Archive | May, 2017

Professor John Cooney: The Whole Story

15 May

By Maureen Minor May

How many of you know a professor that rides his bicycle to school? Professor Cooney does just that, and that is not the only thing I discovered about Professor Cooney during his interview. Professor John Cooney is the Humanities Program Chair and Assistant Professor of History in the School of Liberal Arts. You may know him as the professor who gives away all the books on Day of Reading, and Day of Writing. Cooney has thousands of books. He has donated close to 1000 books to the Ivy Tech Library, and hundreds of books to students through the Day of reading and Day of Writing Program. He still has thousands of books and he reads all of them. That is what he asks from students who take his books. Read them.

Cooney did his undergraduate studies majoring in history at Siena College in upstate New York. He also was in the ROTC and received a commission. However, rather than immediately going on active duty, Cooney took an academic delay to complete a Master’s Degree in American History at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Besides his history studies,  Cooney joined the campus sailing club and he mastered the basics of handling a small sailboat on one of the big lakes the campus sits beside. “On my very first solo sail, I got dumped in the cold lake water when I ineptly tipped the sailboat over.”  He continues, “But I quickly got it righted and clambered back aboard and sailed back to the dock soaking wet and shivering but smiling all the same.”

In Wisconsin Cooney also took up stargazing on warm summer nights where he looked up and learned the names of some of the bright stars. “Like the stars of the ‘summer triangle’: Deneb in the Swan, Vega in the Lyre, Altair in the Eagle,” he says. “With the help of a friend who lent me H. A. Rey’s wonderful book “The Stars,” I figured out how to trace the constellations.”  Sitting up late outdoors in a Madison city park with Rey’s book as his guide, Cooney says “I got to know something of the myths ‘up above the world so high,’ like those of Perseus and Pegasus and how they teamed up to rescue lovely Andromeda.”

Cooney would later bring his stargazing skills to Ivy Tech with ‘The Year of Galileo’ program in 2009. He then organized and presented a star party on campus so students, teachers and guests could witness the very rare celestial event of the Transit of Venus, on June 5, 2012. “The next Transit of Venus will be on December 11, 2117, and I have a plan for Ivy Tech students to be set and ready to see the Transit one hundred years from now!” Cooney says with a twinkle in his eye.

After one year in graduate school he then went on to active Army duty for seven years. He spent four and one-half years overseas with assignments in Korea— “Where I learned to use chopsticks, to pick up spicy kimchee;” in the Netherlands— “Where I learned to ride my bicycle to work;” Belgium, and Germany.

In Belgium, he says “I lucked into taking a university extension course and got to study ‘Northern Renaissance’ art monuments.”  He tells how “we’d meet each weekend with the class members driving on our own to the appointed historic Belgian city.”  Once there, the teacher led the class on a day-long walking tour of notable museums and monuments. One of his favorite monuments, Cooney says, was the one he did his term paper on: The Ghent Altarpiece.

“Turns out that during World War II this magnificent work of art was stolen by the Nazis—and it was rescued from an Austrian salt mine in 1945 by a ‘monuments man’ who grew up in Indianapolis!”  By a marvelous coincidence— “I’m not making this up!” Cooney declares—one of his humanities program teachers at Ivy Tech turned out to be the niece of this hero who helped save the Ghent Altarpiece. (Another of his humanities program teachers, he learned, was a descendent of Pocahontas!)

Cooney said he particularly enjoyed the army duty time he spent in Germany. He was a First Lieutenant in command of a signal detachment in Belgium when he got a phone call late one afternoon from the personnel officer at the battalion headquarters in Bremerhaven, Germany. Due to an emergency, Cooney was ordered to Germany where he took command of an army signal company after that unit’s captain had ‘messed up big time’ and was summarily relieved. “That unit had failed a big inspection and its soldiers were really struggling.”  But he tells how he saw that “my soldiers had great potential—what they needed was some good old-fashioned inspiration.”  By using the principles of ‘servant leadership’ Cooney found ways to inspire his soldiers, both men and women, to take heart and strive to better achieve the unit’s mission, which was to provide critical communications support to NATO units.

He did this by personally meeting each one of his unit’s one hundred twenty soldiers. “This called for a lot of fast driving on Germany’s famous Autobahns,” Cooney says, “as my soldiers were assigned to some 15 radio sites in central West Germany—covering an area about as big as the state of Indiana.”  At each radio site, Cooney personally met with each soldier. “I asked them one-on-one for their good ideas. I asked them to tell me what problems they had that I could try to fix.”  This process of personally meeting all his soldiers inspired confidence and raised morale. Better job performance naturally followed, such that the unit made so many improvements that “we were singled out for praise and commended by the army Inspector General.”

As a teacher now at Ivy Tech, Professor Cooney uses these same ‘servant leader’ principles to inspire his students to set high learning goals in his history and humanities classes. He likes to meet one-on-one with students outside the classroom. “I want to learn more about the plans they each may have to do well in our course and in all their excellent work at Ivy Tech—and in life itself!”

Cooney says, “I ask them about their big dreams.”  He wants them to see the wide-ranging promise that their education now at Ivy Tech offers them. “I big time endorse the ‘grand expectations’ of what their dreams may yet bring them!”  he declares.

“But it ‘ain’t’ always easy” Cooney asserts, “Ask any of our devoted teachers at Ivy Tech.”  He continues, “they’ll tell you stories of the life challenges that some of our students face, which some teachers admit are such enough to have sunk their own college completion plans.”  Cooney then goes on to tell how the lessons taught in his history and especially in his humanities course, go a long way to equipping students with confidence and fortitude to persevere in the face of difficulties.

Cooney has a favorite story of the Spartan warrior at Thermopylae. This is an episode featured in the movie “300,” which he says his students are often familiar with. With enthusiasm Cooney tells “as the two sides faced off, this Spartan was told how the mighty Persian army would blacken the sky with the number of arrows they would fire at the small Greek force opposing them. ‘No big deal,’ this Spartan quipped, ‘then we can fight in the shade!’”

Cooney declares “Humanities courses at Ivy Tech offer our students a lot of shade.”  He elaborates, “I think the humanities give them a welcome break from the intense glare too often imposed by everyday challenges in our distracted, refracted, but oh so attractive world.”  With humanities learning he says, “my students meet Gilgamesh, Moses, Confucius, Buddha, Sappho, Socrates, Mohammad, Dante, Shakespeare, Jane Austen and America’s exemplary self-made man: Frederick Douglass.”  Cooney asserts that by keeping company with such giants of the human spirit, “our students at Ivy Tech can refresh their own inspiration, they can recoup their spirits, and they can even borrow a big dream and strive to make it their very own!”

Back home in the USA from overseas, Cooney finished a half year training course at Fort Gordon in Georgia before taking up an army recruiting post in South Bend, Indiana. “I liked Indiana for its inspiring history, for its remarkable offerings to high culture, and for its friendly people,” Cooney says with a big New York smile. So, after he left the Army at the end of 1983, he decided to stick around. He used his GI Bill to attend IU in Bloomington where he completed his MBA degree—in management of nonprofits—in 1986.

Thanks to all he got to see in Europe, he says he is a champion for the high quality of cultural offering students at Ivy Tech have right here in Indianapolis—even right here on campus. For instance, he tells the story of how he has taken his humanities students outdoors on Fall Creek Boulevard and has them turn to face the NMC Building. He directs them to look with care at its monumentally graceful facade. “It’s a gem of an example of Palladian architecture, and I like to point out its lovely Renaissance proportions to my kids.”  He thinks they can do so much to ‘learn to look’ right here at home. “When they finally do get to Europe, the big monuments there will be ones they can say are ‘just like those back home’ in Indiana,” Cooney says with a wink.

Check it out students! Professor Jack Cooney plays with a full deck, he’s a foursquare scholar who’s done his share of real world gigs—army man, graduate student, art school fund raiser, book and antiques seller, human services agency fund raiser, fund raiser for a professional association of lawyers, executive director for a housing fund, hand bookbinder, nonstop storyteller (ask him about his grandchildren!)—and now for twelve years he’s been a college history and humanities teacher here at Ivy Tech.

He jokes that he studied history not so he could ‘teach history, but so I could make history.’  “But come to think of it, we are making history here at Ivy Tech,” he says with a grin, “and what a great lesson that is to teach!”

You have just met another one of the most remarkable and colorful professors at Ivy Tech. Students, taking a class from this Professor can only enrich your life. Thank you, Professor Cooney for your contributions to students at Ivy Tech.

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