Insight and Inspiration
by Tom Wilson, writer/editor-PCToday. Photos courtesy of the Penn College Archives, except as credited.
As Pennsylvania College of Technology nears 100 years as a leader in applied technology education, who better to herald the 2014 milestone than a unique group of committed participants: faculty who are also among the institution’s proudest graduates?
They have returned to inspire students, bringing private-sector wisdom and an abiding appreciation for the education they now impart to a new generation.
The transition can be as surreal as it is humbling, said Carl J. Bower Jr., especially when one’s predecessor casts a long shadow.
The 1993 landscape/nursery technology alumnus succeeded Richard J. Weilminster, a 34-year veteran of the horticulture faculty and the college’s 1986 Master Teacher. As if it wasn’t intimidating enough to be interviewed by his one-time professors, Bower, once hired, found himself behind Weilminster’s former desk.
"I just sat there. I can’t even remember how long," he said. "It took a while for it to sink in."
While Bower credits everyone in the department, "Rich – he lets you call him that once you graduate – inspired me the most and is the reason I am here today," he said. "He was a father figure to so many of his students – and I was no exception. Rich was hard on you, and at the time, you might have thought he was too hard. But after you graduated, or even before, you said to yourself, ‘He only did that because he cared.’"
Bower believes his alumni status enhances his teaching ability, allowing him to bridge the past and future.
"Students ask why certain trees look the way they do or why beds are planted how they are, and having that history makes it easy to tell them," he said. "I still remember the trees I planted while I was a student, and it’s nice to remind current students that, when they return in 10 or 15 years and see projects they were a part of, they will feel that same pride. Knowing you are a part of making a change in any landscape, at school or in the workforce, is a very satisfying feeling."
Bower said a former student now doing postgraduate work elsewhere recently told Facebook friends he has a difficult time "learning" from a professor without field experience.
"That, to me, is what it’s like moving from student to teacher," Bower said. "You realize what you need to do for the student because you have been there … and to so many places in-between."
“He was a father figure to so many of his students – and I was no exception.”
Perhaps few understand those "places" as well as Thomas A. Zimmerman, associate professor of psychology, a general studies student at Williamsport Area Community College in the mid-’60s. Fate took him everywhere thereafter – degrees from Lycoming College and Bucknell University, naval service and employment in the mental-health field – until he joined the full-time faculty in 1984.
His student experience was no less varied. He flirted with literature and math and allied himself with instructors all along his wandering journey. Some made academic sense, such as friendships with Hugh MacMullan and Richard Sweeney in the English department; Robert Kissell, who taught history and government; and Paul Feng in psychology. Others were more nebulous, as when Bill Morris offered him a ride to his part-time job.
"He asked me questions about me and made me realize the shared participation in this endeavor." Zimmerman said Morris counseled him to find balance between work and play, to pace himself for the long haul. "Here was a math instructor giving me advice; he gave me a lift, but he made a meaningful impact."
He finds today’s students more inquisitive than those of his generation and cherishes the surprises that wait at the off-ramp of classroom detours.
"You have an outline of where you want to go in a particular class; then you’re suddenly onto this dialogue that you didn’t expect," Zimmerman said. "It reminds me of my parents, who introduced us to new things, then stepped back and asked, ‘Well, what did you think?’"
Socratic exchanges were routine for his faculty heroes, during his student days and after he became their colleague. To Zimmerman, the college will forever be "a place where the emphasis is on good teaching."
His gold standard is an erudite group of WACC professors who quickly proved that hands-on education and academic rigor could walk hand-in-hand. Their names are among the most revered in campus history, recipients of what is now the Veronica M. Muzic Master Teacher Award: Daniel J. Doyle, Ned S. Coates, Peter B. Dumanis and James E. Logue. Doyle taught history and sociology; the other three, English.
(Muzic, the pole star who has accurately guided so many students, is a former English professor, academic vice president and provost.)
"Jim, particularly, elevated the school to something akin to academic sophistication and professionalism. It was an auspicious end to the notion we were anything but a ‘real’ college, the idea that all academics are elitists," Zimmerman recalled. "It was an affirmation of a college education being available to everyone, of telling students, ‘It’s not about your background.’"
The possibilities and accessibility of community college were embraced by Daniel L. Brooks, instructor of architectural technology, who holds two diplomas from the institution: an associate degree in architectural technology (1980, WACC) and a bachelor’s in residential construction technology and management (2008, Penn College).
"The whole technology piece is different now, revolutionizing everything we do, and the facilities are definitely different," he said. "But students today have the same types of goals. Many, then and now, come from humble circumstances – it’s a struggle for their families. This college represents real opportunity for them, as it did for me."
The faculty triumvirate of Joseph G. Mark, Lloyd C. Cotner and William H. Ealer "certainly gave us a core education that was well-respected. I applied to 12 architecture schools and was accepted at every one," said Brooks, who ultimately chose the University of Maryland. "All of them had a clear realization of what we were learning here."
"Joe Mark was an incredible influence, showing that extra encouragement, that interest in my personal life," he said. "I see that with my colleagues, reaching out to students. It’s not just ‘I gave a satisfying lecture, now I’ll give a test.’ There’s something about the human contact."
Brooks said that "Penn College approach" pervades campus, from the classroom to the dining hall.
"The women on the pizza line at Penn Central seem to know every student by name. No, not just their names, but what they like to do and what’s going on in their lives. They’ll ask, ‘Did you get your car fixed?’ or ‘How is the skateboarding?’ It’s amazing how many people here go out of their way to make these connections matter."
"From the time I was a student, I wanted to teach here," Brooks said. "I can remember walking behind the ACC, thinking, ‘I really like it here.’ Some places just sort of click. I enjoyed my time at Maryland, but it didn’t have that ‘home’ feel to it."
Like Zimmerman, he recognizes the rigor of a Penn College education, and knows that the institution – even with its working-class roots and open-door admission policy – isn’t a consolation prize for students who can’t cut it somewhere else.
"I’m so impressed with this year’s crop of freshmen," he said. "I’m teaching students that could go anywhere else for their education, but they chose Penn College."
In the School of Business & Hospitality, alumnus Chef Charles R. Niedermyer II teaches alongside many of the faculty who nurtured his craft. After receiving a baking and pastry arts degree in 2000, he worked in three Ritz hotels, two fine-dining restaurants and a bakery before returning as a baking and pastry arts/culinary arts instructor in 2005. (He also earned a bachelor’s degree in technology management in 2012.)
"The process of moving from student to faculty, however, with former instructors who were now my colleagues, offered some unique challenges," Niedermyer said.
Challenges – with a side of respect.
"They taught me a tremendous amount, and I owe them a lot," he said. "Chef Monica Lanczak is a big inspiration. She has had a very successful, colorful career and is really dedicated to her students. I won’t ever stop looking up to her."
Unlike Brooks, who dreamed a dream and made it happen, Niedermyer never planned on coming back.
"I wanted to be the best pastry chef I could be," a notion sidetracked by a call from his alma mater.
"I’ve been handed one of the most rewarding and challenging positions I’ve ever been in, trying to transfer my industry knowledge to student learning," he said. "To take the expectations, refining this and improving that. It’s a big responsibility." He’s struck by how young his students are, noting that they were in grade school on Sept. 11, 2001, while he was "in Jacksonville, Fla., in the middle of 50 baguettes."
"It’s a reminder that I’m not 18 anymore, that they’re from a different generation and that I have an obligation to them," he said. "I’m their instructor, but I’m also a life and career adviser, wanting them to develop as community-minded citizens, with a concern for themselves and a concern for their neighbors. It’s a lot to absorb … but it’s very hard to come to work every day and not smile."
The school also boasts alumna Suzann L. Mayer among its award-winning faculty – but her career was headed in a different direction when the hospitality bug bit. Among her influences? No less than Davie Jane Gilmour, now Penn College president, and Ann R. Miglio, whose faculty leadership helped bring the school into prominence.
"When I came to WACC, I was going to enroll in the word-processing program because it was the big thing in the early 1980s," said Mayer, an assistant professor of baking and pastry arts/culinary arts. "I took part in a program through Career Explorations, met Ann Miglio in the food and hospitality program, and was hooked."
Miglio, who taught at the college from August 1978 to May 1993, was selected as a Master Teacher in 1987.
"Her expertise and teaching style inspired me to become a lifelong learner and explore all aspects of the industry," Mayer added. "When I became coordinator of the Food and Hospitality Program, Davie Jane became my mentor and guide. She taught me how to problem-solve and motivate others.
"Penn College changed my life – and the lives of my children and, now, grandchildren."
Change of a technological sort is reflected in the college’s drafting area, where painstakingly hand-rendered pencil drawings have been replaced by the latest in desktop tools.
David A. Probst, assistant professor of drafting and computer-aided design, fondly remembers those who taught him at WACC: Chris Radke, Dale R. Straub, Jackie E. Welliver and Chalmer Van Horn. Van Horn, a tireless visitor to alumni events and reunions, is one of the few instructors whose career touched all three institutions embodied by the centennial.
"We had classes in the old trolley building with cubicles along the outer perimeter that had related courses," Probst said. "If someone opened the windows at the top of the building, the wind would blow dirt, feathers and whatever else … onto the drafting tables and your drawings. And we were graded for how clean our drawings were!
"Good times and great teachers," he added. "Oh, and we had a ‘stockroom’ where we went to get our drafting paper, pencils, tape, etc., and to have blueprints made. Times have changed!"
Todd S. Woodling, who teaches in a major that didn’t even exist when he was a student – building automation technology – is no stranger to those days of compromised space. But the 1982 electronics alumnus said students didn’t feel shortchanged.
"We had scopes; we had a tool room," he said. "The labs were equipped, and the equipment worked." That has carried over, as industry leaders such as Honeywell and Automated Logic donated enough controllers that Woodling’s students don’t have to share.
What is shared is the same connection between teaching and learning that Woodling experienced. In his case, it was with Victor A. Michael, a 1991 Master Teacher in electronics technology, who convinced him to leave industry and pursue a bachelor’s degree at The College of New Jersey, and David C. Johnson.
"Dave changed the way I think. He taught me discipline; knowing how to do things right the first time, getting my priorities straight and setting me up for the real world," Woodling said. "He was tough, but I came to appreciate it."
Such memories will continue throughout the centennial year, and as Zimmerman noted, with good reason: "Whether we admit it or not, everybody’s got a story. The best way to get someone’s attention isn’t to scare the hell out of them; it’s to bring in their human side. Their story is what makes them interesting; it makes them who they are."
The city's trolley barn would become the headquarters for Williamsport Technical Institute and hosted classes until it was razed in the 1980s.
I first learned of the college in 1972 when I was a senior at Littlestown High School, which is in Adams County. Jack Hill, my industrial arts teacher, said there was a community college in Williamsport that would be a good fit for me as he encouraged me to continue my education. He said I needed to give it serious consideration. What he didn’t know was that I had already signed up in a delayed enlistment program in the U.S. Air Force. Four years later, after being discharged in December of 1976, I enrolled at Williamsport Area Community College, solely on Jack’s recommendation.
At the time, I lacked confidence in my academic abilities and truly believed that I wasn’t college material. I reinforced my suspicions by testing poorly in all areas of the college’s placement test. Luckily for me, after reviewing my dismal scores, Veronica Muzic encouraged me that day not to worry. She told me to go back home to Littlestown, to have a good holiday break and to come back in January when we would fix these problems. To my surprise, I learned over the next few years that one of the services that the college provided then and still does today is the opportunity for students to relearn those all-important basic skills in reading, writing and math … along with providing a degree that works.
After earning an associate degree in electronics in 1979, I transferred to Penn State, where I graduated with a degree in electrical engineering in 1983. Looking back on this sequence of events, I suspect that Jack Hill knew that this college would offer the best opportunity for me to realize the potential that he had seen in me back in high school. The faculty and staff that I worked with as a student at WACC certainly were dedicated to bringing out the best in each individual. I especially remember the positive influence of Veronica Muzic, Peter Dumanis, Ned Coates, Richard Sweeney, Robert Bowers, Vic Michaels, Bob Mix and Norman Briggs. From them, I learned the importance of being able to communicate effectively through both the written and the spoken word, having a strong foundation in mathematics, and developing a strong foundational understanding of electrical and electronic theory.
After college, I worked in industry as a microwave engineer for eight years and then had an opportunity to teach part time at the college in the spring of 1990. After one semester in the classroom, I realized that I wanted to return to the college as a full-time faculty member to offer to future students the opportunity to better themselves and work toward that degree that works. Fortunately for me, I got that chance and became a full-time-faculty member in the Fall 1990 semester, around the same time the college became Pennsylvania College of Technology.
Looking back on all of the work experiences that I have had since graduating from high school in 1972, I can say working at the college as a faculty member and being an alumnus from here have been the most rewarding and most fulfilling position I have ever held. As a faculty member, I aspire each day to influence the students with whom I work the same way that those faculty I mentioned influenced me. It is largely because of my interactions with them and their dedication to and concern for me that I am where I am today. I would like to think that I, too, will be remembered as having contributed to helping students experience their dreams of being the best that they can be, just as others helped me in the late ’70s.
- Kenneth C. Kuhns, assistant professor of electrical technologies/occupations