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Beneath the fedora

Professor Edmund La Clair finds happiness teaching, travelling abroad, and supporting his family

By Vanessa Ray
On September 13, 2018

Professor Edmund La Clair talks to a history class during the Winter 2018 semester. (Photo by Vanessa Ray)

 

If History Professor Edmund La Clair could tell each MCCC student one thing, it would be to fail.

“Look for opportunities to fail,” La Clair said. “Go in trying to succeed, and you’ll be surprised at what you’ll accomplish.”

Often seen strolling the halls of the C Building in a fedora, suit vest, and converse tennis shoes, some might mistake La Clair for one of the students in his classes.

While younger than most professors on campus, the enigmatic professor is already making a name for himself as an up-and-coming leader and favorite among students.

“Mr. La Clair is a fantastic professor!” said MCCC student Maria Moore. “I’ve had him for quite a few classes and his lectures make coming to class at 8 a.m. worth it.”

He also was recently named chairman of the Faculty Council, and coordinator of the college’s new Honor’s Program.

La Clair’s journey to becoming a professor of history began when he graduated from Arenac Eastern High School, “a tiny little high school in upper Michigan,” in 1997.

At first, La Clair’s goals were a little more Indiana Jones than his current position at MCCC.

“I wanted to be an archaeologist, actually,” La Clair said. “But I was told there was no money in studying archaeology, so I said ‘fine, I’ll study history, it’s almost the same thing.’ ”

La Clair received both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Central Michigan University, majoring in History while minoring in Political Theory.

The whole time La Clair was getting his degrees, he knew he wanted to become an educator.

“I wanted to teach, specifically at a community college,” he said. “I was even told not to by my advisors, who said, ‘you should go to a university, that’s where you’ll make more money.’”

But money was not the driving force behind La Clair’s desire to become an educator.

“I want to teach people, I want to know that I’m helping people learn things,” La Clair said. “So I wanted to go to a community college, and that had been the goal from the beginning.”

The difference between a large university and a community college was significant to La Clair.

“You really get to teach. Here I teach five classes a semester,” La Clair said. “At a university, I would teach one, maybe two classes – one being a lecture hall with 500 students, and the other being my grad assistant actually teaching the class.”

Though some professor’s might love the idea of having a grad assistant, La Clair’s main focus has always been the students.

“Here, I’m teaching, I get to help the students,” he said. “And that’s what I wanted to do.”

However, wanting to teach at a community college, and actually being able to do so, are two totally different things.

“It’s hard to find jobs in history,” La Clair said with a grin. “So I was actually browsing local colleges looking for places where they might have someone planning to retire soon,”.

La Clair’s search brought him to the county he now calls home.

“I moved to Monroe,” he said, “partially because of the history here, and partially because I saw they had one History professor, my dear friend Jim DeVries, who was clearly nearing retirement age.”

La Clair then got to work, literally.

“I got an internship at the museum (Monroe County Museum),” he said. “Just to make connections in the local history community and meet people.”

It was there he heard about an opportunity at MCCC.

“I heard the dean here had left, and he had been teaching history courses,” he said. “I came in with six copies of my resume and CV, and gave them to everyone from the Board of Trustees to deans to administrative assistants.”

La Clair also had a bit of luck on his side, as his information found its way to the right man’s hands.

“Three copies of that CV made its way to (former Dean) Vinnie Maltese,” La Clair said. “And he hired me as soon as he met me.”

Though he did not get the full-time job he wanted immediately, La Clair quickly rose through the ranks.

“We talked maybe five minutes and (Maltese) said ‘you’re hired to teach as an adjunct,’” La Clair said. “Then, six months later, Jim decided to retire, and I applied for his job.”

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Since Fall 2010, La Clair has been a full-time member of the faculty, which is something his students are grateful for.

“He has the best lectures,” said MCCC student Samantha Bartley. “He makes history interesting to students who may find it boring.”

Though La Clair’s love for his student’s is obvious, he is also a fan of his colleagues.

“The faculty are fantastic,” he said. “And Kojo has a remarkable passion for this college, which is fantastic to see.”

He tends to gravitate toward those who have the same passion for education.

“The people who work here who love this college, who love what it stands for,” La Clair said. “This is a place where we really do care about the students.”

La Clair’s passion does not go unnoticed by his colleagues.

“Ed La Clair has been a great asset to the Humanities/Social Sciences Division,” professor of English Lori Jo Couch said. “At a time when we have experienced many retirements, Ed has been willing to step into leadership roles.”

She also mentioned his commitment to his students.

“He has a sincere interest in his students and a passion for education,” Couch said.

It’s not just his colleagues who notice.

La Clair was recently awarded the college’s Enriching Lives Performance Award.

Though, if you were to ask La Clair, being able to interact with a student is more important than any award.

If La Clair had not had a bit of luck on his side when applying for the MCCC job, he’s not sure what he would be doing now.

“Probably running a restaurant or selling life insurance,” he said, without a hint of sarcasm. “To be honest, it is that hard to find a job in history.”

Luckily, he does not have to worry about either of those and can focus on what is important to him, namely, his daughter.

“Taking care of my daughter is 99% of what I actually do,” La Clair said. “It’s all about taking care of Sophia.”

When he has spare time, La Clair is no different than many of the young adults in his classes.

His office, filled with a wide array of comics, is testament to that.

“I’m also a nerd,” he said. “So there’s also a lot of role-playing games, and Magic the Gathering.”

Travelling and learning about other cultures is another of La Clair’s passions.

Like many of the professors and students who have been on MCCC study abroad, the trips have had life altering effects on La Clair.

“I think my favorites were visiting places of spiritual importance to me,” he said. “I was over-awed standing in the Parthenon and Pantheon, walking through Mycenae, (and) rushing with Bill McCloskey through the museum on Crete so we could see a few important artifacts.”

However, it was a moment with a woman with a name whose name bears special meaning to La Clair which provided his best memory.

“I think the best though was a tour guide who took us through Agamemnon's tomb,” he said. “She was very clearly a Greek pagan woman who still worshiped the old deities, named Sophia – the Greek word for wisdom – and the same name I gave my daughter.”

“When she realized how seriously I took that faith, the history of her land and the culture she shared and taught, she threw her arms around me and gave me a quick blessing,” La Clair said. “It was really at that moment that rather than just seeing places of historic and spiritual importance, I could see the vital life of a culture that was over 3,000 years old and still vibrant.”

While studying abroad, La Clair’s passion for culture and thinking critically rubbed off on those who were with him.

“Studying in Italy and Greece with professor La Clair was both fun and fascinating,” Journalism professor Dan Shaw said. “He obviously knows a lot of history, but he also shares insight into the ‘how’ and ‘why’ and ‘what’ behind the history.” 

Though he has succeeded, La Clair often comes back to the advice he would offer students.

“The best things in my life have been those times I’ve failed –  not finishing my PhD and discovering my passion is teaching, that was a good thing for me,” La Clair said. “You learn a lot more about who you are when you can fail.”

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