Campus Community / People of SU

Shop Teacher Extraordinaire

Written by Mike Thee

April 20, 2010

Bob Harmon - Shop Talk
Bob Harmon (top) talks history with members of SU's Facilities team.

Retired faculty member Bob Harmon brings history to life in the unlikeliest of classrooms.

The modestly proportioned break room in SU’s mechanical shop bears no resemblance to an ordinary SU classroom. Yet each Tuesday at noon, about a dozen employees in Seattle University’s Facilities Services department put their tool belts down and filter in for a crash course in history. Over sandwiches, soup and re-heated leftovers, the group of plumbers, electricians, carpenters and locksmiths take their seats around the square table. Then, the man of the hour begins to lecture and away they go.

Bob Harmon officially retired from SU as a history professor in 1993, but he’s never really left. After becoming professor emeritus he continued his longstanding practice of dropping by the mechanical shop to get advice on his latest home improvement projects. Oftentimes, the tables would turn and the conversations would morph into a history lesson. Two regular participants in these sorts of conversations, Mike Mullen (mechanical shop lead) and Pat McCurdy-Baldwin (controls shop lead), saw an opportunity. They invited Harmon to present more formal lectures to Facilities staff members, and the professor happily acquiesced.

Since last spring 2009, Harmon has been teaching the weekly seminar. Going in, he set some ground rules. “I would do some discussions with them on any of the topics where I thought had some expertise,” he says. “The only caveat was I would not do anything that I have to prepare.”

As such, there’s no syllabus, no papers, no exams and no prerequisites. The students show up faithfully, nonetheless. Mullen and McCurdy are SU graduates, ’89 and ’83 respectively, but most participants do not have college degrees. Some take notes; most just listen intently. Cell phones, often the bane of the modern-day professor, are accepted as necessary in this classroom. Each week, at least one tradesperson is called away, mid-lesson, to fix a leaky pipe or attend to some other facilities-related emergency. The teacher takes it in stride. On this day, when someone’s phone rings, Harmon says, “Oops, there you go!” as the staffer hurries out of the room.

As for the subjects covered, the group began with a series of classes comparing British and American labor law. After that, they took up topics related to World War II, an era very much in Harmon’s wheelhouse. He was a rifleman in General George Patton’s Third Army and was in Germany when the army accepted the surrender of Weimar and liberated a concentration camp. In fact, the seminar went on hiatus this April when Harmon returned to Germany for the 65th anniversary where he was recognized as the last surviving member of the patrol that accepted the surrender.

Historic in their own right are Harmon’s ties to SU. After graduating more than a half century ago, he let it be known that he wanted to come back one day as a professor. He did, and it became a lifelong passion. “I chose teaching as something I would like to do and I just fell in love with it.”

Asked what he gets out of the Tuesday seminars in the break room, Harmon replies, “I love the discussion. I also feel that I’ve had the advantage of 50 years of free education. I feel an obligation to share what I know. But most of all, it’s a hell of a lot of fun.”

His students are equally grateful for the opportunity. Mullen is most struck with Harmon’s humility. Here’s a guy, after all, who has lectured at some of the most prestigious institutions in the U.S., including West Point, and abroad. Yet he’s just as much at ease holding court with the Facilities staff.

“Bob is just not intimidating whatsoever,” Mullen says. “He’s so good at explaining things experientially—not intellectually—and yet you walk away enlightened. He doesn’t want to sound smart. He just wants you to learn. He’s the smartest shop teacher I’ve ever met.”