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John Elliott factors new harmonious equation into life after UMFK

December 3, 2004



John Elliott teaching one of his final classes at UMFK recently.

The coming weeks will be filled with emotion for University of Maine at Fort Kent professor of mathematics John Elliott, who will both retire after a quarter century of teaching on the St. John Valley campus, as well as publicly launch a new career in gospel music, with the recent release of a CD featuring his original lyrics and melodies.

If the new "gig" is anything like his current one, what Elliott sees as a one-time opportunity to try something new, may very well turn into a remarkable career that takes him to new heights.

It was 25 years ago that the mathematician, educator and musician found himself embarking on another adventure, one brought upon by a very different set of circumstances, and one that was intended to be a temporary fix.

Looking ahead, while reflecting on the past, John Elliott is ending an illustrious chapter in his life that began in the fall of 1978 at UMFK with what started as a one-year appointment.

It was earlier that same year when Elliott, an alumnus and faculty member of the former Ricker College in Houlton, suddenly found himself without a job as the private school closed due to bankruptcy.

Forced to explore his options, Elliott looked around for a one-year appointment that would afford his family the time to consider where to relocate permanently.

"I chose UMFK because it was a small campus (like Ricker) and it would not be so far to move for just one year. The transition from Ricker to UMFK was not difficult since they were similar, except Ricker was a private college. Additionally, I found the personnel here very welcoming, friendly, and helpful," said Elliott.

Indeed, he felt so welcome at UMFK that when he learned the faculty member he was temporarily replacing would not be returning he immediately applied for the position.

"At first, I was thinking about doing the best job I could here for the students for one year and then search for another position. But that short-time mind set soon changed," said Elliott. "UMFK opened a search and I applied for the position because I felt good about this campus and wanted to continue to develop my career here."

Elliott was hired for the tenure track position and his family moved to Fort Kent where his duties at the university expanded to include committee work, curriculum development, advising, and scholarly activities.

In the more than two decades since his appointment, he has not only excelled in each area, but has risen to prominence and earned national and international recognition for his work both in and out of the classroom.

The accomplishments and accolades would come both early in his tenure at UMFK, and after he took a two-year leave of absence from 1982 through 1984 to work on his doctoral degree in curriculum and instruction from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In 1986, he received his much desired third degree.

The Ph.D. came 20 years after he earned his masters degree in mathematics from the University of Maine in Orono and 25 years after he received a bachelor of arts in mathematics from Ricker. In addition, he conducted post-masters study in mathematics at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton in the early 1970's.

Without question Elliott's life work has been his passion. Throughout his time at UMFK he became very involved in mathematics education in the local area, throughout the State of Maine, nationally and overseas.

His breadth and depth of experience and scholarly activity is as impressive as it is varied.

For five years in the 1980's, while serving on faculty at UMFK, Elliott was an external consultant for the Children's Television Workshop, the production company which produces Sesame Street and other television shows.

Specifically, Elliott worked on the Public Broadcasting Network's Square One TV, a math show geared toward eight to 12 year olds.

"I worked with the content director and helped his staff develop ideas for the show. This way I played a small part in reaching children all over the country (and beyond) with the purpose of improving mathematics education," said Elliott.

The mathematics professor would have the opportunity to reach a very different audience overseas in 1990 during a six-month sabbatical in Ireland.

During his time in the country, he taught at the National University in Cork and visited public schools to learn about the nation's math curriculum, as well as to observe the teaching and learning of mathematics at all grade levels.

"I spoke with students, teachers, administrators, and staff of their National Department of Education. I also had the opportunity to address math groups around Ireland and tell them about math education in the U.S.," said Elliott. "I still keep in touch with my friends and colleagues there. Living in their community and learning about their culture was educational in itself, in addition to the professional benefits I received."

One of the colleagues Elliott has kept in touch with over the years is Paddy Barry, a math professor at the University in Cork, Ireland.

"John presented us with new ideas and insights from elsewhere, and a different perspective on what we do, always with consummate courtesy, from a knowledgeable background and with authority that comes from a reflective, analytical approach," recalled Barry.

Elliott's combined passions of math and education would again afford him the chance to travel abroad in 1994, when he was chosen as one of 30 delegates to attend a one-week U.S./Russia education conference in Moscow.

He recalls the opportunity, a decade later, as one of the greatest professional, as well as culturally and personally enriching experiences of his lifetime.

Elliott's scholarly work has not only spanned continents, but will also reach future generations, because of his contributions to a number of mathematics textbooks and his curriculum development efforts.

He was a senior author of Math Connections, a secondary level math textbook series published in 1995, and served as a consultant on a geometry textbook authored by Paddy Barry. Elliott also contributed to a textbook written by Frank Hooper, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor.

In addition, the UMFK math professor has seen several of his articles published in scholarly journals and has also served as a reviewer for other publications.

In 1991, he was singled out for his contributions to mathematics education throughout Maine with the Association of Teachers of Mathematics In Maine (ATOMIM) Recognition Award.

Elliott received the honor for his years of active service on various commissions and committees for the advancement of math education. He was also recognized for his work writing several successful grants to enhance math education for school teachers in Northern Maine and for leading teaching workshops throughout the state.

Two years earlier, in 1989, Elliott was honored nationally by the American Association of Higher Education, at a ceremony in Chicago, as one of less than 300 educators around the country for their classroom teaching reputation.

It was a most fitting recognition for a man who cites his most important honors as the four UMFK outstanding faculty awards he received in 1994, 2001, 2002, and 2004.

The recipient of the award, which is presented annually at UMFK's academic awards banquet, is selected by members of the senior class.

The positive and lasting impression Elliott has made on his students is both publicly lauded and personally cherished by the hundreds he has taught over the years.

"If you ask any of my classmates who their favorite professor was at UMFK it would definitely be John Elliott. Knowing him has been a blessing to me and to all other students who have had the privilege of taking a class from him. His wit, charm, intelligence and personality are a rare combination of wonderful qualities that take him to the next level of instructors," said Neil Burton, a 2004 graduate of UMFK's education program. "He is an instructor that sets an example of what teachers should be."

Burton and 2003 UMFK education program graduate Kelly Joy are two of the many teacher education certification students from Nova Scotia that Elliott had the opportunity to teach in the past decade as the university has welcomed large numbers of students from the Canadian Maritime Provinces.

"My fondest wish is that someday I will have made the same positive impact on a student as this gentleman has made on me. Not only are his teaching 'pearls' things to remember but his whole approach to students and life in general is one I would want to emulate," said Joy of her mentor.

Elliott has not only been an inspiration to his students, but has also made an indelible impact on his faculty colleagues and administration.

Roland Burns, a former UMFK executive dean and professor worked closely with Elliott for more than a decade.

"I remember John as an outstanding teacher and scholar who developed wonderful teaching methods that won him national attention. He delighted in developing mathematical puzzles for a weekly contest that kept faculty and students vying to solve each week's puzzle first. But, I remember John best as my good friend. I delighted in his wry humor," said Burns.

Elliott will also be missed by those he leaves behind at UMFK.

"I think John Elliott's retirement will be as emotional for me as it will be for him and for Lucy," said UMFK President Richard Cost. "John is a wonderful scholar and teacher and a marvelous gentleman. As a new president, I sought his advice on a number of occasions and he always responds thoughtfully and with the best outcome for this university in mind. Whenever we talk about the things that so wonderfully characterize the faculty of UMFK - caring, committed to students and to discipline, enthusiastic and hard working, John Elliott springs to mind as a paradigm. Spend five minutes talking with him and you walk away refreshed and mindful of why education is such a great profession!"

Elliott's faculty colleagues are also lauding the true teaching professional.

"During Dr. Elliott's 25-year tenure at UMFK, he has sustained the highest levels of professionalism and enthusiasm. He worked tirelessly to ensure that his students receive the quality education they deserve, while remaining committed to his scholarly and academic pursuits. His commitment to higher education is unsurpassed. Over the years, he has garnered the respect and admiration not only from his peers but also from his students, in fact, surpassed by that of his students, a task not easily accomplished, but he achieved it with amazing ease," said Terry Murphy, professor of education.

Elliott has served with many faculty colleagues over his 25-years, but two with which he shares a special relationship are Rachel Albert, the current director of UMFK's division of nursing and associate professor of nursing and Bruno Hicks, an assistant professor and chairperson of the university's division of education.

"I have always admired John, both as a former student of his and as a colleague. John was the first to turn me on to statistics. He had a wonderful way of presenting the material. He knew how to make the concepts of statistics relevant to my interests, which provided the necessary foundation for my practice as a nurse. I love statistics today because of John and the dedication and devotion he had for his students. As a colleague, I respect him dearly," said Albert.

"John has been my mentor for 25 years. I first met John in my undergraduate studies at UMFK where his teaching abilities in math made the subject come alive. His advice and leadership were greatly appreciated when I was teaching in Environmental Studies at UMFK back in the mid-1980's. He was supportive as I went on to teach science and math at middle school and again when I returned to UMFK to work in teacher education," said Hicks. "His humor, as well, as his wit, are truly legendary at UMFK. He has been a great role model, both in and out of the classroom and I will surely miss him when he is gone from campus."

Elliott will now embrace a new, exciting chapter in his life that will allow him to share his deep faith with others through the gift of music.

The CD featuring the gospel music he wrote was released just before Thanksgiving and the project will be the subject of a feature story that will run nationally on the Christian Broadcasting Network in mid-December.

At the same time, Elliott is reflecting on his time at UMFK, which was to initially have ended 25 years ago, but has instead become home.

"UMFK has been very good to me. The administration has given me much support and encouragement in developing my career. The faculty has also made it a very pleasant academic environment in which to work. They were always there for me and I had great experiences while working with them. I will miss very much the contact with my students," said Elliott.

"One thing that consoles me is that I have made an effort to keep in touch with many of my students after they leave campus. I want to maintain those connections since I will not be building any new ones. They still write and ask for assistance of one kind or another. Most of the time they write to tell me what they are doing and where they are. Many of them have become personal friends now," added Elliott.

As for his legacy, Elliott believes his students will have parted with one lesson above all others.

"Students will likely remember me for helping them to better understand the dreaded subject of mathematics and helping them get over their fear of doing, and someday teaching, mathematics. I think they will say I tried to make math interesting," said Elliott.