The symmetry does not escape Joel Benson. In this classroom, Colden Hall 3500, the professor had taught his first courses 25 years ago.
Of course, the tiered lecture hall had yet to be remodeled; its long tables now stand new and unscarred, ready for student laptops. Those earlier days, students did not send text message and update their Facebook status during class. (Yes, he knows.)
And Dr. Benson has observed some life along the way.
The chalk announcement on the sidewalk outside the building also stood in contrast to his initial teaching days. On concrete, the words promoted the professor’s “Last Lecture,” though that speaks to a campus program rather than a career punctuation.
Dr. Benson assured the crowded room that he plans to be in class the next day, the next week and thereafter. But the “Last Lecture” series gives an invited Northwest Missouri State professor the chance each October to address students on subjects perhaps outside their discipline.
Maybe to tell some stories. Every history student in a quarter-century of classes knows the guy loves them.
Ahh, those stories. Dr. Benson enjoys little more than standing in front of a room and talking about the good and the bad, the genius and the folly, “the glories and the insanities of the human condition.”
He reveals the secret of every history professor: They got their start because of the stories.
Growing up in a small town in North Dakota, he found a broader world in the library. Kit Carson. Davy Crockett at the Alamo. Explorers who sailed the seas.
Hooked, just like that.
His grandfather, influential in his upbringing, told the future professor, “Remember who you are.”
All these years later, Dr. Benson remembers. And the thought instructs him on this evening, this reflection, this “last” lecture that really isn’t.
In the audience are students in Bearcat hoodies and sweats. At least one wears a shirt proclaiming the words “Rockstar Staff.” Some of the professor’s friends and colleagues line the back rows of Colden 3500.
He tells them that their existence makes up one chapter in a larger tale. And he tells them that through every experience, across all ages, every person faces the same questions.
Why are you here?
Where are you going?
What’s your story?
“Everybody’s trying to find the role that they’re going to play in this drama,” he says.
His role took him to Ohio, where he got degrees from Miami University and the University of Cincinnati. His interests ran to European history, and his dissertation at Miami, Ohio, focused on Anglo-Dutch economic relations in the 16th and 17th centuries.
He got his doctorate in 1987, the year he arrived at Maryville.
Science claims to be able to take cells and replicate the organism from which they came … cloning. Perhaps physically, Dr. Benson says, but not fully.
A person becomes a person through an accumulation of experiences and influences, the parents, teachers, clergy, family members that touch any life. And those people would have to be cloned because they had others who impacted them. And so on. The circle would never close.
“I really believe that inside each of us is that understanding that there is something more,” says Dr. Benson, a lay speaker in the Methodist church. “Our hearts and our souls hold dreams that time and space can not define. Those possibilities are not found in technology.”
Stories bind past and present. Early cultures had elders as the guardians of their stories, the professor says, passing along wisdom to the succeeding generation. The Jewish tradition carries forward the reading of the Haggadah, “the telling,” the story of a people’s deliverance from slavery.
And this sacred ritual, at the Seder meal each Passover, reminds them for millennia who they are, where they came from.
Dr. Benson’s story leaves little room for ceremony. He wears cowboy boots to his “last” lecture and make his first act the shedding of a sports coat. Students know him a certain way and he finds no need in dressing that up.
They know he tells stories. And the professor wants the students to consider their own.