“We have to plant a tree.”
These were his first words to me.
I had just gotten out of the car.
We had not seen each other in some time. I had written ahead to see if I could visit. “Of course!” was the enthusiastic reply.
Dr. Don Fowler had been one of my professors in graduate school.
Don road a motorcycle . . . in 1980 . . . way before riding bikes was cool . . . and he taught at a conservative, evangelical seminary. At times, you could trace a sly smile across his face as he rode out of the parking lot; a look of pure joy.
Don’s coffee pot was never off. Most of us believed java—not blood—ran through Don’s veins. Whenever I visited Don in his office he would immediately go to an antechamber through a door in the back of his office, returning with a fresh pot of brew to share.
When you entered Don’s office you were immediately reminded of your grandmother’s attic, nostalgia replaced by rows and stacks and reams of books. I was always in awe of that office. In many ways my office today is an exact replica of his.
I will never forget Don’s doctoral dissertation on “Shepherd” in First Testament teaching and its interpretive importance for John 10: “I am the Good Shepherd.” To this day I teach Don’s seminal contribution.
When he taught, Don would mash his open palm into his face, momentarily rubbing his head while teaching. I have lost count of how many times I have done exactly that, catching myself in the act, then having to recount why I do so to my wide-eyed students.
Don’s consummate understanding of First Testament language, history, culture, and biblical studies in general was our inspiration. He would hand out notes the size of a small city phone book. Inside were paragraphs of thought, outlines to be completed during class, maps, charts, graphs, and an occasional side-splitting comment about some Assyrian general.
I have had many graduate professors but Don, without exception, was and still is my favorite.
Don’s lively, passionate, caring, relevant lectures enthralled me. His excitement about his material stirred me. Don turned what many might suppose to be dry, dusty historical minutia into soul-stirring replays of events and personas. He would often reflect on current political-cultural issues through the lens of his First Testament teaching. Comprehensive understanding of history 3500 years removed, I would sit on the edge of my seat soaking in his content and delivery.
I have often reflected on Don’s impact on my teaching life asking myself why it was so powerful.
So we got in the car, went to the nursery, paid for the tree, returned to his house, dug a hole, and planted the tree. All the while we talked as if nothing had changed from the last time we saw each other. We chatted about life, our families, our teaching, our collective memories. Don cooked dinner for his wife and me. Don and Peg even gave up their bed so that I could sleep comfortably during my overnight visit, each of them taking a couch.
Now, whenever we have guests in our home, our bed becomes theirs. I cook for all our visitors. If there is something to be done around town or around the house invitations to participate are always offered. I have yet to dig a hole, planting a tree with a student of mine, but I have visited a construction site, pored over architectural plans, been given tours through office buildings, witnessed student teachers teach, listened to innumerable vocational dreams, and watched with delight as young lives begin their first steps in ministerial roles.
Yes, Don wanted to plant a tree but by doing so he planted his teaching life into mine.
Don teaches at Liberty University School of Divinity. Mark is writing a book this summer on his 30+ years of teaching junior high through PhD students. You can read Dr. Eckel’s views of education here and keep track of new writing throughout the summer here at Warp&Woof.
Dr. Don Fowler’s teaching taught me essential educational lessons:
- Invitation Don’s affection for his students has always been a hallmark of his person. My experience, I’m sure has been reproduced in so many of us, his students.
- Initiation Content trumps method. How one teaches is important but is inconsequential unless the teacher knows his subject. And, oh, does Don know his subject!
- Illumination Don’s teaching is a searchlight into a cavernous cave. His knowledge is the light, illumined darkness his subject. I always left class knowing so much more than when I went in.
- Investigation It was Don’s expertise that motivated my learning. I wanted to know what he knew. His insatiable thirst to know became mine.
- Investment The plain fact that Don taught, that he reveled in teaching, that he believed knowledge should be transferred to me and my classmates is what I repay every time I teach my students.
Thank you Dr. Fowler for the mark you left on me, an image tattooed on many others since.