By Sean P. Mulhall – Editor-in-Chief
Grand Rapids Community College Professor Harold Lee’s first day of college came as a 32-year-old, former foundry worker, part-time farmer and family man.
Although he claims that he always wanted to go to college, a third back surgery, due to a ruptured disc, was the deciding factor in what he calls, “a utilitarian decision.”
Lee enrolled at Montcalm Community College in 1987. After earning an associate’s degree he moved on to Aquinas for his bachelor’s, before attending Central Michigan University for graduate school.
While some people might think that going back to school at such an advanced age would help Lee to connect with the older students, that are so common, at GRCC, Lee said it was his family life that prepared him for this.
“Connecting with young people isn’t too difficult for me,” Lee said. “I have seven children and two step-children.”
“And 21 grandchildren,” adds Lee’s wife Jacquelyn, an adjunct at GRCC, laughing.
Lee went on to acknowledge that he is able to empathize with all students, especially those raising children. Attending college classes, working and raising children was something he experienced as well. Those experiences all helped shape the teacher he has become and makes it easier for him to relate to the people who find themselves in one of his humanities classes.
Back when Lee first enrolled at Montcalm CC most students went to school and that was it. Now he said more students work jobs, sometimes two, and some are parents or grandparents. Some worked in a factory for 20 or 30 years.
“My father worked at Michigan Wheel for 27 years,” Lee said. “That’s just what you did. His co-workers were my godfather…confirmation sponsor. I had Italian uncles, African American uncles, Polish uncles. I grew up on the southwest side of Grand Rapids. It was very Dutch and very Caucasian. I had something special.”
Growing up in the ‘60s was a very difficult time for racial equality, but Lee says his father deserves a lot of credit for the man he is today.
“My dad liked people,” Lee said. “There was no bias, no racism. It wasn’t tolerated… I remember when the first black family moved into the neighborhood. It might have been my young mind, but it seemed like houses immediately went up for sale…I used to joke that my family and one other were the minority, we were the only Catholics.”
After spending eighth and ninth grade at St. Joseph’s Seminary, studying for the priesthood, Lee moved home due to declining grades.
“I fell behind in my studies,” Lee said. “I had too much freedom. It was like going away to college, except you’re in ninth grade. I didn’t get into any real trouble. I just didn’t study. It’s tough taking Latin and Spanish exams on the same day.”
He turned it around after moving home. In high school Lee was the vice president of his class and chapter president of Future Farmers of America. He graduated from Grant High School in 1973 and went to work immediately at the Michigan Wheel Corporation, a foundry that his father worked at, while farming part time.
Religion is obviously very important to the man who wears a wooden cross around his neck everyday and teaches more than one class with the word ‘Religion’ in the title, both created from scratch, by Lee.
“I wanted to become a priest,” Lee said, reflecting on the two years in seminary. “It wasn’t a matter of not wanting it. I fell so far behind and my parents wanted me to come home.”
Even though he stopped studying for the priesthood, Lee said, “It instilled a lot of things in me.”Religion is still a major force in his daily life. Family is another big thing for him as well. When professor Lee talks about family he doesn’t just mean his wife, children, stepchildren and grandkids.
“Church is another family,” Lee said. “That idea of community is so important. I’m triply blessed. I have a wonderful community in my family, with my kids, grandkids, my more than understanding wife. Then I have this wonderful community here at CC, made up of faculty, staff. Everybody here is fantastic…You can approach anybody…I can walk up and chit chat with Dr. Ender about gardening.”
The community of GRCC is professor Lee’s favorite part. That’s what has kept him here for over 15 years. For the past 11 years Harold and Jacquelyn Lee have been teaching split courses together. A husband and wife team-teaching split courses is a rare phenomenon.
“I guess in the old days, some of the humanities courses were team-taught by three or four faculty,” Lee said. “But as far as I know…I don’t know of any other husband-wife team teaching…We’ve been team-teaching now for 11 years…It sounds like, ‘Oh goody, I don’t have to do as much work,’ but we have to really communicate on things.”
The Lee’s had to think back to remember if they taught together while they were engaged and decided that they were for the first year. Another reason professor Lee is so fond of GRCC is that he met his wife at the college. In February, the Lee’s will celebrate their 11th anniversary. In the summer of 2001 former Spanish teacher Bob Taylor, introduced Harold to Jacquelyn, in the cafeteria of the student center.
“She asked me if I had time to talk,” Lee said.
“That’s a big line with us,” adds Jacquelyn, delighted to take over the story.
“So we talked until the cafeteria shut down. The cafeteria workers were really nice and said,
“We could put you next door in the Quiet Café.’”
They sat in the Quiet Café and talked for so long that Harold ended up arriving late to class.
“The students didn’t know why,” Lee said. “When she walked in and gave me my keys, they all went, ‘woooooh!’”
After dating for a while Harold decided it was time to pop the question. And he decided to pick a place that meant a lot to him and now means a lot to both of them, the very same classroom that she delivered his keys to over 13 years ago. Room 214 in the Main Building was Lee’s designated classroom for many years.
According to Jacquelyn, GRCC gave Harold Lee a designated classroom and that is something that doesn’t happen at the college.
“It was the original library here,” Jacquelyn said referring to the now business department.
“It’s been remodeled… It’s a very special room to us, because he proposed to me there. After class, not during.”
“They remodeled the classroom,” Lee said. “It doesn’t look quite the same…It was kind of sad leaving it, because it was a special room. Think about the number of students that, both Mrs. Lee and I… encountered in that room. And the relationships I built in that room.”
Lee doesn’t just teach classes at GRCC, but has also been known to write a couple as well. He wrote both World Religion and Philosophy of Religion. Those courses did not exist before he created them.
Relationships, whether it is with his wife, a colleague-friend or current or former students, are what Harold Lee has gained from his time at GRCC.