August 28, 2013
Professor marks 50th year
Henry Steck has taught at SUNY Cortland since 1963
Though Henry Steck claims that he has “lost track” of just how old he is, he is perfectly sure of just how long he has been a professor at SUNY Cortland.
He started in 1963, when the college was still colloquially known as the Normal School to the locals. That same year, Jim Thorpe was inducted as a member of the first class of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, The Beatles released their first album, “Please Please Me,” and George Wallace was sworn in as the governor of Alabama, promising “segregation now; segregation tomorrow; segregation forever.”
Over the course of his 50 years, Steck has seen more than a few changes come to the SUNY Cortland campus, and has arrived at more than a few conclusions about what going to college is all about.
“You learn what you want to learn,” Steck said of the opportunities that college provides. “You can stay up all night thinking or drinking. You’re confronted in the classroom with different types of intellectual demands.”
The political science professor said that today, students and parents alike are too focused on the question, “What can I do with this (degree or major)?”
“All the things that broaden you as a person, they don’t have,” Steck said. “I would tell them what my father told me: ‘You’re going to live until you’re 80, what’s the rush?’”
Steck then recounted a kernel of wisdom, gleaned from his days as an undergraduate at Kenyon College in Ohio in the 1950s.
“There’s one thing I regret about my undergraduate career,” said Steck. “I didn’t take the Shakespeare class.”
Steck admitted that over the years, he has become less formal, going from a daily suit and tie during the early days of his employment to his current, more laid back suspenders and button down look.
The increased informality is not confined to his dress, however.
He credits the cultural changes of the ’60’s and ’70’s with bringing students and faculty into closer interaction in and out of the classroom.
He recounted memories of evenings at the Hollywood Restaurant on Groton Avenue, and heated debates over politics and the War in Vietnam that sometimes ended in near fistfights.
When asked to tell his proudest moment from the last 50 years, Steck took a moment of thoughtful contemplation.
“If there were two or three things that I could take away, that I could feel good about, one of them would be that my generation built the SUNY system,” said Steck, who has served on countless committees centered on everything from international education efforts to long-term strategic planning. “I’ve taken a lot of pleasure in helping develop this institution.”
Still going strong and teaching a full schedule of classes, Steck said that, although he plans to retire at some point, he is at a loss as to when that might be.
“I don’t know when,” said Steck, adding that he is helping to support his grandchildren who are in college.
When he finally does retire, there are many things that he will miss. During the course of the interview, no less than five students approached Steck, either asking for directions to a class, inquiring about upcoming study abroad programs, of which Steck has an extensive knowledge, or just to say hello after a summer away from campus.
“I like the students, and I’ll definitely miss them when I go,” Steck said. “It’s a cliche that being around them (students) keeps you younger, but I think that there’s a lot of truth in that.”
Steck said that leaving the constant interaction with his colleagues will be a difficult step to take.
“That’s the thing I will really miss if I retire,” Steck said. “I’ve had really good friends and colleagues. Even if I only know of a professor, I say to myself, ‘I’m really glad I’m at a college where that person is.’ It’s great being at a place where there’s community and good friendship.”
Steck’s sentiments were mirrored by his colleagues in the Political Science Department.
“He’s been a mentor,” said Mary McGuire, an assistant professor of political science who started at SUNY Cortland in 2001. “He’s a person you can always talk to.”
“I think he gives the students a taste of what its like to be at a small liberal arts college,” McGuire continued, adding that Steck and his wife aren’t adverse to having students over for dinner at the end of the semester. “If he ever retires, it would be a loss to the college.”
Steck said that he was never one to “plan ahead” his life, and that he always favored “going with the flow.”
In retrospect, that philosophy seems to be paying dividends.
“Being an academic, it’s a great life,” Steck said. “I would say I could not do better than this.”
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