A group of admirers sat in the back of Paul Maier’s classroom Thursday, soaking up the Western Michigan University professor of ancient history’s lesson on the last part of the Roman empire and marveling at his knowledge of the ancient world.
They weren’t his students, the small band in the back of the room, but they also weren’t about to miss the moment.
As the university’s longest-serving faculty member — with more than 50 years teaching and, by Maier’s quick estimate, 20,000 students — Thursday was his last lecture at WMU.
At 80 years old, the internationally known scholar, whose 25 books have sold more than 4 million copies, said it’s time to put down his chalk.
“Sorry to have run over, team. But it’s my last” lecture, Maier said to his pupils and friends who applauded him as class ended a few minutes late.
They didn’t seem to mind that his talk went a bit long during a class period in which he never stopped moving and told story after story about the likes of Marcus Aurelius, Constantine and others as though they were associates once.
“He knows his subject. He’s passionate about it and he wants his kids to be passionate about it,” said Gail Heim. She’s a neighbor of Maier, who with her husband, Jim, and others, wanted to be there for the professor’s final time teaching at WMU.
The highly regarded expert on early Christianity, who first came to WMU 53 years ago as a campus chaplain, is set to retire with the close of the spring semester, which ends next week.
“I have reached my goal and that was to be the first faculty member out of 850 to have taught here a half century,” Maier, eyes twinkling, said gleefully after class Thursday. “It’s a nice round number.”
Maier jokes that he and WMU’s first president, Dwight Waldo, founded the university. That is a joke, as the university was founded in 1903, years before Maier was even born. But truth is, he has known every WMU president except for Waldo, he said Thursday.
An ordained minister, Maier started at the university as the Lutheran campus pastor in 1958, toward the end of the tenure of Paul Sangren, WMU’s second president. But Maier didn’t join the university’s history faculty until 1960.
“I wouldn’t change what I did for anything if I had it to do over again,” he said Thursday, reflecting on his career.
But nowadays Maier said his eyesight has grown poor, he wants to make room for younger scholars and he’s looking forward to spending part of the year in a warmer climate than Michigan can offer during winter months.
Maier said teaching and preaching are his life’s passions and instructing students all these years has been “too much fun.” That is, aside from reading their papers and grading their exams — which he describes as a distasteful task of “playing God when it comes grades.”
Brandon Stark, a philosophy major at WMU who wants to teach at the college level and will study history in graduate school, considers Maier a role model. He’s taken every class he could from the veteran professor.
Thursday’s class on ancient Rome that Maier taught Stark already had taken last year, but he sat in on it again this semester for more information and to learn from Maier’s teaching techniques.
“It’s kind of a bummer that he ended this year,” said Stark, who said he owns just about all of Maier’s books — both fiction and nonfiction. “I don’t know what I’m going to do next year.”
Stark said every class period, Maier is clearly excited about teaching, charismatic and just doesn’t seem like the stereotypical 80-year-old to this 22-year-old college senior.
“He’s full of energy. … He’s so sharp. Seems like he knows any important date and unimportant date. … I guess that comes with age and a lot of studying,” Stark said.
“The other thing that always amazes me is he gets out his notebook and sees where we ended the class and then he’ll just get up there and walk around and talk for the whole class. He’s got it all up there,” Stark said.
Though he’s retiring from the university, Maier has no plans to let all that knowledge “up there” go into retirement. Currently, he has speaking engagements across the country just about every weekend, and that won’t stop.
“The Constantine Codex,” the third novel novel in his trilogy “Skeleton in God’s Closet,” comes out in a month. He’s frequently appeared on national television for his expertise and has a History Channel project in the works.
“I’ll continue to be lecturing around Kalamazoo, Michigan and the nation. … My speaking calendar for the fall and for most of 2012 is almost already filled in every weekend,” he said, with the exceptions of summer months, which are set aside for family time.
“I hate to be bored,” Maier confessed. “This may sound ridiculous, but I don’t recall a time in the last 40 years when I’ve had to say, ‘Gee, What am I going to do today?
“I’ve always got something cooking.”
There’s a video of his ‘last lecture’ at the Gazette’s page as well … wouldn’t play for me for reasons unknown (my ISP is being obstreperous of late)