Himelstein to become “old retired person”

Mesa Aupperlee

Jerry Himelstein

With his languid drawl, extravagant moustache and ready laugh, Assistant Professor of Behavioral Sciences Jerry Himelstein has become an almost iconic presence in McClelland Hall during the past six years, but that will all end in May when he retires.

“One of the biggest things I’ll miss is him coming into my office every morning and saying, ‘good morning’ with a smile on his face,” said Staff Assistant for Education and Behavioral Sciences Vicky Sanborn. “Very few people do that, so it’s been nice to know Jerry will be walking by every morning. His students love him. I think he’s very down to earth, and cares a lot about each and every student.”

JSC’s Dean of Academic Affairs Dan Regan particularly appreciates Himelstein’s contributions to the campus, noting his popularity among faculty, staff and students. “Jerry is one of our finest teachers, and a teacher who is much appreciated by his students,” he said. “I’ve visited his classrooms on numerous occasions, but even beyond that, he’s somebody who respects students and takes very seriously what students have to say. Students know that, and they gravitate toward Jerry.”

When discussing very serious political topics such as those in his Social Movements and Mass Media in Society classes, Himelstein’s friendly, relaxed demeanor helps keep the discussion civil. As a student in his Social Movements class, Chris Chabot finds Himelstein very articulate. “I’m impressed by his calm demeanor, throughout the class and throughout many of our discussions,” he said. “I know [class discussions] get pretty heated sometimes due to the sensitive nature of the content, and yet he eloquently drives the class through the discussion, and manages to defuse situations that could become really intense.”

Mesa Aupperlee, a student in his Mass Media and Society class, has found that despite Himelstein’s knowledge and expertise, he is relaxed and approachable. “He’s very patient, which I think is a learned skill,” she said. “If people ask questions that a lot of people would think are dumb questions, he would just re-phrase it better. Jerry’s really laid back, really easy to talk to.”

Himelstein arrived in Vermont when he was forced to leave New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. “While we don’t wish tragedies like Katrina on anybody, we certainly are glad that the circumstances brought Jerry Himelstein into our midst,” Regan said.

A native of Mississippi, Himelstein worked in the arena of civic and political activism. “I did a variety of things,” he said. “I taught sociology once before, early in my career at the University of Mississippi. After that, I went to work for the attorney who was suing the State of Mississippi on behalf of the prisoners in the State correctional system; the lawsuit concerned the conditions of confinement of the prisoners. My job was to inspect all the county jails in which state prisoners were being held, to see if they were complying with the federal courts orders regarding fire safety, nutrition and health care.”

Himelstein also became active in other legal issues, including voting and civil rights in a number of southern states. “Other work that I did in court had to do with voting rights and lawsuits,” he said. “I worked for civil rights attorneys who were bringing lawsuits about voting rights in Mississippi, Virginia and Texas. I worked as an expert witness in a variety of lawsuits regarding voting rights, 20-some odd lawsuits.”

Other civil rights issues ranging from employment discrimination to the death penalty attracted his attention, and he provided expert testimony for various civil rights attorneys. “They would need sociological testimony in the course of proving their cases, and I was able to help them do that,” he said.

According to Regan, some of Himelstein’s work had a major impact in Mississippi, especially in enacting hate-crime legislation in that state.

“Jerry has significant real-world experience that he brought to Johnson State College,” Regan said. “Those real-life experiences and the sociological lessons derived from them make their way into his classrooms, and find favor with his students. He helped to reinforce the cultural ethos around here, which is to respect students, and to take very seriously the work that students and faculty do together. The program that Jerry works within, the Anthropology-Sociology program (ANS), is a growing program, and we believe that’s in part because of Jerry’s participation in it.”

Co-chair of the behavioral sciences department, Susan Green, echoes Regan’s observations that Himelstein brings a powerful mix of real-word experience, academic credentials and a very well articulated sense of social justice to all his classes.

“Very quickly, I learned this “gentle fellow with a quiet way of talkin”” was also highly perceptive, deeply knowledgeable and was passionate about social justice for all people,” said Green. “In his classes, he helped students see and examine the often invisible ways that societal economics, politics, education, crime and culture impacted people’s lives, their opportunities for health—for good paying jobs—and for fair and respectful treatment for all people around the world. And that is why Jerry has been so popular among our ANS students.”

Green has also been struck by Himelstein’s warmth and kindness, both of which have been shared generously with students, faculty, and staff. “Jerry always has students in his office, chatting about their lives and their studies,” she said. “ His advisees and students tell me how wonderful he is, how knowledgeable he is, how helpful he is in their planning for their future lives and careers and how incredibly kind and caring he is, and — don’t tell Jerry — the students are plotting ways to get him to not retire.

Associate Professor of Writing and Literature Tyrone Shaw, who is also chair of the Faculty Assembly, said he had “very mixed feelings” about Himelstein’s planned departure in May. “What can I say? I’m glad for Jerry because this is what he wants to do, but I’m also a bit sad for us,” Shaw said. “He’s been an absolutely delightful colleague, a major asset to his department, and a welcoming presence to so many of us on this campus during the past six years. Of course I’m going to be sorry to see him go, and I won’t be alone in that respect.”

As to his plans after retiring in May, Himelstein says, “I plan to spend a lot of time with my grandchildren and my wife, and to go fishing, and just be a retired old person. I’m looking forward to it.”

Himelstein said he will leave the college in good spirits. “I have nothing but fond memories of students,” he said. “I think the students at Johnson are wonderful; part of the reason I think that is because so many of them are so earnest about their education, and interested in learning new ideas. I can’t imagine teaching any group of students who would have provided more exciting rewards. What I’ll take away from Johnson is a deep measure of gratitude for the opportunity to have had the conversations I have had with students in the course of teaching here.”