English Professor Closes Chapter on 44-Year Career
By Heather Greene
Stacks of boxes filled with decades of research, lecture notes and well-loved copies of literary favorites line the wall. Commencement invitations from previous students sit displayed among photos of days gone by. It is an office between occupants that barely begins to tell the impact of its owner. After 44 years of teaching, Jacksonville State University English professor Dr. Steven J. Whitton has announced his retirement.
On the subject of what drew him to the world of English and teaching, Whitton attributes this “as the result of having had some terrific teachers in high school.” In his senior year of high school, one particular instructor and creative writing course had a lasting impact upon him. Observing how his instructor conducted class, he found himself realizing, “She’s having a really good time with class. I kind of like this…At that point on, I knew that I wanted to teach English.”
“My parents were horrified because they worried about my starving,” recalls Whitton. His father insisted that he go straight through school to a Ph.D. if he pursed a life of teaching English, a promise he fulfilled by earning his bachelor’s, master’s, and Ph.D. from the University of South Carolina.
In 1973, Whitton set foot on the campus of JSU at the tender age of 26, having been hired as a generalist English instructor. Over the years, his area of expertise has focused upon American literature, specifically the very early or contemporary periods.
On the subject of what he enjoys about his job, he stated, “The human contact and the fact that usually a classroom can be a place to exchange ideas. I love a good academic argument; I love students arguing with me…if I’m talking about something I really like and the students respond to it, then I’ve had a really good day.”
He often views teaching as a means of translating and transferring ideas to students. When students buck the idea of literature, he simply explains that literature is there to “show them how to be in this world.”
Any student of Whitton’s can attest that he has always exemplified professional dress, as it is rare to see him without a tie or in a dress shirt and slacks. This characteristic was brought about by his father, a tailor who taught him and his brother what was and was not appropriate to wear.
“I always dressed for class,” explained Whitton. “Well, somebody’s got to have confidence in me, so that’s why I do that. I still wear a tie.”
If he had not chosen the profession of teaching, what career path would he have taken? “I really can’t answer that because ‘teacher’ has just always been in my life,” he said. “There are other things that I enjoy doing, but I can’t think of doing anything else.”
As a professor for more than four decades, the idea of not following his usual daily routine is a bit novel to him, but he plans to test the waters to find his own path in retirement. “I think what I need to do is just check it out,” he said. “You know, just sort of see what it is.” But one thing he is sure on, he plans to continue calling Jacksonville his home.Not only has Whitton been a vital part of the university, but he has a special place within the community as well. He can often be found in the pages of the Anniston Star offering a review on a new book or on the stage bringing a character to life. Whitton is also known for his work with the annual Holocaust Remembrance event, which has been drawing crowds of all ages and backgrounds together for 35 years.
Former students and colleagues had nothing but kind remarks for Whitton:
“Working with Steve? That seems like such a superficial description of what he means to me and to everyone else in our department. He’s one of our patriarchs, one of the ‘founding fathers’ of this place, and imagining coming to work without him yelling ‘Morning, sunshine’ from across the hall, without having his tie to straighten or his office to declutter, makes me feel pretty nostalgic. Steve has set the proverbial bar high, not only with his excellence in the classroom and his intense work ethic, but especially with his love for and commitment to his colleagues and his students. The second floor of Stone Center will never be the same.” – Jennifer Foster, JSU English instructor and alumna.
“Steve Whitton is the kind of professor who helps make JSU's reputation as a place where professors know their students' names, whose care for his students shows in the high standards he sets for them.” – Ben Cunningham, JSU communications alumnus and managing editor for the Anniston Star.
“All our lives have been enriched by his loyalty, support, sense of humor, and sensitivity to the needs of those around him.” – Rebecca Burt, Whitton’s first graduate student, JSU alumna, and former English instructor.
“I have many fond memories of Dr. Whitton, but the dearest of them all is when he played the role of Morrie in ‘Tuesdays with Morrie.’ His performance was so gripping and compelling. In a recent discussion with Dr. Whitton, I mentioned how wonderful it was to see him on the stage, and I found myself fighting off tears. I think the tears were a combination of being taken back to his exceptional performance and realizing that he will not be in 210 Stone Center when the fall semester begins.” – April Mattox, JSU English instructor and alumna.
Other 2017 retirees at JSU include: Jerry Chandler, Richard Cobb, SFC Charles Dunaway, Donna Etheredge, Karen Henricks, George Lauderbaugh, Nancy Mellen, Susan Sellers, Gail Steward, MSG David Williams, and LTC David Wood.
JSU would like to send best wishes to Whitton and all retirees this year. No words could aptly convey the magnitude of each of your contributions to students and the university. Thank you!
A note from the writer:
One of my first memories of Dr. Steve Whitton was in his American Drama class. He was returning our first papers of the semester, and when he gave me mine, he paused, softly tapped his fingers on the paper and said something along the lines of, “You’re a very good writer.” Initially unsure of how a teacher on the caliber of Whitton would respond to my writing, it was in this moment that I felt I might not be too terrible at writing, simply because a professor like Whitton had complimented my work.
Since 2012, I’ve been writing in a professional capacity for the JSU Office of Public Relations, and it was an honor to write a spotlight article on a man who has made such a deep impact upon so many.
In seemingly circuitous fashion, this is my last article with the PR office, as I will be leaving to take a teaching position with the JSU English Department. I have so enjoyed the opportunity to paint countless JSU stories with words, shed a positive light upon many student triumphs, and develop contacts that I hope to cherish throughout life. Much love and thanks to the entire Department of Marketing and Communications for the kindness I’ve felt from each of you. ~ Heather Greene, JSU English alumna and incoming English instructor.
Top: Whitton in 2016 (Matt Reynolds/JSU courtesy).
Middle: Whitton in 1974, soon after arriving on the campus of JSU (JSU/Mimosa yearbook courtesy).
Bottom: Whitton in 1980 (JSU/Mimosa yearbook courtesy).