Jeff Elzinga has always been good with words, so he quickly comes up with several to describe the path that led him to Lakeland.
Serendipity. A fluke. Being in the right place at the right time. Totally unpredictable.
Elzinga’s Lakeland story starts with a mime and a flamenco guitarist.
And, this May, 38 years after first hearing about Lakeland, the next chapter of his Lakeland story will see him retire after a remarkable career as a teacher and leader. He has been named professor emeritus, the institution’s highest honor for a faculty member.
The road to Lakeland started when Elzinga was a year removed from graduate school. The native of Racine, Wis., was living in New York City working part time and tutoring, but was touring Greece in the summer of 1978 when he received a telegram from his mother about a job in Wisconsin. Shortly thereafter, he was back in his home state, working as one of three artists in residence with the Wisconsin Arts Board, based in Plymouth, Wis. They hired Elzinga as a writer, and they also hired a mime and a flamenco guitarist.
Elzinga spent the school year visiting classrooms talking to students about storytelling, filmmaking and Sesame Street. In the spring of 1979, he was in residence at Sheboygan North High School, and ran into a young lady who was entering the teachers’ lounge as he was leaving. He went back in and struck up a conversation with Valerie Kaemmerlen, who was from France and at North for three months as the French teacher’s aide.
Elzinga planned to move to Los Angeles to work in the film industry, but his relationship with Valerie was getting serious (they were married in 1982), and his priority was finding a more stable job. The librarian at Chilton High School – he was there serving another residency – mentioned that her husband, Carl Stach, was a writing professor at nearby Lakeland College, a place that was new to Elzinga.
He was hired by Lakeland in the summer of 1980 and worked that school year in a part-time teaching role, then was offered a full-time position for the 1981-82 school year.
It was a series of events that set in motion his professional career and personal life.
Elzinga retires as a professor of writing, but that scratches the surface of his impact here.
Twice he served Lakeland as interim vice president for academic affairs and dean of the college. He has held numerous other leadership positions, including chair of several academic divisions and departments, and commencement marshal, to name a few of his assignments. He did some of Lakeland’s lead work on developing systems for student advising, tutoring and the academic early warning system.
Life took another unexpected turn in the early 1990s. The Elzingas had always talked about ways to get Valerie closer to her family in Europe. Jeff applied for a job with the U.S. State Department in the foreign service, and rose to the top of the applicant pool after navigating a rigorous process. He was granted a series of leaves from Lakeland from 1991-95 and was posted initially in Malawi, Africa, and later Tunisia, Africa.
By this time, the Elzingas had deep roots at Lakeland. They lived on Prof Row on the northeast portion of campus, and between the Elzinga, Lauer, Haas and Schultz families there were a dozen children hurling water balloons into the field that would become the baseball diamond, enjoying cookouts or simply sitting on the front porch. The families took vacations together, and their children grew up together as professional and personal lives merged. Fellow teachers Ron Haas, Karl Elder, Mike Devaney, Linda Tolman and Mehraban Khodavandi became lifelong friends. Two of his three children graduated from Lakeland.
“The Lakeland community was very supportive, very non-threatening, like a family,” Elzinga said. “It was very unique. I can’t imagine many other places have something like that. And it worked for our family.”
So when there were no more available leaves from Lakeland, Elzinga had to choose between returning to Lakeland or staying in the foreign service, and Lakeland pulled him back. But his work in Africa was just beginning. He was moved by the impoverished conditions in Malawi that included a grossly inadequate education system. He led the creation of Lakeland’s innovative Malawi Teacher Education Program, which has seen dozens of students from Malawi come to Lakeland and become teachers of teachers, then return to their homeland to make a difference in that country. More than 300,000 children in Malawi have benefitted from the program that Elzinga fathered.
Elzinga possesses very diverse skill sets, which might explain the wide range of roles he’s served at Lakeland. He was a biology major in college and was good at math, but he’s always had an artistic side that’s drawn him to film and filmmaking, music, reading and writing. He didn’t aspire to be an American ambassador, but he also didn’t aspire to take large leadership roles at Lakeland, even though he said yes when asked, often at some critical times in the institution’s existence.
“I didn’t want to be the front man for the academic side,” Elzinga said. “I don’t like being in the spotlight, that’s not my skill set.”
So when his leadership assignments were completed, he always returned to the classroom. He thrived at a place where he could get to know his students on a deeper level and help them achieve their dreams while surrounded by colleagues that encouraged him and helped him grow as a teacher and a person.
For 20 years, he’s been in the same office on the north portion of the third floor of W.A. Krueger Hall. “I’ve got David Lynch in the office next door, Karl Kuhn across the hall, Mehraban (Khodavandi) and Karl (Elder) and Linda (Tolman) … you’ve got all these good people around you. They’re happy to see you, and you’re happy to see them.”
Come late August, life abruptly changes, and that daily routine with those familiar faces will be gone. “I’ve been trying to imagine that,” Elzinga said. “I don’t know what it will feel like in September.”
He has a novel he’s trying to get published and he plans to set aside time in the morning to work on a second novel that he’s started. He has some volunteer opportunities to feed the organizational part of his brain. Plus, there are two grandchildren that need the kind of attention that only grandparents can deliver.
He pauses and wonders, 40 years after landing that job as a fiction writer that eventually brought him to Lakeland, what happened to the mime and the flamenco guitarist. He wonders if they’ve had the same good fortune in their lives.
“If I had to do it all over, I wouldn’t do anything differently,” Elzinga said. “A lot of my teachers were arrogant and talked down to students. I didn’t think it should be like that. When we work with students at Lakeland, we’re not just credentialing somebody. I feel we’re helping them learn more about the world and who they are.”