Column: Retiring with lots of class; Campton Hills’ McDowell loves school

• Originally published in the Kane County Chronicle on Aug. 22, 2009

Some people want to be like Mike. I would rather be like John McDowell.

Since the early 1990s, McDowell, 78, of Campton Hills, has taken more than 300 credit hours worth of classes at Elgin Community College, one of the reasons he won the 2009 Lifelong Learner Award from the Illinois Community College Trustees Association last spring.

I can’t begin to describe how wonderful his retirement sounds to me. Forget Florida; give me college classes. I’m one of those people who would have been very happy going to college his entire life. (My pocketbook, however, would not have been too pleased with that choice – not at all.)

After college, I planned to take at least one class a semester while working. This lasted exactly one semester.

I took History of Latin America at Illinois Valley Community College during the first few months of my first professional job – a sports reporter for the News Tribune in La Salle. I loved it. And I haven’t found the time to take another class since.

I guess I’ll just have to wait until I retire like McDowell did.

On Friday, McDowell met with a few of his instructors in the Fox Valley University and Business Center at ECC to celebrate his recent award and remember good times. Talk about a teacher’s pet.

McDowell looks like a teacher’s pet, as well. Classic loafers. Well-ironed shirts and pants. Two pens in his shirt pocket. This is a man ready to study. And this is also how I want to look when I’m his age. The man is my role model. It’s as simple as that.

One of his former instructors at the luncheon was Donna Garcia, who taught him microbiology in the fall of 2007.

“He is awesome in the classroom,” Garcia said. “If we could have 10 of him, it would be heaven.”

I don’t believe a teacher has ever said that about me. Now, the other place …

Classwork comes naturally to McDowell, though. He taught at Carpenter Avenue Elementary School in Chicago until 1987, when he retired. He then moved with his wife to what was then St. Charles and began taking classes at ECC a few years after that.

“I needed something to keep me occupied,” he explains simply. So much for collecting stamps.

McDowell hasn’t been picky about his subjects, either, finding a field that interests him and working his way through that. He’s into the sciences now after strolling through math courses and the languages. His first few years at ECC were spent taking French, Spanish and German classes.

“I even took a couple of classes in Russian,” McDowell said.

And he hasn’t limited himself to book work. He also took piano and clarinet courses and is part of the Elgin Community Concert Band. Next up for McDowell is organic chemistry.

My precalculus textbook from my freshman year of college sits on my bookshelf quite lonely. It hasn’t been cracked since I failed the class and decided to earn my mandatory math credit by taking college algebra.

I’ve always wanted a second crack at the class, which is why I think I kept my precalculus book and sold my college algebra book. (Either that or I needed money.) McDowell has reminded me that I can still get that chance.

Harry Teichert of Geneva, a math instructor at ECC who taught McDowell a decade ago in various computer and math classes, was surprised to find out Friday that McDowell was still rolling through classes at ECC. But he was equally impressed.

“He’s a real role model on how to retire,” Teichert said. “He’s more mentally alive than many of my younger students.”

Yes, I definitely want to be like John McDowell.

Joe Grace is the editor of The Chronicle. Write to him at or call him at 630-845-5368.


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