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Lehigh Carbon Community College

Farewell Joanne

By Sara Hodon

LCCC bid a fond farewell to English professor Joanne Gerken, who recently retired after a 50-year teaching career – 46 of them at the college. 

Gerken earned her bachelor of science in English from East Stroudsburg University and her master’s in English from the University of Scranton. Her days in front of the classroom started at Stroudsburg High School, where she taught for three years, followed by one year at Liberty High School in Bethlehem.

She started at LCCC in 1970 while the Vietnam War was still going on, and she had a number of vets in her classes. “That was heartbreaking,” she recalls. “A number of them had lost legs, and I remember another student who would go into fits. Many in society treated those vets poorly. They were so damaged. I had another student who fought in the Gulf War and said he came back changed. I’m so glad they have an organizer for vets on campus now. Historically, LCCC is making a real difference by doing that.”

Resources for veterans isn’t the only change Gerken has witnessed over the years. One of the biggest differences from the early 1970s? Faculty dress code. “When I first started teaching women faculty members were not allowed to wear slacks,” she recalls with a chuckle. “Another female professor and I went to the president and made a case for why they should be allowed.” But it’s not just the dress code. She says that virtually every aspect of the college is different from her early days, right down to the physical layout of the campus. “When I started, there was one building. It’s evolved into a beautiful setting with all kinds of technology,” she says. “The demands on the faculty have also changed. They’re spending a lot more out-of-classroom time on prepping and grading. I have so much respect for my colleagues and their willingness to go above and beyond what is required.” 

When asked about some of her favorite classes that she’s taught, she had a difficult time choosing. “I really enjoyed all of the classes. Each one had something different,” she says. “I loved teaching American Literature. I loved teaching speech—that was the class where I got to know the students more personally. I loved English 106, because for many students that was the first time they studied poetry and novels. And I loved English 100. Students came in at less than the college level in writing and it was really wonderful to see their transformation into better writers.”

Joanne Gerkin poses with LCCC President Dr. Ann Bieber. She adds that the interdisciplinary knowledge students gained from her classes was an unexpected plus. “I really enjoyed hearing students say that they learned more about American history in American lit than they did in 12 years of public education. That was both very sad and very gratifying that students developed an appreciation for our history and literature.” Out of the long list of writers she’s taught, Gerken says that John Keats is her favorite poet and F. Scott Fitzgerald is her favorite author. “I’m always open but I always come back to Fitzgerald,” she admits. “I love showing students the framework that he developed, the precision, and the beauty of his style.” 

Gerken was instrumental in making a number of changes to the English division’s curriculum. “I was very active in introducing the writing process to the college’s English department. I took additional coursework at West Chester University for that. It was a big accomplishment to break open new territory within the department.” She was also part of the team that introduced Writing Across the Curriculum to the college.

She has this advice for up-and-coming students: “Try to come in with an open mind. Realize that there’s more to this process of earning a degree – it’s not just about making money but opening your mind to new areas, giving back to the community, and to the college.”

Looking ahead to retirement, she plans to keep busy with family (she and her husband Bob have eight grandchildren under the age of 12 and she anticipates at least two more within the next year.). “I’ll also be spending some good quality time with my husband, just visiting special places. He was seriously ill but is doing much better,” she says. But she will always have fond memories of LCCC. As she admits: “I live in Schnecksville, and every time I pass the campus, I feel a little tug in my heart.”