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The professor who changed my life: Part II

Editor’s Note: We recently asked our alumni to tell us about the professors they had at Lehigh who really made a difference in their lives. The response was overwhelming. We printed nine of the stories in the Spring issue of the Lehigh Alumni Bulletin. But there are many more stories worth telling. Here they are.

Annie Laurie Wheat, theatre

The professor. Yes, we all had one. Do not misunderstand me; every professor I encountered at Lehigh touched me in some way. I would not be where I am or who I am today without countless professors. But there is that one who truly changed me: Annie-Laurie Wheat.

She was a theatre professor at Lehigh, and she taught me so many things about theatre, directing, and acting; however, I don't remember any of that. What I remember are all the things she taught me about life. She taught me to cherish each day, to approach each minute with wonder and awe, to see the beauty in everything around me, to look beyond the ordinary in order to find the extraordinary in each person. She was a wonder to work with and to know. Just being near her wrapped you in a field of joy. I worked so hard on myself because of her. She was a woman of great personal convictions and a lover of life beyond belief. She raised sheep at her home. And large, loud birds.

Annie Laurie Wheat. I think of her often and thank her every day for what she taught me. The last time I saw her was ten years ago. She came to a reunion of some kind and had dinner with a group of us. She gave me her card, which I've carried around ever since. I transfer it from wallet to wallet, knowing I will never call, but loving all the memories that just having it brings to me.

I do not remember that much about Lehigh anymore. My experiences, my friends and my 'mark' are long gone. But I will always remember Annie-Laurie Wheat. She taught me. She guided me. She shaped me. She is a large part of who I am today.

--Leslie P. Cassale '85


Joseph McFadden, journalism

I was 17 years old and flunking out of the College of Engineering in 1971 when I met Professor McFadden in the basement of the UC. He could tell I was depressed and invited me into his office. After regaling me with fascinating stories of his past, he started asking me about what I wanted to do—both at Lehigh and in life.

I told “Mac” that I always liked to create and build things, but I was uncertain about my career, and I was getting almost all F’s in my first semester in engineering. Professor McFadden turned my creative interests around and sold me on majoring in journalism and writing for The Brown and White. When I protested (because my verbal skills were 200 SAT points below my math skills), he exclaimed: “That’s exactly why you should major in journalism—it is the area in which you need to improve the most. College is the time to focus on fixing your weaknesses rather than resting on your strengths.”

I had a tough time majoring in journalism—it typically took me several more hours than most journalism students to finish each J-lab of writing stories. But I could see my improvement each month. I ended up graduating from Lehigh early—in three years--and going directly to Wharton for an MBA. I succeeded in business mostly because of the confidence I gained at Lehigh while overcoming my phobia of writing. In my first job at Citibank, I was chosen by the company president as his personal assistant because of my ability to write memos and type 120 words per minute.

Professor McFadden followed my business career in the press and continually wrote me notes and called me with each milestone I surpassed. Unfortunately, he passed away the year before I became a writer. I’ve since written five best-selling books. But the most important legacy to Mac is that I ended up teaching writing at New York University—where I began each semester with the story of my 1971 encounter with him in the basement of the UC.

--Paul Zane Pilzer '74


John O. Liebig, engineering

Professor John O. Liebig, civil engineering professor, was a favorite of mine as well as my husband, Sam. Professor Liebig or J-Zero, as he was affectionately called in our days, was really tough. If you forgot a negative sign or a positive sign on your answer, he gave you a zero. If you complained, he said, "That's the nuts" in his Pennsylvania Dutch accent. He didn't cut us any slack. All the brown-nosers in class fell by the wayside, one by one, as the year progressed.

Thing was, J-Zero taught what it was like in the real world, where your boss expected results, not excuses. His motto was, "You do it once, you do it right." Sam and I to this day quote him and live by his words of wisdom. The man has made a lasting impact on both of us. I am currently getting out of engineering and starting a second career as a teacher.I want to be just like J-Zero.

--Dorene Hari Thornton '80


Lawrence Whitcomb, geology

Of all the professors I encountered in my 128 undergraduate hours at Lehigh, the most unforgettable and consequential was Dr. Lawrence Whitcomb, associate professor of geology.

In my freshman year, needful of inspiration, I took six hours (Geo. 3 & 4) from Dr. Whitcomb, seated among over 100 other students in a Williams Hall lecture room. There he set a tone and tempo that kept me enthralled with each lecture. With his tightly cropped red hair and bristling mustache, Professor Whitcomb exuded a contagious energy as he strode back and forth across the platform.

Today, years later, Dr. Whitcomb remains my ideal of a good teacher—one who knows his subject thoroughly, communicates his message clearly, and suffuses his classroom with enormous energy. I have since taught high school and college classes for 30 years, during which time I endeavored to emulate his example.

Further, my interest in what I learned from Dr. Whitcomb led to one of the great joys of my life—the bold adventure of climbing mountains in Oregon, Washington, Wyoming, California, and the Swiss Alps. Knowledge of the geology of mountains has helped me safely to enjoy over 300 climbs. Eternal thanks to Dr. Whitcomb!
--George T. Crisp, Jr. '53


Samuel Missimer, admissions

Samuel Missimer was not a professor. He was the assistant director of admissions in l95l and later, director of admissions. I was not able to qualify for admission to the '56 class academically; I was not good enough.

Sam took a chance on me and admitted me to the summer session '52. He said if I did well, I would be granted full admission. I did well, was admitted, and graduated from Lehigh in 3.5 years. I got an MBA in '62 and spent the next 36 years as a senior executive with the Dupont Company.

Samuel Missimer changed my life. Later, nine more Lehigh degrees were awarded to members of my family.

--Robert A. Falcinelli '56, '62


Ray Armstrong, English, and Ben Litt, management and marketing

Every professor at Lehigh, to one degree or another, had an influence on my growth as an individual and a professional. However, to thank them all would be outside the scope of this exercise. Two, in particular, stand out.

Ray Armstrong is the first. I had him for second semester Freshman English. At that time (1971-1972), in addition to the study of literature, we were required to write six themes per semester. Professor Armstrong was, by reputation, the toughest to please. Upon hearing of my schedule for second semester, one of my hall mates cringed to hear that I was His demanding work challenged me to improve and to demand excellence from myself. Whenever I knocked on his door to clarify a con law conundrum, Dr. Whitcomb politely and patiently helped illuminate the subject. I studied diligently in order to feel worthy of his academic expectations. And perhaps most importantly, Dr. Whitcomb taught me the most invaluable life skill: to think critically. His humility taught me that greatness knows no ego.

Finally, Professor James Frakes knocked the figurative socks off me. While taking his class my junior year, I received one of the lowest grades I've ever earned on one of his infamous literature tests, despite what I considered was decent preparation. This charming, erudite man enthralled students with ingenious interpretations of the great modern literature of our world. With every day in his classes, I learned to push the realms of my intellect, and I changed my interpretations of everything I read. I have always been an avid reader and effective writer, and Dr. Frakes propelled my strengths to unforeseen levels.

Words fail to express the gratitude I feel to these three remarkable men, plus the countless other wonderful unnamed professors who helped to create an unbelievable academic experience for me.

--Nicole (Sordi) Dewell '90


Ed Evenson, earth and environmental science

I arrived at Lehigh in the fall of 1987, eager for what was to become an almost decade- long roller-coaster ride of intense learning and personal growth. I quickly identified Dr. Edward Bernard Evenson as a kindred spirit and mentor, yet after several years of burning desire to collaborate with his research and learning group, I remained excluded from his professional endeavors.

Finally, I entered his office one day and stated: "Ed, I was born to teach field camp (the famous Lehigh Geo-Trip). Are you going to help me fulfill my destiny, or what?"

He said, "Pat, you do not accept others' leadership very well. If you want to run with me, I am the boss and you must follow closely." I was knocked down a notch, but I recommitted and grew.

Since then, Ed has taken me across North America many times, all the way to Alaska, and Iceland as well. He showed me how to present masterful lectures. He shared his science and stretched me. He has written letters for me that have pried open tight doors.

My Ph.D. was a most challenging, most rewarding struggle. My debt to Ed could break the backs of a thousand camels and stop Ghengis Khan in his tracks. So a thousand thanks to the man, the institution, the time, and the place. I should be so lucky as to affect another mind as Ed affected mine.

--Patrick Albert Burkhart, Ph.D. '95


Jonathan Burke Severs, English

Freshman year 1942, my English professor was Jonathan Burke Severs, and he was the toughest, most demanding, and exasperating man I had ever met in my young-17-year-old life. We had to write a theme every week, and he used to tear them up with his devastating red pencil and caustic remarks.

However, he taught how to write, how to spell, and how to use correct grammar. It has been 62 years since he pounded this knowledge into our thick heads, but his lessons have stayed with me, and I am very thankful for the grounding in good English he gave me.

--Milan Cerstvik '46


Alfred Koch, business and economics

Dr. Alfred Koch was a tax professor at Lehigh. It was most definitely because of him that I became seriously interested in a career in academia. I not only took his undergraduate tax course—I also took a graduate tax research course he taught even though I was an undergraduate student at the time.

After four years in public accounting, I went back to school to get my Ph.D. I have been teaching accounting at various schools for over 22 years now, and I enjoy it immensely. I owe it all to Dr. Koch.

--Paul Caster '73

Posted on Thursday, May 06, 2004

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