By Theresa Smith
GCU News Bureau
On a sunny April morning, 38 students settle into their seats for the start of Sociology 102. Their professor, Dr. Charles Maxson, reminds them of where they left off at the last class and, in dulcet tones, plunges into a lecture on population changes.
As the slides on the massive projection screen detail migration, birth and mortality, Maxson emphasizes urbanization and the fact that 70 percent of the world’s population live in cities. Throughout the lecture, the white-haired sage brings the information to life, providing relevant examples, including his recent spring break trip to Northern Ireland with Grand Canyon University students, in which they toured the walled-in city of Derry.
Moments after an explanation of gentrification, Maxson moves onto globalization, referencing the Disney song, “It’s a small world after all,” and noting common student possessions that are manufactured overseas, such as cell phones, T-shirts and laptops.
While the students can Google nearly anything on their laptops, they are unaware that this lecture is among Maxson’s last. In the College of Humanities and Social Sciences professor’s typical humility, it is all about the students, and not at all about his imminent retirement after a 34-year teaching career at GCU.
“Oh really? Wow,” senior film major Weston Ruzicka said when informed of Maxson’s impending departure. “I didn’t know he has taught that long. I can definitely tell that he knew what he was talking about. He definitely makes a good way of explaining every corner of the subject rather than just going through a list in the book. He gives examples – real-world examples that we understand better than reading it.”
After class, most students hustle off to their next lecture. Jon Meekins, a junior, is among those waiting for a quick word with the professor.
“He’s a great professor, one of my favorites,” Meekins said. “He levels with you on a different level. My friend was in an accident, so he is helping me out by giving me an extension on my essay.”
What he’ll miss most
Amid reading an article about students from a small Colorado high school, announcing their college choices, including GCU, Maxson realized what he will miss the most when he retires — the transformation of freshmen to seniors.
“I see these kids coming in, fresh from high school, the vast majority of them, very excited, and scared a little bit about what it is going to be like living away from home,” he said. “It is satisfying just seeing them settle down and grow and grow up a little bit in the years they are here. You don’t get to know all of them well enough to see that, but you get to know some of them.”
It is the cycle of his professorial life.
For Maxson, a Fort Worth, Texas, native, it started during his undergraduate years at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, Calif.
“That was the experience I had in college, knowing I could stop by any of my professors’ offices at any time that they were in and just chat for a few minutes,” he said. “Maybe I didn’t have an agenda, maybe I did. That was one of the things when I was thinking about a career. I thought, ‘I would like to do that, not so much the ‘what’ you teach, but also being part of their lives.’ ”
Maxson followed that path at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he earned a master’s degree in sociology and a doctorate in 1981. His research emphasis was in suicide prevention, including voluntarily manning a suicide hotline.
From 1976 to 1983, he taught at Friends University, in Wichita, Kan., and moved to another small, Christian school, GCU, in 1984. Maxson has provided wisdom and guidance in numerous roles beyond the classroom, including coordinator of online education from 2001 to 2004 and co-chair of the Higher Learning Commission regional accreditation in 2006. He also served as GCU’s Vice President for Academic Affairs from 1988 to 1996.
A lot to talk about
His modest office, 16-339, is the perfect place for seemingly off-the-cuff conversations that turn poignant for students, such as Dennis Flowers, who recently abandoned his dream of becoming a police officer.
“He never came to me, saying, ‘I need help,’ or ‘I need advice.’ He just sat down and somehow it would get around to a deeper subject,” Maxson said.
Flowers said, “I see him for personal things, family things, and he is very helpful. Being a marriage and family teacher, he really knows what he is talking about. I just come in at office hours, and if no one is in with him, I just sit down and chat. God has been moving in my heart and my life. I want to be a pastor now, and he has had an impact on that.”
Maxson met Flowers in February 2017 on a Super Bowl LI trip to Houston. Maxson was helping a fellow GCU professor by driving Flowers and the other GCU security interns from their hotel to their assignments. In January 2018, Flowers enrolled in Maxson’s Marriage and Family course.
“He’s a man of faith, obviously, so having someone who lives out their faith and has a family, I think I’ve learned from him,” said Flowers, a sophomore sociology major. “He applies something from class to his own life. Every family has its own way of doing things, but he has a successful marriage, and obviously his kids are doing great, so if I can follow an example like that, I think that’s awesome.”
Maxson acknowledged that the expectation of professors teaching Marriage and Family at a Christian university is to practice what they preach.
“I do feel pressure,” he said. “I think anybody who has been married knows that it is not easy or automatic. It is work. I have messed up. I don’t know if I should be the role model who is teaching this, so from time to time, I have also said to my students, in that class in particular, ‘God is the God of second chances.’ We all mess up some times. He forgives us and says, ‘Go ahead, I’ll give you another chance.’ That makes it OK, I think, to teach other people where you have made your mistakes and help them learn from that.”
More time with grandkids
Maxson and his wife, Sherri, have been married for 20 years. He has three adult children from his first marriage: Jonathan, Chris and Melissa. His sons work together for a search engine optimization company, and Melissa is a pediatric endocrinologist at Phoenix Children’s Hospital. His seven grandchildren range in age from 4 to 12.
Spending more time with his grandchildren — and easing the child care load of his children — is Maxson’s post-retirement plan, along with helping Sherri with the senior citizen choir she leads at a local retirement community.
One of Maxson’s former students, Kristie Larsen, is the executive director of the retirement community and asked Sherri, an accomplished pianist, to run the choir. Larsen manages 120 employees, 415 independent living retirement apartments for senior citizens, and a 60-bed nursing center.
The former front desk receptionist credits Maxson and the other GCU professors in her bachelor’s and master’s programs with her career success. Maxson taught her information systems class and was the proctor for the cohort’s research project, which applied directly to her rising career path with Christian Care.
“It was a critical time in my career, and Dr. Maxson was a big part of it,” Larsen said. “I don’t think I would have done as well on the research paper as I did without Dr. Maxson.”
An aspect of the paper was how to communicate with the other campuses (there are six now in Christian Care) and share best practices.
“Some of the things we implemented back in 2002 because of that class, and because we were thinking differently, are still in play today,” Larsen said. “He made you think that there are multiple ways to accomplish a goal, but the other thing was that there might be more than one right option. He always asked questions: ‘Did you think of?’ ‘Did you ask the question of?’ And I thought, ‘No.’ ”
For several years, Larsen attended Hillside Baptist, the same church as Maxson, where she saw his faith and devotion to family in action.
“Charlie and Sherri are two of my favorite people, and he has absolute devotion to Sherri,” Larsen said. “I think he should be an example of how a man should be with his wife. They are truly happy together, and it is something that he shows as a friend, a mentor and a teacher of how you progress in the time with your spouse and your family.”
For another former student, Maxson’s influence enhanced his security in a war zone.
Juan Mendoza met Maxson at Hillside Baptist and then enrolled in his Sociology of Religion class.
“He’s a good man; I always learn something from him,” Mendoza said. “The class was very good in terms of understanding different faiths. Working for the federal government in the Middle East, I was exposed to some of those different groups, so it had a very good impact on my sociological and mental survival overseas.”
Mendoza continues to apply sociological principles as a criminal investigator with the Maricopa County office of legal defenders.
Sophomore sociology major Anna Lynch, who completed Maxson’s Principles of Sociology course and is currently enrolled in Marriage and Family, is sad that she will not be able to take another class from Maxson as she prepares for a career as a social worker.
“What I love about Dr. Maxson’s class is that he’s very personable, helping us understand what people go through every day,” she said. “He makes it so applicable to our careers. We talked about crises that families experience and go through, like divorce. It is something you would deal with as a counselor or as a social worker.”
Jacob Streelman, a sophomore from Illinois, also enjoys the class.
“It is light-hearted, there a lot of jokes and it is enjoyable and relatable. That’s a minor reason,” he said. “The major reason is there’s just a lot of good information.”
Streelman noted that several of his friends have been abused and others they have dealt with their parents’ divorces, so the class discussions about coping mechanisms, both positive and negative, have been impactful.
As with so many of Maxson’s students, Streelman has come to know the professor on a personal level.
“One thing I love most about him is coming in for office hours,” Streelman said. “Like one time we ended up talking about Mexico and places we’ve traveled for about 30 minutes, and then he’ll say, ‘So, why are you here?’ He is so much more interested in a relationship with his students than he is anything else. I think that is so cool.”
For Maxson, it is a matter of closing the circle: His professors helped him, he helps his students and they help others.
“They want to help people; that is the overriding similarity among my students,” Maxson said. “When they know about poverty and racism and they understand some of the challenges people face, it prepares them to work with people. I’m impressed with their commitment to make a difference in the world.”
As Charles Maxson retires after teaching for 34 years at GCU, his students second that emotion.