Dr. James Beggs, GCU’s Resident Rapper, Leaving a Legacy of Good Cheer
By Bob Romantic
GCU News Bureau
Spend any time around Dr. James Beggs on the Grand Canyon University campus, and you’re bound to notice one thing:
The abundance of smiles left behind in his large wake.
Beggs is part professor, part rapper, part world traveler, part artist and even part failed basketball coach. But to most, the biggest part is the one they call a friend.
“I love him because he’s crazy,” says Faith Weese, chief university relations officer at GCU. “And he’s just really personable. He does the most fun raps; he never forgets the humor in almost everything. He really, really cares about people and he’s just a big teddy bear.
“And he loves teaching, loves kids. I thought he could never stop.”
At age 67, Beggs is stopping. After a 37-year teaching career, including the last 11 at GCU, Beggs is retiring at the end of the school year. A retirement party will take place from 1 to 2:30 p.m. today at McKinley Hall in the Student Union. As part of the farewell, several GCU employees paid tribute to Beggs in the same way he did for so many others – with a rap video.
Rap Master B
Any conversation about Beggs’ persona begins with his rap videos, which have become an institution at GCU. They started as a way to connect with students and engage them in a different way while helping them remember key elements of a lesson plan. His first rap involved the teachings of classical theologian and philosopher St. Thomas Aquinas.
“Poetry, oral traditions, rhyming … they’ve been used forever to try to help people remember,” Beggs says. “Sir Phillip Sydney said poetry is the medicine of cherries. You use something like art or storytelling or poetry to make something more palatable, easier to swallow or to understand. So I took Aquinas’ ideas and turned them into a rap.”
English professor Jim Helfers caught wind of the rap and started calling him “Rap Master B.” “He’s never been afraid to put himself out there in a dramatic sort of way,” Helfers says.
Beggs’ raps, of course, aren’t always educational. Sometimes they’re just fun – like a rap he does at the end of a school year that includes every student’s name in a class, or one he did after a staff wheelchair basketball team that he coached was annihilated by the Phoenix Suns’ wheelchair team during halftime of a GCU game.
“The raps have turned into something that, no matter what the event is, whether it’s a birthday for somebody, somebody leaving the campus, somebody having a baby, a special event on campus … any time he has an opportunity to put one of his rap videos up, he does,” says Mike Lacrosse, GCU’s chief technology officer.
Beggs admits that calling them “rap” videos might be generous. “No one is going to call what I do rap. It’s sort of something that approaches something like a rap.”
And, while he gets positive feedback from students, he also sees the eye-rolling as they watch the videos.
“I think they enjoy the attempt,” Beggs says. “Whether it has always helped them remember the content, I don’t know. But they do respond very positively that I’m trying to reach them on some kind of fun level.”
Touching the lives of others
Connecting with people never has been a problem for Beggs. He’s at nearly every event on campus, from move-in day to athletic events and theatre productions or concerts.
“He knows everything that happens on this campus,” says Mark Wooden, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “He’s just so friendly and serves everybody so well, he becomes their friend and is privy to a lot of information. … He claims he’s psychic and can see the future, but really I know he’s just connected and has some inside scoops on stuff. People trust him and value him. There are very few people on this campus that don’t love Jim 100 percent.”
Assistant Professor Joshua Danaher says there have been many times he has walked around campus with Beggs “and he seems to know everybody.”
“And as we were walking, he is aware of vacation plans that people had, or vacations that they had taken that he asked about – stuff you don’t expect most people to be that thoughtful about.”
Danaher’s first encounter with Beggs still sticks in his mind. Danaher had applied for a job at GCU and knew of Beggs through a professor at Arizona State University.
“I went to Jim’s office and knocked on the door for what I thought would be a five-minute conversation just introducing myself, but we ended up talking for about an hour,” Danaher says. “And then he touched base with me regularly, keeping me informed and telling me to keep in touch with the dean. Unlike other people, where if you want to network with them you really have to go after them, it was just the opposite with him. He was going after me. That spoke a lot to me and I was really appreciative of that. His advocacy is a big reason I have a job here.”
Beggs, a lover of food, is also well-known for the treats he brings to different offices – particularly around the holidays – and the Christmas parties at his house.
“There’s nobody here who doesn’t owe a diet in January to Beggs feeding them in December,” Lacrosse says. “He brings in something different every day to eat, and always way too much of it.”
At the Christmas parties, “nobody was not invited,” Weese says. “He wanted to treat everyone. He just loves giving.”
Some of Beggs’ gifts have included embroidered pillows and shirts he makes by transferring images from a computer, and glasswork he creates from a kiln he bought when the ceramics department at GCU closed.
“He does some glass pieces that are gorgeous,” says Brent Richardson, executive chairman of the board at GCU. “He could sell them for money but he gives them away to people.”
GCU President Kathy Player says the parties, gifts, food and raps are just “Jim’s way of showing love.”
“He has a heart that is so big that reaches out in so many ways to touch the lives of others,” Player says. “That’s what the college will miss the most. He leads with a Christ-filled heart.”
Leading the transition at GCU
Being the social conscience of the University is not all Beggs has brought to GCU.
When the Richardson family bought the university at a time when it was failing, Beggs was instrumental in the transition. He became dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, which underwent hefty cuts and changes in direction.
“The first time I talked to the faculty, there were probably only 10 people in the whole University who thought the place was going to survive, and he was one of them,” Brent Richardson says. “When everybody else was running for the hills or whatever, he came over and said, ‘I’m in with you guys 100 percent and whatever I can do, I’ll be there to do it.’”
Beggs served as dean for two years before returning to his role as a professor.
“We did a lot of things we needed to do to turn this ship around, including some very, very, very difficult decisions that made some people unhappy,” Beggs says. “If we hadn’t made those difficult decisions, I would argue, we wouldn’t be where we are today.”
Bringing the world to GCU
Beggs formed a friendship with Richardson during those times.
“He was very persuasive,” Richardson says. “He was always talking me into these trips.”
As an employee appreciation effort, Richardson agreed to foot the bill for a group of 10 staff members to go to France one summer.
“I said, ‘Well that’s a little bigger than I was thinking Jim, but OK,’” Richardson says. “Jim parlayed that into kind of an every-year thing where he decided that the University should sponsor him on a trip.”
Beggs also has taken trips to Morocco, Austria, China, Germany, Honduras and Venezuela — teaching as a visiting professor on most stops and bringing that knowledge back to his classrooms.
“Travel is as valuable as an educational process as going to college because you can walk in the history you have read about,” Beggs says. “You can meet people who do things differently than you do and get by just fine, so you confront some of your biases. It makes you really comfortable to be with people who are different. Diversity pretty much becomes a way of life.”
What lies ahead
In his first act of retirement, Beggs is taking a trip to Peru this summer to teach English. Beyond that, he says there’s nothing concrete, but he might spend time creating more glasswork and perhaps doing some writing.
“I have delusions of adequacy as it pertains to the possibility of writing something,” Beggs says.
And as he looks forward, he can’t help but look back at his time at GCU.
“I’m sure I’m going to miss many things about being here: the students, the excitement of being in an institution that is growing and vibrant and makes a great deal of difference in the lives of our students, as well as the lives of people in our community and across the Valley, across the country and even the world,” Beggs says. “I’m not silly enough to think I won’t miss a great deal of that.
“But I’m not leaving it. I still intend to visit. If at some point I want to teach, I know I can teach part time if I choose to. I’ll come back for events and have been invited to do any number of things.”
Plus, Beggs jokes, “I’ll keep track of what’s going on and make sure they’re doing it the way I want.”
Contact Bob Romantic at 639.7611 or [email protected].