Sorry it’s taken me a while to get back with you. I’m teaching American History and Western Civilization at JCCC and am up to my ears.
Thanks for asking me about Jim Falls.
Jim is and has always been a great pleasure to be in class with. Certainly, I could give you any number of fun anecdotes. But since he has such a way with students and such a wonderful sense of humor, it is easier for me to say that every day in Jim’s class is a new and exciting experience.
There are few professors who have the kind of enthusiasm Jim has for his subjects and for his students. Jim is able, on the spur of the moment, to see an opportunity to lighten the class and make it something that students look forward to. I don’t think I’m telling tales out of school when I say that Jim is witty, sometimes very funny, personable, and approachable.
I had my first class with Jim as a freshman in 1981. I was a pretty dumb kid from a tough home. I was filled with all kinds of naïve ideas about the world. Jim was one of the teachers that drew me in and convinced me over time that I could make it through school, that I didn’t have to listen to the people who told me I would amount to nothing. I could do whatever I decided to do and didn’t have to let the past, or my own resentments hold me back. I can’t remember my grade, though I could look. But I can tell you that I learned more than Western Civilization from him.
I took ten years to get my undergrad degrees in history and English—working, going to school, taking time off to save money or to see the nation and the world. While I was initially interested in philosophy and changed majors a few times over the years, I found myself again and again in some kind of history class. Jim was always there to welcome me back, to ask how things had been going, and, ultimately, if I had made up my mind on which way I was going in life. He was sincerely interested in my well-being and education. He counseled me not to worry about finding something and sticking with it but, instead, let the wandering and working take me where I should be going.
Jim was the first person who said anything like that to me. Before, members of my family had always asked when I going to get a real job, when I was going to become something. On the other hand, Falls encouraged me to experiment and not to be ashamed to unsettled in life. I went to Germany in 1985 to learn how to grow grapes and was successful in finding a paid internship with one of Germany’s most respected wineries. I returned and went back to school, and I’ll never forget sitting in his office and having him ask me about what I’d done, learned, and if I any of it had influence which direction I thought I was going.
Of course, it did. I didn’t know it at the time, but that experience was to become one of the greatest influences on my writing and other interests.
My interest in history was sparked by the likes of Jim Falls, John Stack, Dick MacKenzie, Dennis Merrill, and Carla Klausner—all great members of the history department. Other UMKC professors helped to widen out that experience and keep me in school through to my undergrad degrees—Henry Frankel, Hans Uffelmann, Bruce Bubacz, and MaryAnn Wynkoop. Jim, however, has always been present and had his door most often, regardless the time of day.
Most people work through their lives in a line—college-grad school-career. I didn’t and know now that I couldn’t. After all those years in and out of undergrad study, I went on to the University of Wyoming for an MA (1991-1993) and returned to become a successful journalist, and then book editor. I returned to UMKC for the Ph.D. in 2004 and was delighted to find that, although I was an American historian, I would be working with Jim as his GTA, which I did until 2007. (I have since become a union ironworker and am working on my dissertation.)
I have never heard Jim discourage a student. He has gone out of his way, as he did for me, to make sure that students walk away from his classes with something—even if they are not going to have the greatest grade. He is firm, and he doesn’t put up with people being discourteous in class or interfering with the education of their fellows. I’ve seen some students get angry and walk away due to Jim’s attitude about education. But it was not because Jim drove them off. Usually, they were not completely devoted to the class or to school to begin with.
When Jim heard my book, Seldom Seen: A Journey into the Great Plains, was to be published last year, he was overwhelmingly encouraging. He attended my presentation in November at the Kansas City Public Library. He is one of my greatest supporters.
Today, I am an apprentice ironworker. When work is slow and there aren’t any jobs moving out of the union hall, I teach at Johnson County Community College. I teach American history and Western Civilization. My experience in Falls class, and the opportunities I have had to teach Western Civ at UMKC allows me to indulge that class, that course of learning, at JCCC, even while American history is my area. We can thank Jim for that.
Jim deserves to have his name on that classroom, a fitting homage to a career and a personality that has changed this world for the better. My world in particular. I’m also glad to have that room across the building from John Stack’s room. Personally, it is a great thing for me, as they were two of the best teachers I ever had.