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Celebrating our beloved 'Prof'

September 1, 2015 In Lakeland University Blog
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If you’re fortunate enough to call J. Garland Schilcutt a friend, you know he loves being around good people, listening to great music, traveling the world and sipping a well-made Manhattan or two with his dinner.

You also know he intensely dislikes peas, liver and asparagus.

But wait, about that asparagus …

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“I was at Field to Fork café in Sheboygan, sitting at the lunch bar, watching this young lady preparing asparagus,” he says. “She cut it up neatly, coated it with olive oil and put it on the grill. She let me taste it. It was crisp, and it wasn’t bad!”

The man lovingly known as “Prof” is 85 now, but the iconic, longtime Lakeland College professor still views the world through that same wide-open mind that brought him here 57 years ago – and convinced him to stay. His initial view of Lakeland was similar to that of asparagus. But it changed.

Prof, who “semi-retired” (his term) after the 2014-15 academic year, will receive the first Professor J. Garland Schilcutt Award on Sept. 26 during the inaugural Big Fish Festival. The award, which recognizes the profound effect Schilcutt has had on the Lakeland community, will be presented annually to a Lakeland graduate who is dedicated to educating, mentoring and positively impacting young people.

One thing about Prof: Effusive praise directed at him is not his favorite thing. Alumni approach him regularly at college events and tell him his guidance was the primary reason for their success. He shaped them, they’ll say. He made them who they are, they’ll gush.

“It’s uncomfortable,” Prof says of such praise. “I wonder, ‘what the heck did I do to deserve this?’ Whatever it was, I would do it for most anybody.” He pauses briefly. “I mean, it’s my job.”

Hello, Lakeland College

It was December, 1958, when the first of more than 50 colleges and universities he had applied for reached out to him for an interview. He’d been working as a short-term substitute teacher in the Chicago Public School System and wanted to put his Indiana University bachelor’s and master’s degrees to better use.

Prof took a train from Chicago to Sheboygan, then a car ride past the fields to a Lakeland College campus more desolate than he could have imagined. It was Christmas break. Nobody was around. He enjoyed thorough interviews with college president Arthur Krueger and the dean, Oscar Hoffman. Given Prof’s background and teaching experience, Hoffman asked Prof if he’d have any problem working with white students. Prof confidently said of course not, shook the dean’s hand and headed back to Chicago.

“I thought, ‘Get me out of this place,’” he recalls, grinning. “I will never hear from anyone from Lakeland and will never see this place again. But within a few days, I got the call …”

He took the job, but only because he figured teaching at Lakeland for one semester would buy him enough time to find something more suitable to his imagination. His initial course load of seven included economics and other business-related courses. That was more than 20 different classes, more than 100 semesters and more than 2,000 students ago.

“If someone had told me I’d still be here 57 years later, I’d have laughed in their face,” he says.

It’s all about the people

The friendships with staff, students and faculty formed quickly, like the add-water instant concrete you buy at your local hardware store. Prof lived in a trailer on campus, and if his lights were on, students were welcome. He wasn’t much older than many of them, and he’d play the organ or pull out a deck of cards for games of Sheepshead or Pinochle.

“We’d have a cup of coffee and on occasion, a beer,” he says. “But of course, mostly they came by to get help with accounting. There was a lot of accounting work done in that trailer.”

Prof figured after that first class graduated, he’d bolt for greener pastures. But then another class found its way into his heart. And another. And another, and another. The carousel never slowed down enough for him to jump off.

“I made many friends, and we all accepted one another,” he says. “They found no difference in me, and I found no difference in them.”

Even as our country struggled during the tumultuous, racially and politically charged 1960s, Prof felt love and comfort at Lakeland. His trips into Sheboygan were without incident, but he did feel stares and recalls one interesting encounter at the Red Owl grocery store.

“I was passing a mother and her little boy in the aisle, and the child yelled, in a loud, shrill voice, ‘Look mommy, a black man,’ ” Prof recalls. “Fortunately there weren’t a lot of people in the store. We passed each other again, and the mother, who was embarrassed, said to her child, who was pointing at me, ‘Yes, he’s a man, just like your father.’”

Friends become family

For the first 10 years or so of Prof’s tenure at Lakeland, he often made the 200-mile drive home to Gary, Ind., during breaks and long weekends. Over time, his parents, sister and other family members passed away. Prof never married or had children. At some point, he realized his family was all around him. Right here.

“Yes, this is home,” he says. “I’ve lived here longer than I have any other place.”

Years ago, around so-called retirement age, he tinkered with moving to Thailand. Maybe a Caribbean island. Or North Carolina. Someplace warmer.

“But Thailand is too damn hot, and besides, why go where you have to introduce yourself all over again,” he says. “I’m content here and I will stay here. Yes, even in the winter.”

Students taught him how to ski and alumni have traveled with him around the world to nearly four dozen countries, from Australia to Venezuela and countless exciting places in between. Next summer, he wants to hit Scandinavia.

“I used to climb any mountain,” he says. “I would scuba dive, and I have a private pilot’s license, land and sea. I still think I can do anything I once did. But I’ve begun to realize that I’m not young anymore. I’m damn near 100.”

Still teaching ‘my baby’

While Prof no longer teaches a full course load, he hangs on lovingly to his Business and Professional Protocol course, in which he has helped shy, unsure students who initially avoid eye contact and offer limp handshakes blossom into models of confidence.

“That class is my baby, my all-time favorite,” he says, “because it’s about life skills. It’s so gratifying for me to see the students grow.”

He’s seen a lot of growth, in ways that are difficult to comprehend. He has taught the grandchildren of students he had taught years earlier. He has taught students who graduated, had glorious careers and retired – while he still chugs along.

Feeling right at home

Prof had a tough summer. A portion of his colon was removed. Because of breathing difficulties, he uses an oxygen tank. “I’m too proud to use it like I should,” he says.

The mind is sharp, the wit is strong and the smile is bright. Asked to reveal what that secretive initial J. stands for, he laughs and says, “No way!”

Sitting in his tidy office, Prof reflects upon how meaningful his time at Lakeland has been. He chuckles when referring to some of his closest alumni as his No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 sons and daughters.

He never left Lakeland and he never will. What once looked like soggy asparagus, when viewed with a fresh approach, is pretty darn good.

“The reason I stayed was not the wonderful location or the wonderful campus,” he says. “It was the wonderful people, my students and colleagues, the people I call friends and family.”

Last May, 43 years after delivering the Lakeland College 1972 commencement address, Prof gave the 2015 commencement address – the 153rd in the college’s history. He calls upon his message that day to sum up the wonderful journey that began with a long train ride and a leap of faith.

“You’ve got to have something to do, something or someone to love and something to look forward to,” he says. “I really believe in that. All these years, I’ve had lots of things to do, plenty of people to love and many things to look forward to. I guess that’s kept me going.”

• You are cordially invited to join other Lakeland College family members and friends as we celebrate Prof during the annual Alumni Award Celebration at the inaugural Big Fish Festival on Sept. 26. We will unveil the first annual J. Garland Schilcutt Award. Register at http://lakeland.edu/bff.

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