Pioneering Science Professor Returns to Visit Campus

November 23, 2011 / by / 0 Comment

By Doug Carroll
Communications Staff

A former professor who was ahead of his time with ideas on how to grow GCU’s enrollment visited campus Tuesday for the first time in several years.

As you might expect, Dr. Jim Witherspoon was amazed by what he saw: a campus bustling beyond his wildest dreams.

“It’s always fun when things are growing,” said Witherspoon, accompanied on a tour by his wife, Becky, and Assistant Dean Anna Faith Smith of the College of Arts and Sciences.

“We had been told (the campus) had changed remarkably. We weren’t prepared for all the cars. We had to look awhile for parking!”

Dr. Jim Witherspoon and Becky Witherspoon visit the construction site for the new CAS building.

The Witherspoons are retired and living in College Station, Texas, where their daughter and son-in-law are math professors at Texas A&M University. But the word “retired” seems ill-suited to them, in light of their impact on GCU and the projects they have adopted over the years.

Both worked at the University for the better part of two decades, with Jim assuming the chairmanship of the Science Department in 1984, two years after arriving. In that role, he launched Health Sciences and Nursing Day and also helped bring the cadaver lab on campus.

He often sent information about the University to prospects by himself. Over the course of 11 years, he says, science majors went from 4 percent of enrollment to 30 percent.

“We started inviting high school students to come on campus,” he says. “It was a huge recruiting tool. I knew we had to increase the quality of our students.

“The main thing was the personal touch with those students. We got better and better students as a result.”

A trip to China in the summer of 1988 set him off on a new direction: teaching English abroad. Subsequent trips over the next 20 years also took the Witherspoons to Hungary and Lithuania.

Those experiences prompted Jim to literally write the book on teaching English as a Second Language, titled “English Comes Alive! Dynamic, Brain-Building Ways to Teach ESL and EFL (English as a Foreign Language).”

The book’s interactive style prompted one reviewer to say, “It’s the only reference book you will need to become a first-rate ESL/EFL teacher.” Having fully embraced modern technology, Jim recently read the Dr. Seuss book “Horton Hears a Who!” over Skype to third-graders in Romania from his home in Texas.

The Witherspoons, who met as students at Purdue University, aren’t afraid of a little adventure in life.

One month into their marriage, they began work on a book (“The Living Laboratory”) for high school students and amateur biologists. Then, when Jim was teaching at Western Maryland College (now McDaniel College) in the early 1960s, they started a hiking club that continues to this day.

They moved to Arizona — without employment — for a better environment for Jim to write, and they liked it so much that he resigned by mail from Southwestern University in Tennessee (now Rhodes College).

They’re staying in Fountain Hills while they’re here; that’s where Becky co-founded the town’s Art League.

“We keep in touch with friends here,” Becky said. “We started talking about how we hadn’t been here in six or seven years.”

Dr. Jim Helfers, who has known Jim Witherspoon since 1992, put the professor’s sizable contribution to the University in context.

“Jim and Erdie Morris essentially developed the vibrant science program we have at GCU today,” Helfers said. “They developed the esprit de corps. They championed academic excellence across the campus.

“They were a dynamic duo, and they were people who cared about how science fit into a Christian world view.”

Reach Doug Carroll at 639.8011 or [email protected].

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