Ode to a great professor

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Seven years ago I arrived on the campus at Whitman College, a naive and eager 18 year old looking forward to her upcoming college years. I was on the volleyball team, so I came to school about three weeks early to start practices and games in preparation for the season. After three weeks of three-a-day practices with little but eating and sleeping in between, the team had become close and we came to know the die-hard sports fans on campus too. One in particular stands out to me. I first met him as the red-headed, red-faced man who stood up and cheered after each successful Whitman point, stood up and shouted at the ref at any potentially close calls, waited around after games to congratulate us on our good plays, and was our greatest supporter. When I’d see him around campus, he’d yell across the quad about upcoming games, whether or not I was training hard enough, and some pointers from the last game. He even started the “BOOM” chant that became my signature after every kill I got in a game. Needless to say, he was my biggest fan.

While Hutch would never actually do this, this is the kind of spirit he possessed at our games. Raw, uncompromising support for the home team.

After two years of this kind of unflinching encouragement, I decided it was time to buck up and pay him back. I registered for my first science class at Whitman College: Conservation Biology. You see, in addition to being a rabid sports fan (he acted this way at basketball and baseball games too), Hutch was also a professor of biology at Whitman. Somewhere in high school I had developed a great fear of science classes and, second semester sophomore it was time to start crossing the science requirements off my list. What better way to do it than to take a class from a professor I already knew well enough to not be shy about visit during his office hours?

This was my general opinion about science classes before taking Hutch’s conservation biology class.

Hutch was an amazing professor. For the first time science was fun, both because the material was interesting, but also because it was taught in an engaging way with field trips scattered throughout the semester to get some good ol’ hands on learning in too. We finished the semester with a group project addressing the ecosystem changes in Yellowstone National Park as a result of the reintroduction of wolves – a real conservation biology issue that took place on my home turf (I grew up 60 miles from YNP)! Now, I won’t say I was sold on science classes, but I was appreciative that Hutch took the time and energy to make a non-major class interesting for the non-science kids that took it. He was wonderful.

I only played one more season of volleyball at Whitman, but that didn’t mean that Hutch and I stopped seeing each other. When I was in the middle of trying to figure out how to make my own major, I went to Hutch for advice. He still yelled at me from across the quad, and when I ran into him at basketball games I’d go sit next to him and be embarrassed as he shouted at the refs that were only a few feet away. Hutch was a fan of students, he wanted us to succeed in whatever we were trying, and he was the most approachable college faculty I ever encountered.

This is Hutch presenting awards to the best performing male and female athlete of each grade at the annual awards banquet.

I’m a little embarrassed to admit that, as close as I was to him, I let our friendship drift in the years after college. I haven’t been back to Walla Walla much and have hardly kept in touch with my advisor and the professors I typically use as references. I guess I’ve always thought that they moved on as we did, once we graduate they have a new set of students to look after. This week, Hutch proved me wrong.

I’ve mentioned that I’m changing my professional path in a pretty major way. This month, I’m putting together my application to a post-baccalaureate pre-medical certificate program at Montana State University. This programs takes non-science professionals through a 15 month program to complete all the pre-requisite requirements for school in the medical and health sciences fields. While a science background is strictly forbidden in this program, they request that you provide letters of recommendation from professors (particularly in the sciences if you have them) to judge the kind of student you are and your ability to be successful in this program. After over three years of radio silence on my end, I cold-called Hutch yesterday to ask him for a recommendation. He was thrilled, both to hear from me and to hear of my plans. He immediately agreed and sent me the information form he needed me to fill out.

Hutch, I appreciate you. I may have let the last three years pass by, but from now on I’m going to remind you of that. Thanks for being great.

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