Beloved professor to retire after 48 years
Leaving a legacy of a calm demeanor and genuine joy for teaching, Michael Rathke will be retiring this year after 48 years as an MSU chemistry professor.
Though he estimates he’s taught roughly 30,000 students throughout the years, he’s said to have sincerely cared about the learning experience of everyone who took his courses.
“He was always on the behalf of the students,” Rathke’s secretary, Nancy Lavrik, said. “He was always available for them.”
Born in Iowa, Rathke grew up on a farm and said this contributes to his popularity among students.
“I’m a farm boy,” Rathke said. “I’m a country bumpkin. I don’t alarm students. I suspect that a lot of them think, ‘If this person could learn this material, surely I can.’”
He attended Iowa State University and then went on to get his doctorate from Purdue University.
From the beginning he was pleasantly shocked to find that he enjoyed teaching.
“It was a big surprise to me to find out I enjoyed teaching ... I had never been in front of a class of any size,” Rathke said. “I got here and I taught a course in the lecture hall at Wells Hall, it holds about 600 students. Scared the Dickens out of me.”
Rathke teaches both undergraduate and graduate students organic chemistry. The undergraduate courses he teaches are taught in a large lecture hall in front of roughly 400-600 students.
During the first class he taught, Rathke said he realized how overwhelming the number of students was.
“I was so frightened of 600 people that I was afraid to look down at notes for fear they’d get me, so I started teaching without notes and found out it was fairly easy,” Rathke said. “In 48 years I haven’t used lecture notes.”
Among the thousands of students Rathke has taught, one stood out a little more — his daughter, Deborah Jenness.
“It was a good thing she was a good student,” Rathke said, chucking. “She was a very good student.”
Jenness studied chemistry at MSU and now works as a first grade teacher at Fairview Stem Magnet, an elementary school in Lansing.
Her father’s career in teaching chemistry inspired her to follow in a similar career path.
Not only was having her father as a teacher a cool experience, but it meant a lot more because it was at MSU, Jenness said.
“My mother worked at MSU as well before she passed away so this whole atmosphere is science — it’s what we all grew up in,” Jenness said.
After such a successful and rewarding career, everyone, including Rathke, has mixed feelings about his retirement.
While Jenness called it bittersweet, she said she thinks her father is ready for a change in his life.
Rathke said he feels “leery” about leaving and worries he will get bored. His plans are to spend time with his 11 grandchildren, grow roses, get into woodcarving, teach part time at MSU for the summer and potentially work a small organic chemistry teaching job at a smaller school.
Lavrik said she predicts there will be many disappointed students when Rathke leaves. Many students said he was their favorite professor at MSU and if they can’t learn organic chemistry from Rathke, they’re in the wrong field.
One class of students thanked Rathke at the end of the semester by making him a large “thank you” card and having the entire class sign it and write short messages.
Not only do students love him, but the faculty does as well.
Lavrik worked as Rathke’s secretary since she began working at MSU in 1995 and said she has gotten to work more closely with him than the other organic chemistry professors.
“He’s just fantastic,” Lavrik said. “Since day one we’ve just clicked. He’s so easygoing. That’s probably the number one thing about him. He’s unflappable and a little on the shy side, quiet, self-effacing.”
Rathke said he has no doubt that he’ll miss the students, teaching and the university, but Lavrik said she has no doubt he’ll be very much missed right back.
“I just think the university is really going to miss him,” Lavrik said. “So many of the comments have said, ‘You’re my best professor in my whole time at MSU.’ Many many students have said that and I said, ‘You can’t do better than that.’”