Starting a New Chapter
by Tom Nurre
The ASU Chemistry Department lost a long-time member and leader this spring when department head Dr. George Shankle graded his last final and retired after 38 years at Angelo State.
The son of two teachers, Shankle grew up in western Tennessee, attended the University of Tennessee and then arrived at ASU in 1970 almost purely by chance. He was hired only after the original selectee for the job backed out at the last minute.
“The job market in all areas, especially the sciences, was very tight,” Shankle said. “Coming here was kind of a random procedure in a way. You know, you go here and do this, then you find another opportunity and you go there, and eventually end up some place like this that you really enjoy.”
“Once you settle in and you like what you are doing, you like the people you are working with and you get fairly comfortable, you look around and ask yourself, ‘would I find anything I like better?’ We didn’t come here with the intention of staying no matter what and we didn’t come here with the intention of leaving no matter what. You just see what happens.”
Though becoming a professor was never his ultimate goal, Shankle has earned the admiration of many colleagues, especially fellow chemistry professor, close friend and long-time running partner, Dr. Ross Dawkins.
“To me, George is an absolutely natural-born teacher,” Dawkins said. “He is very good at looking at any type of understanding the students need to have and breaking it down into steps that are well thought out and work well for them. He is also good at analyzing thinking errors in students and helping to get around them. In fact, I quote George quite a bit in my own lectures.”
Dawkins came to ASU at the same time as Shankle and the two became fast-friends. They have gone on many hunting, fishing and backpacking trips together and even staged their own minor rebellion against the ASU administration in the 1970’s with their “trendy” hairstyles.
“It’s not the kind of thing you would even notice now,” Dawkins said. “But, back in the early ’70s, for whatever reason, it seemed to bother the administration. So, they were always on our poor department head’s back trying to get us to cut our hair. If we did get it cut, it wasn’t very much. It was so clearly unimportant.”
In 1999 when chemistry needed a new department head, Shankle and Dawkins decided amongst themselves that, as the longest-tenured faculty members, one of them should take the job.
“We figured that one of us needed to be department head and we both voted for George,” Dawkins said. “He is better at the minutia than I am and less of a procrastinator. Department heads have so many deadlines and George is much better at those than I am, so I was happy to let him do it.”
While Dawkins’ friendship has been a constant over his long ASU career, Shankle has also seen many changes around campus in general and the Chemistry Department in particular.
“I think today’s students work a lot more than they used to, for one thing,” Shankle said. “Most of them seem to spend a lot of time with outside jobs and that is much different than when I came here. But, they also have access to much more financial aid here now than they did then, with the Carr Scholarship, Special Academic Scholarship and other programs. There are definitely differences, but we still get bright kids in here and it has been fun to work with them.”
ASU has also grown significantly during Shankle’s tenure and while he views that as a positive change, he also has fond memories of a smaller, more close-knit campus.
“We developed more friendships and relationships,” Shankle said. “We used to have a faculty group that went to lunch every week, but that is harder to do now that we are all spread out. We could see it coming, but that is just what happens when you start getting bigger.”
In the face of all the changes, one thing that never altered was Shankle’s dedication to his students. His honors include a 2002 Distinguished Faculty Achievement Award from the ASU Alumni Association and the 2007-08 “Rammy” Award for Professor of the Year in the College of Sciences from the Student Government Association.
“Most of the students we have coming in here to major in the sciences, chemistry and biochemistry especially, want to do something beyond getting their degree,” Shankle said. “It may be going to graduate school, med school or pharmacy school, getting a job or other sorts of things like that. Getting their degree is just the first step to going on to that next level and I think we have been successful in getting those students to that point. Occasionally, I will hear from a former student and that is always very gratifying to know that you played a part in getting them to that next level.”
“I always felt,” Dawkins said, “that if a student took George’s class, if they were likely to become a chemistry major at all, that was probably going to tip them that way. Through the years, there were so many kids that became chemistry majors after exposure to him.”
Shankle also liked to keep his students on their toes by not always following the sequence of lessons in their chemistry books.
“The sequence he followed often made more sense than what was in the book,” Dawkins said. “I tended to ask him what he was going to talk about in a given week and I’d talk about it also because I knew it is going to be a real natural sequence of concepts for the students. I have often wished that there was a book set up in the sequence that George taught in.”
Outside the classroom, Shankle also became a recognizable element of campus life as he and Dawkins often jogged through campus in very distinct attire.
“If people didn’t know us any other way, it was as those two guys who ran around in just their shorts,” Dawkins said.
Now, after 38 years, Shankle will take those and his many other memories of ASU into retirement.
“I don’t think I am the kind of person that tends to look back and miss things,” Shankle said. “I tend to remember them and enjoy them and the fact that they were there. I probably embellish them a little bit and add to them as I go along. But, I’m thinking more in terms of ‘this is a new chapter, this is a new direction we are headed in, let’s enjoy this, too.’”
With this new-found freedom, Shankle plans to continue doing all the things he already likes to do, including reading, travel, gardening, other outdoor activities and anything else that comes up.
“It has been a good ride and I’ve enjoyed it,” Shankle said. “You just get to the point when you think it is time to let a new generation take over. I thought about backing up and just teaching for a year or two, but then I thought that they really need some good, young blood in here, someone with new ideas and energy. That is what solidified my decision to just go ahead and retire completely.”
“My only regret is that now I have to clean out my office,” he added. “There is a lot of history here.”