Memories of William Staerkel

By Mary Lee Sargent 11/15/02

Spring 1968 - My first meeting with Dr. Staerkel was in the spring of 1968 when I was interviewing for a faculty position at Parkland. His office at the time was on the second floor of the Kresge Building in downtown Champaign; the Parkland library, or Learning Resource Center in sixties educationese, was on the first floor of the building. I was very nervous and remember being put at ease by this very imposing figure, the first college president that I had ever met. The questions he asked me have faded from memory, but I remember feeling that the interview went well. One thing that I do recall is that I told him, for some strange reason, that the Vice President, Don Smith, had asked me during my interview with him why I didn't wear lipstick. And Dr. Staerkel said in a tone I interpreted as dismay or incredulity "He actually said that to you." I liked his response.

Autumn 1969 I was called in by Dr. Staerkel who had been contacted by the FBI about me for a possible violation of the federal flag burning statute. This law had been passed recently in response to the common protest tactic during the Vietnam war of burning flags and draft cards. I had burned a tiny flag, an expired draft card and a copy of the US Constitution in my large lecture US History class, held in the Jefferson building, to demonstrate the techniques used by agitators and dissenters in the abolitionist movement and the Vietnam War. I was a relatively new teacher and had thought this would add spark to the class. Since I didn't yet have tenure, I was nervous about the meeting with President Staerkel. I still remember the student who turned me in, a young closeted lesbian, politically conservative and raised by parents in the military. She definitely had a love/hate relationship with me.

I explained to Dr. Staerkel that I had meant this as a teaching exercise only and not as a protest in and of itself and said that I would be happy to supply my typed lecture notes which would demonstrate just that. I apologized profusely for the trouble and said that I had been very naive and ignorant to do such a thing. I thought abject-contrite was the best stance to take if I wanted to keep a job I loved. Dr. Staerkel appeared very understanding and did not punish me for my act. Interestingly enough, two FBI agents visited my home in Champaign on New Year's day that year. Since they called first, my husband at the time and I had time to scurry about the house politically sanitizing it. The de-radicalization included hiding radical books and magazines and scraping a bumper sticker off our car bumper. I wish I could recall the message on the sticker, but I think it was something like "America! Love it and change it"(an obvious play on the then popular "America! Love it or leave it").

Another memory sometime in the early 1970's, I believe in preparation for our first NCA Self Study and site visit. I was assigned the task of writing a history of the college. As part of my research I spent several days in the administrative offices which were still on the second floor of the Kresge building above the LRC. The small archives of the college were kept in a file, perhaps in Rachel Schroeder's office. At any rate, as I read over Board minutes and other documents, I could hear Dr. Staerkel on the phone. I remember being stunned by how hands-on he was, how involved in what I, at the time, considered ridiculous minutiae. The example that stands out in my mind is that he was talking to someone in charge of basketball games or at least of the gym during games about the lack of ticket takers at the door.

Also in the early 1970's Parkland was involved in a law suit initiated by Vern Fein. Mr. Fein had been offered a full or parttime teaching job in English, but it had been withdrawn, probably when college officials discovered that Fein had been a well-known campus radical involved in antiwar protests at the U of I. I was told by the plaintiff that my name had been used in court by Parkland attorney's to rebut the claim that Mr. Fein had been denied a position because of his radical views. According to Fein's account of the rebuttal, I was cited as a "good" radical, who could work with others, while he was being rejected not for his radical views but because of his uncooperative and personally combative work style. I was both amused and pleased to be a "good" radical having been raised as a southern lady and female child to be very, very good.

This would be an appropriate time to talk about my general attitude toward Dr. Staerkel during the 18 years I worked with him. It was definitely what I would call a love/ criticizeprivately-and-feelsuperior-to relationship on my part. Not anywhere close to a love/hate relationship, because I genuinely liked, maybe even loved, the man. He was kind and forgiving and mostly respectful toward me. Yet he was the CEO and I identified as a worker. He was management; I was the champion of the working class, middle class though I have always been. He was conservative; I was radical. He was inarticulate (in my arrogant view); I was a verbal whiz. Keep in mind that I was terribly ignorant of what it takes to be an administrator, a CEO, at the time and had zero conception of the different roles necessary to run an institution or large organization. Naively, I thought he should be and do everything I thought he should be and do. Since he wasn't and didn't, I privately, to other critical souls, criticized and made fun of him at times - - especially of his annual fall talk to the staff during orientation week. I'll never forget one talk that brought down lots of private abuse on his poor unsuspecting head, and that was a really sweet story he told about a professor he deeply admired who wore old shiny blue serge suits. The point of the story was not to be fooled by appearances, a very valid point, I realize now. But I interpreted it as another example of William Staerkel's "obsession" with appearances, his shallowness. Yet, even as I saw him as my adversary, as management versus me the worker, as a powerful man to my feminist woman, I felt great affection for him and was mostly respectful and friendly to him directly and face-to-face. One of the greatest compliments I have ever received, one echoed recently by Dr. Harris, is that even though he and I often disagreed, I was still friendly and smiling and respectful to him and to others most of the time.

Spring of 1980 - This story is out of chronological order but relates to one of the fall Staerkel talks that I regularly made light of. This I made manipulation of, I'm afraid. In the fall of 1977, or 78 or 79, Dr. Staerkel entitled his fall talk " Where Have the Elms Gone?:" or "Where the Elms Have Gone" or something similar. Although I had done my usual gossipy bitching about how pedestrian or dumb or whatever the talk was, I then turned around in the spring of 1980 and wrote a flattering letter about it, adding that his obvious love of trees, reflected in the plantings on our beautiful campus and the content of his speech, led me to ask him to finance the purchase of four trees for Arbor Day. At that time I had each of my history classes plant a tree. He agreed immediately, and that is how Arbor Day at Parkland began.

Another memory that I can't date because it happened several times is that I used to go into his office on impulse when I was really upset about something. I can't imagine doing that now. And I can't even use the excuse that I was young, because I did it into my early 40's. One time it was because workers were chain sawing or power drilling or generally doing noise violence right below my classroom, and it was impossible to teach or hear. I don't recall my exact words, but I do remember marching in and saying something on the general order of "This has got to stop." He was always so patient and receptive. It amazes me about him as I think about it now. What must he have thought? On another occasion, I remember talking with him at the foot of the library stairs and him saying that I meant well but was too idealistic. My rebuttal was, "I like to think that I have principles that I care passionately about." Despite our many disagreements, I never recall us getting angry at each other as we talked.

In the spring or early summer of 1979, (or was it 1980?) Dr. Swank and Dr. Staerkel had decided to remove Pauline Kayes as Director of the Women's Program. Rather than do it directly, they used the usual tactic of revising the organizational structure and reorganizing her position out of existence. Her removal immediately became a cause celebre for some feminists in town, and we organized a barrage of protest letters to Staerkel and to the News Gazette. I remember getting a sense after this episode that Dr. Staerkel believed that I was the queen of feminists in town and could mobilize them to riot on the steps of Parkland if I wanted. This was perhaps a bit puffed-up and self important but is something that I thought at the time. I still believe that he felt some anxiety about what I might do in certain situations and had an unrealistic view of my power with feminists or anybody else for that matter. In connection with this episode, I visited Dr. Staerkel's office with Pauline as a support person and witness. At one point Pauline became very impassioned about what she perceived to be the gross unfairness of the administration toward her. I remember Dr. Staerkel interrupting her soliloquy for a minute while he called Rachel on his intercom and said, "Get Swank in here." It was clear he didn't want to take the heat from these two harpies alone. I'll never forget how awkward the whole scene was -Swank was ashen, Staerkel was squirming, Pauline was weeping, and I was speechless for once in my life.

Another visit to his office -- one of several over the years to argue for the re-instatement of a woman's program. I remember him asking me why I hated men and my reply to the effect that I didn't hate men and, in fact, had been trained as a woman to love men more than myself and to serve them. I then told him that it was true that I had fear and distrust of some men, because I was a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. Then in a fit of something crazy and a flood of words, I said that many women were sexually abused, that men are unaware of how common it is and how hidden, and that for all he knew his wife, Mary Lou(????), could have been sexually abused. I think of all the outrageous things I had ever said to him, this was the one that blew his socks off. He was mild and respectful as always though visibly shocked and uncomfortable.

In 1984, or 83, I was upset that Parkland was going to build a Planetarium, when to my mind, there were so many other important things to spend money on. Uppermost in my thoughts was the need for a Woman's Program, which had been axed for the third time recently. So I wrote a guest commentary to the News Gazette expressing my objections. As the paper usually does, an editor called Dr. Staerkel for a rebuttal guest commentary. You'd better believe he was on the telephone immediately summoning me to his office. I remember holding my ground when he asked me to withdraw it. Finally, very uncharacteristically (uncharacteristic out of ignorance more than principle), I hatched up a compromise. I would retract the letter if he would re-instate the Woman's Program. He agreed, and I left feeling elated and powerful although a little chagrined and guilty at being so unprincipled just to get something I wanted. In the end he outmaneuvered me, however, because he didn't bring back the woman's program as promised but started something called Adult Learning Opportunities under Norma Fosler, arguing that it would serve women primarily. An interesting side note is that he called Parkland Board member Bonnie Kelley into our conference because she was in an outer office waiting to have a meeting with him. He asked her what she thought about having a woman's program again. She said something to the effect that she thought that they were passe and being discontinued. Did I get on my highest horse. I turned on her and in the most imperious tone I could muster said , "Bonnie, I am afraid that you have been misinformed. In fact, the opposite is true. There are more women's studies programs and women's programs beginning then ever before." She was cowed and said nothing more. At least that is my me-as-the-star-of-my-own-memory-movie recollection.

One last memory and then I'll take a break for now. In August of 1982 Dr. Staerkel called me in for what I have named our "11 Atrocities" meeting. The previous June I had been a focus of media attention as a leader of a pro-ERA group which carried out many protests in the state Capitol in Springfield on behalf of ERA ratification. These protests had led to two arrests and a short jail term. Since I was not on contract to Parkland during the summer I had thought that I was free to do civil disobedience without fear of reprisal or placing my job at Parkland in jeopardy. Dr. Staerkel proceeded to tell me his experience over the summer in relation to me, and began listing all the calls he had received and what had been said. One of his 11 stories was about an exchange on the golf course, during which a golfing companion had said I looked like a witch (sad to say his companion was right, because I was having the worst hair month of my life to that point). Ever the gentleman, Dr. Staerkel reported that he had told the accuser that I was very attractive. He went on to recount calls from state legislators who wanted me dismissed, from local business leaders questioning whether I was violating my contract, and other assorted yowls and yips about my actions and fitness to teach at Parkland. To his credit, Dr. Staerkel never threatened me but merely reported what he had been through on my account. I sympathized with him, said I was sorry to be the source of his embarrassment and discomfort but that I had had to do it for my own sake and that of 115 million women and girls who did not have equal rights in the US.

Dec. 1982 - A brief follow-up to the "11 atrocities" encounter is that in December I took a two-page color photo of our protest group by the reknowned photographer Annie Liebowitz, which had just appeared in the Year in Pictures edition of Life magazine (dated January 1983), to his office for him to see. I intended to give it to him, if he wanted it. I could tell that he was truly impressed. He said something like "My, I certainly have never been in Life magazine." He even asked me to sign the photo.

November or December 1987 - When I got the news that Dr. Staerkel had died of another stroke, I cried out loud. Remembering all this, I am amazed that I wasn't canned, my ass thrown clear out of Parkland. To explain why I have to credit three factors: 1) my own luck and reputation as a strong and competent adversary; 2) Staerkel's tolerance, liberal values, avoidance of conflict and fear of negative publicity; and 3) the progressive times and political context of the 1960's through the mid 1980's in America. Today I would probably not have felt free or able to raise so many questions, so much hell. And if I had, I may not have survived. NOt because our current administration is less liberal or tolerant but because of the spirit of the times, the dramatic shift of the political pendulum to the right, the zeitgeist which Barbara Ehrenreich has labeled "the - globalized, corporatized, totalized, paved over everything."