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Four Professors, 142 Years, Thousands of Students

March 2012

Stories by Craig DeVrieze    

Original paintings by Leslie Bell '72

They found a small Catholic college in a modest Midwest community, both so warm and welcoming they couldn't help but feel at home.

"It was a nice little campus," Rich Legg, PhD, remembered of his initial impression of the St. Ambrose he discovered on arrival in 1978. "It looked like an interesting place to be."

St. Ambrose College was that in the 1970s. And St. Ambrose University still is that today, as biology professor Legg, art professor Leslie Bell '72, MFA, music professor Joan Trapp, DMA, and philosophy professor Paul Jacobson, PhD, all look toward their May retirements.

Both in terms of the physical plant and enrollment, St. Ambrose nearly has tripled in size since each joined the teaching staff in the bell-bottomed 1970s. It has not grown so big, however, that one man or woman cannot make their mark, or so vast that his or her departure won't leave a void.

Trapp will retire after 38 years of advancing the St. Ambrose mission, Bell after 37, Jacobson after 34 and Legg after 33. Each will leave a lasting legacy and Jacobson said the unique beauty of St. Ambrose is the opportunity to do just that.

"The thing I always liked about St. Ambrose was that it was small enough that individuals could make a difference," Jacobson said. "I think that is still true today."

Legg, likewise, applauded the freedom that a sense of St. Ambrose community has afforded faculty to do what they do best. And, though some of the school's early intimacy has been lost to expansion, Legg said the school's growth and progress are laudable, too.

"I like to think of it as a mini-multiversity, with all kinds of different programs serving many constituencies," he said.

Trapp was one of six female faculty members campus-wide when she joined the music department, and she said she is pleased to have watched St. Ambrose grow more diverse among both faculty and students and more global in its outlook.

"It is so dynamic and alive, and they have the global perspective of a small world," she said. "And yet we still have to give a lot of encouragement to students to experience that bigger world. It's easy to be isolated in Davenport and in Iowa and the Midwest. The increase in international studies, students going abroad, going different places to learn and serve, that has been a really important growth aspect."

Bell agreed. "The school has grown bigger,'' he said, "but it has also grown much more complicated and much more representative of what the world looks like and how the world thinks."


Leslie Bell

Caring for a 'very caring place'

A silent, contemplative walk through the snow with 150 fellow Ambrosians was a perfect beginning to the final semester of Leslie Bell's fulltime career at St. Ambrose. 


"It was pretty powerful," Bell '72 said of a Jan. 17 march from campus to Davenport's Hilltop District to help launch Civil Rights Week on campus. "Not a peep was said. Just thinking about Martin Luther King, thinking about the civil rights movement and the ongoingness of it. I think that's what St. Ambrose does. It is a very caring place."

It is a place Bell has cared for since he arrived in 1965, a budding artist eager to learn under legendary professor Rev. Edward Catich. 

Bell didn't know quite how much he cared for St. Ambrose, however, until Fr. Catich, his once and future mentor, helped show him the way off campus when Bell failed to take his studies quite seriously enough in 1969.

"I was in a band and I was dating my future first wife and... Well, I'll leave the rest unsaid. It was the 1960s after all," said Bell, who took his future wife and his guitar to a commune in Grand Mound, Iowa.

In time, Bell realized St. Ambrose was the community to which he really belonged. He came back for his degree and happily joined the faculty in 1974 after obtaining his Master of Fine Arts from Northern Illinois University.

"It was comforting to be on a campus where social justice, ethics and morality were part of the daily dialogue," said Bell, who is pleased to note those values remain at the heart of a St. Ambrose education.

 "It has grown a lot," he said of the university, "but it has grown in rings around the liberally educated central core. I think it is wonderful to not just teach students exactly what they want to learn to get a job. Give them a lifetime of inquiry, of self-improvement, of commitment to society."

About that ponytail...

Bell came to St. Ambrose in the 1960s and, essentially, never left. Not St. Ambrose. Nor, at least in spirit, the '60s .

Bell, who will remain at SAU as an adjunct prof, has grown into an iconic faculty member while also carving a role as a campus iconoclast. More easily done in academia, he agreed of the latter, but: "The freedom you have at a university is the freedom you claim for yourself. It is encouraged, but you need the courage to be encouraged."

If that is a '60s sensibility, then Bell's signature ponytail is symbolic of same. But he stressed, "That's not a style or an affectation. It's really a life goal to be yourself."

It's a life lesson he and the art department have stressed for students, as well. "We want them to be self-aware," he said. "It has kept me excited for 37 years."


Paul Jacobson

Reading Really is Fundamental

Books fill every nook and more than a few crannies of Paul Jacobson's Ambrose Hall office. Although he will confess to being a fanatical supporter of order, the longtime St. Ambrose philosophy professor finds comfort amid the stacks.

paul-jacobson-illustrationThe idea of tidily transferring his collection of books to an e-reader he could hold in one hand? That's a concept more foreign than the tranquil Quad Cities once seemed to a New Jersey kid who grew up across the bay from bustling Manhattan.

Jacobson's passion for the printed page is a philosophy he has been sharing with his St. Ambrose students since he arrived on campus in 1977. And it's one he will continue to espouse until his last class closes its books in mid-May.

"Maybe people will be glad I'm gone because this approach seems so outmoded to many students," he said. "But I tend to use the Xerox machine a lot because I want to get words into the students' hands and I want them to read things carefully."

Reading drew Jacobson to teaching and philosophy.

"Reading really changed my life," he said. "And I don't mean deciphering letters. I mean learning how to milk a text. I mean to really take it apart. Some of the works of Plato I have read many, many times and I am still finding things I didn't see before. And I try to communicate that excitement of discovering meaning to my classes." 

As both the world and the word grow more digital, Jacobson fears texting and tweeting are being confused for reading and writing.

"What are you capable of expressing in 140 characters?" he asked. "The shortest Platonic dialog is 17 pages of text."

Jacobson conceded the immediate availability of information today is an educational gold mine. 

"The challenge," he said, "is to help people-not just students, faculty as well-mine all that information. They have to be challenged to read important things and to read them closely and carefully." 

About those jackets ...

The short answer? Pockets.

"I smoked for a long time," Jacobson said of the cotton, 

multi-pocketed, safari-style coats he has sported almost daily through his 34-year St. Ambrose career. "I always had my cigarettes one place. I've got a calendar here. I've got my coffee card up here. Single dollar bill down here. Nail clipper. Key fob. Banjo picks. I'm organized in a world that seems to resist my best efforts."

So no deeper, philosophical explanation for owning a dozen or more such jackets? Well, he confessed, "It's not quite an academic gown, but it is a uniform."


Rich Legg

Tech Revolution? Nope, Evolution

Rich Legg watches the parade of thumbs dancing across smartphone keyboards as students exit his biology classes and he wonders if they might better be served by a few minutes alone with their thoughts.

rich-legg-illustrationThe rapid march of technology dramatically has changed the world and the world of education since Legg came to St. Ambrose in 1978. On the other hand, Legg would argue, not much has changed at all.

"Students really haven't changed," he said. "They're 20 years old. They're narcissistic sons-of-guns. It's their job."

That, of course, is a taste of the sardonic wit for which Legg will be remembered when he retires from teaching in May. In a more serious vein, his intellectual training tells him that what seems like a technological revolution really is just the earth spinning on its axis.

"I'm an evolutionary biologist," he said. "Thirty years is nothing, for gosh sakes.''

Between Legg's birth in New York City in 1950 and his arrival at St. Ambrose, the television transformed society, too, he noted. Before that, the telephone, the automobile and the airplane changed the world as well.

"The automobile basically shaped the planet the last century," Legg said. 

He did concede that "nothing impacted education, short of the printing press, more than the computer. You have instant access to so many ideas you would never even have encountered before."

He said he wishes students did not come to his classroom as job-focused as they now seem. Yet, on the whole, Legg insisted, "I still see our students as largely having the same quality. They read and write about as well as students I had 30 years ago. I don't know about penmanship, because you don't see it."

But, oh my, can those thumbs dance.

About those bows ...

There is a simpler explanation than you might imagine to those bow ties the lanky Professor Legg has made his signature during his 30 years at SAU.

Traditional, overhanging ties were a bit of a problem when the biologist put an eye to a microscope. But that's not to say Legg isn't also a bit of a non-conformist. He donned his first bow to deliver his master's oral summation. "Along with cardinal red pants with big billowing sheep on them," he said. "I guess it was some kind of a statement."

So's the bow. Legg owns 50 of them: "One for every class in a semester," he said. And nope. No clip-ons. He ties his bows. "Just like putting a shoe on your neck," he explained.


Joan Trapp

Trapp Rhymes with Rap

For the record, Joan Trapp does not own an MP3 player.

joan-trapp-illustrationBut among a case of CDs she packed for a recent drive to visit her mother in Indianapolis, the Jay-Z/Kanye West collaboration "Watch the Throne" got the heaviest play.

That's right. Joan Trapp-small-town Iowan, accomplished classical pianist, doctor of musical arts-has gone hip-hop. Just a little, anyway.

"It's a fabulous album, very artful, " she said of a CD she was vetting for discussion in music appreciation classes in her final semester at St. Ambrose. " I was really amazed how much I did like it. It became not just a listening exercise for class."

After 38 years in the St. Ambrose music department, Trapp's appreciation for music has not waned and the advent of new technology only has created more avenues to appreciate wider ranges and different genres.

"I don't see a downside," said Trapp, who noted doors to new music have been opened by radio options like Sirius and internet sites such as Pandora and YouTube. 

Surprisingly, much like the students she remembers from when she arrived here in 1973, modern collegians remain a bit narrow in their tastes. Trapp said she challenges them to open their minds and ears.

"To me, the risk of taking on new and different music is something that I enjoy," she said. "So you don't like it? OK. Don't go back there. But there is so much that is worth trying."

Trapp's central interest is classical music. Yet, even there, easier access has helped push boundaries beyond the proverbial "Dead White Men," she said.

"Those are still wonderful composers," she said. "But now we know that there are other types of music that are worthy of our study and respect. I really like where music has gotten to in my lifetime."

About that piano ... 

More than 50 years at her craft doesn't afford a pianist the luxury of not practicing.

 "A lot of my own self-respect is tied up in getting to the piano every day," said Trapp. "So, of course, I feel horrible on days that I don't. If I can get in three hours a day, I feel pretty good."

There are days, though, when she can squeeze in only an hour or two at best. So (current students, please stop reading) what gives then?

"I should practice scales and arpeggios and such," she said, before sheepishly confessing: "I don't always."


Additional Faculty Retirements

Brenda DuBois, PhD 
professor of social work, at SAU since 1997

Ragene Gwin, EdD
professor of kinesiology, since 1990

Dolores Hilden, PhD 
professor and chair of nursing, since 1999

Craig Shoemaker, PhD 
professor of marketing studies, since 1992

Judith White, EdD
professor and director of education, since 2007


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