Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

Local News

June 9, 2014

Going down in history

Beloved ACTC professor retiring after 46 years is inspiration and role model to his students

ASHLAND — The first hurdle in interviewing Ernie Tucker is finding a place to do it.

The Ashland Community and Technical College history professor’s tiny office is crammed with vintage tools and other eastern Kentucky artifacts so there’s no place for two people to sit down.

A sunny table outside the main college entrance provides room to stretch out, but half the passersby feel compelled to stop and expound on Tucker’s teaching prowess.

After 46 years at ACTC, Tucker has taught more than 13,000 students, and most of them remember him as an inspiration and a role model and aren’t shy about saying so.

There is no second hurdle because an interview with Ernie Tucker consists mostly of asking brief questions and settling back for detailed stories — stories about his Baptist missionary parents, his early days as a junior high teacher, his first Ashland Community College office in a ramshackle former public school, his penchant for engaging people in grocery store lines to learn about folk medicine and the teaching strategies he has honed over close to five decades.

Tucker, with his ever-present golf cap and easy smile, is among ACTC’s best-known professors; when not teaching he can be seen about town in his vintage Triumph sportscar.

He is retiring from ACTC at the end of June, leaving a big hole in the fine arts and humanities department, where his classes were among the most popular.

“We’ve had a running joke that he’s not allowed to retire until I do,” said department head Carol Greene. “When he told me he was retiring I said, ‘Ernie, you can’t do this,’” she said. “He will be hard to replace.”

Tucker came to what was then Ashland Community College in 1968 after teaching junior high school for five years. They were tough but formative years during which he developed his signature teaching approach that combines his sense of fun with high expectations. “I teach students how to learn, and they really get into it,” Tucker said.

An effective teacher’s main job, Tucker believes, is to inspire students. It is a belief he has carried since his own college days at the University of Louisville, where he admired professors who combined eccentricity with total mastery of their academic field. “They seemed to know everything, these professors with their wide range of knowledge. It was extremely impressive to me.”

Early on, Tucker assumed he would go into business, but history seemingly was in his blood. He traces it back to his mother, whose roots were in Virginia. “You can’t be related to a Virginian and not be interested in history. She was also a southerner, and southerners are genetically connected to history.”

He has taught European and American history, government, political science, economics and tennis — he remains an avid player at 80 — but is mainly noted for Kentucky history, which to Tucker is as much an avocation as it is part of his profession.

When his students come to class at the beginning of the semester, their first assignment is simple: to find out where their name comes from and what it means, and put their findings into a concise report.

“That gets people started on something they never thought of in their lives, and it also shows them that I am interested in who they are,” Tucker said.

Students find his assignments pay unexpected dividends. “One of our assignments in one of the classes was to complete a family tree complete with family photos and information pertaining to our family,” wrote former student and ACTC career center coordinator Nancy Menshouse in an email. “I am so glad for this assignment, because I probably wouldn’t have done it if Ernie hadn’t assigned it.

“Before my mother died, I had the chance to go through old photos with her.  I really hadn’t looked through these old pictures before and didn’t know who a lot of these people were, but my mother knew them all and shared so much information with me about each one.

“The history class was at least 25 years ago and I still have my assigned folder. I treasure it,” she said.

Tucker takes his personal approach to the community when he initiates impromptu interviews with people he encounters at flea markets or in the checkout line at the grocery store. For years he has studied folk medicine and old home remedies, and estimates he has interviewed more than 4,000 people, jotting down their comments on napkins or whatever scrap of paper presents itself.

“The first thing I ask them is where they are from, and then I say, what did you do when you cut yourself,” he said. That one question generally is sufficient; some of his interview subjects will keep going as long as Tucker will listen.

His colleagues call him a quintessential community-college instructor, a label Tucker is comfortable with. He likes the open-door admission policies, the wide range of students, and the student-first attitude that permeates the faculty. “We take care of people here at ACTC. That’s true of virtually everyone I know here. It’s a kind of support that pervades the place,” he said.

With the constant demands of class out of the picture, Tucker is looking forward to developing some writing and editing projects. He has a manuscript written by his uncle, who earned his doctorate at the University of Chicago, about growing up a sharecropper in the Shenandoah valley of Virginia. He has three books of his own he hopes to complete and publish.

MIKE JAMES can be reached at mjames@dailyindependent.com or (606) 326-2652.

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