Close to becoming a tenured professor at a state institution on the East Coast, Dr. Marc Baer was looking to make an academic venue change. It was 1982, with a U.S. recession in full anxious bloom.
College and university enrollments were on the tenuous side, to say the least. Rarely does a college professor move on from one institution to another when job security is within reach, especially with financial worries gripping a nation. But Baer felt an internal, forceful nudge to find a college where his teaching standards and values could be met. A move was imminent, needed, and no qualms about a shaky economy would stop him.
Looking through The Chronicle of Education, Baer found an ad for a history department opening at a school he had never heard of, in a state he had never been to. Willing to take a gamble on finding a fresh home in academia, Baer applied for a position at Hope. When all was said and done, from interview to acceptance, it was the promise of this new educational environment, with his very own personal desktop computer, that brought him to Holland in the summer of 1983. Thirty-three years and numerous computers later, Baer looks back at it all and shrugs with a deference to providence and serendipity.
“When I was in the process of making my decision, (then president) Gordon Van Wylen said, ‘When you come here, we’ll provide you with a desktop computer.’ In 1983, that was like offering me the deed to the ranch. I just took that as a sign that this was going to be a different kind of place.”
Baer settled in and quickly discovered Hope was indeed the place where he could be the historian he always wanted to be – a scholar with books to write; a professor with historical British lessons, his specialty, to teach; and, a Christian with students to mentor and guide. He matter-of-factly talks about fulfilling his duties in the former two but gets a bit misty-eyed when thinking about his effects on the last. It’s as clear as the tears that moisten his cheek that this professor of history and chairperson of the department can’t hide his adoration and appreciation for Hope students and their scholarship.
“I love what I do and am better at it now than ever before, I think. I just know more. But then you have these wonderful students…..” He stops for a few seconds, composes himself, and quickly concludes in a broken voice, “They just make it hard to leave.”
Some of his favorite memories with students are unplanned and unscripted when lecturer and learner, intellect and discovery collide toward eureka in the classroom. Professors plan and prepare over and over again to achieve learning objectives and desired outcomes, but it is spontaneous student engagement, the ones that happen “while students are thinking and processing with their professor jabbering away” that make Baer most sentimental about his life’s work. The ah-ha moment is the moment that all great professors like Baer favor.
And his students can thank his undergraduate chemistry class for that.
Ah, college chemistry – the chaff sifter of budding scientists, doctors, and as it turns out, architects, too. Growing up first in California through his teen years and then in Iowa, Baer had always loved every aspect of buildings so he enrolled at Iowa State University as a student in architecture. “But chemistry convinced me otherwise,” he admits to his difficulty with that class. “My mom then said I should be a lawyer and you always listen to your mom, right? So I became pre-law. Then in my senior I decided I didn’t want to go to law school. I became a history major my senior year of college… which is advice I give to no one else.”
The kind of counsel Baer does provide, though, is grounded in taking complex lessons from the past and making them relevant for new millennium students in the present. “Marc has a genuine love of history and believes in its value for understanding our world,” says Dr. Jeanne Petit, professor of history and soon-to-be new chair of the department. “He is a servant leader whose first priority is trying to make it possible for others to achieve their best selves. What I particularly appreciate is that he has prioritized the instruction of writing through history, and this has helped make our majors some of the strongest writers on campus.”
If this historian, with a doctoral degree from the University of Iowa, had a time machine, he’d first dial it back to 32/33 AD Israel to witness Jesus in his last year of ministry. Then he’d jump ahead to 1784, and go to the West End of London to observe the political and cultural unrest that rocked that city at a critical time in its history. Baer’s first historical destination has nothing to do with his academic discipline and everything to do with his faith. But hanging out in riotous London in the late 18th century would have gone a long way to inform his second book, The Rise and Fall of Radical Westminster 1780-1890. Without the benefit of time travel, of course, Baer spent 10 years researching and writing that book, an average length of time for his two other books, too – Theatre and Disorder in Late Georgian London and Mere Believers: How Eight Faithful Lives Changed the Course of History. He hopes to finish his fourth and last book, Mere Believers II, within his first few years of retirement.
And then he’ll put his pen down. Writing four books is enough, Baer concedes, and besides in retirement, he’d rather read books than write them. He’ll keep one foot in Hope’s academic environs, though, as a volunteer for the college’s Upward Bound program because “if there is one thing I know, it is college and how to get aspiring students there,” he says.
This newest, college-related, Baer endeavor emanates out of his own family’s history, and his mother – a Ukrainian immigrant with an illiterate mother and a father with just an elementary education – is his inspiration to do so. “I would like to know how my mom figured out how to apply to college,” says Baer, who with his wife, Patty, parents three and grandparents five. “My own grandparents could not have helped her but still she found her way to USC (University of Southern California). Someone was there for her, and I just wish I knew who.”
Galvanized again by the past, Baer will become that “who” for up-and-coming college students in the future. After all, this history professor understands that finding the right academic home can be a timeless and precious memory.