German and beer being “bier.”
He also brought back everyday items from Germany to show in the classroom such as a familiar food or magazine.
“Now I’m trying to get rid of it all, but back then it wasn’t so easy to access things in Germany,” he said.
Michael noted the introduction of computers to the school as being one of the most noticeable changes during his time at the college. He remembers some professors were less inclined to adapt to the new technology, but it has since improved the resources available for language learning so that students can easily view similar items online or even take virtual tours of Germany.
But nothing quite compares to an in-person visit to the country.
When asked how many times he’s since visited Germany, he’s hesitant to give a firm number and decides that it has to have been a least a dozen visits with an estimated three years being spent in the country.
‘It was a habit, I guess’
Michael retired in 2002 from teaching full-time at the college but continued teaching for an additional 16 years.
“It was a habit, I guess,” Michael said with a short laugh of his additional teaching years. “I’ve been doing it for so long.”
He looked through his office that he shares with another teacher and believes he’s cleaned most of it out.
He said some “remnants” still remain, such as a large German encyclopedia in his bookcase and German magazines by his desk, but he hopes to leave something behind for the next instructor.
He hasn’t ruled out a future trip to Germany, but most of his future travels will be between Aurora and Peoria to visit grandchildren as well as to Oglesby Union Church with his wife.
And while his trips to the college will become fewer, he still expects to head over on occasion to meet with his friends and former co-workers at the college. Just don’t expect him to take his car.