Retirement in a Pandemic by Curtis V. Smith, Ph.D.
Three years ago, the thought of retirement seemed far away. I was swamped working as the interim-dean for the Math-Science-Business and Technology Division, teaching microbiology in the evenings and participating on many committees. Over the holidays in 2019, I paused to do some retirement math: 27 years of paying into KPERS; and prior to that, 20 years paying into railroad retirement from my days as a switchman for the Union Pacific Railroad. My calculations indicated retirement on June 1st 2020. If education is a “lifelong learning” experience then retirement shall be my final “degree.”
In my last semester in Spring 2020 a virus arrived that wasn’t in my computer. I warned students for years in microbiology about “the coming plague” and even presented an Academic Symposium titled Emerging Pandemics a few years before. In early March I served on a COVID Advisory Committee recommending closure of the college. By the time we returned a week after Spring Break, I was teaching the equivalent of 23 credit hours online at home from a “Zoom habitat.” There were few cars in the parking lot or colleagues in their offices, and no students in classes or the halls, studying in the water holes, or library. I came in to videotape some of my lab experiments and then returned the next day for results. The main entry to the campus was at campus police where I signed in with mask on and a squirt of hand sanitizer. I ended up taking lab materials home and videotaping in a make shift office lab. I tried to entertain students with an Einstein wig, coke bottle glasses and a lab coat that said Prozac. I juggled lectures, test tubes, zoom, canvas, chat, 2 mic’s, 2 webcams, and a power point presentation. I even videotaped an academic symposium: The Biology of Coronavirus shown on YouTube (find it here). In May we had no Blue Devils sports, cake and punch retirements, awards banquet, or graduation in the Athletic Field House. In the midst of this crisis I was sincerely honored that College Senate recognized me in their last zoom meeting with a Resolution of Honor.
In the first month of retirement in June it was nice to learn about cleaner air, rivers, and oceans. But it was very strange that microbiology lab had become omnipresent. Hospital level aseptic techniques were stressful in the daily lives of family, and friends. Everyone had a hard time “getting it together” with social distancing. COVID-19 coerced me to tune-in to their “global picture” more than sports, vacations, theater, art galleries, favored chefs and bartenders, and real live music. One of my best high school friends, our quarterback, passed from COVID-19. The family suffered even more when they weren’t allowed to see him in the hospital and his friends couldn’t attend the funeral.
For years I taught in microbiology classes how pathogenic microbes, like SARS-CoV-2, main role in biological evolution is to cull the population of all living things to balance the Earth’s ecosystem. From working with 13 microbes in micro lab for so many years I consulted them in order to better understand their cynical view of Homo sapiens during this pandemic. As it turns out pathogenic microbes prefer humans who support “The 10 Commandments of Pathogens” because it lightens their work load:
1) social injustice because Black Lives don’t matter; 2) a perpetual war economy; 3) religious myths that trigger unholy wars; 4) a health care system based on wealth; 5) ignoring climate change because it’s bad for the economy; 6) science is a hoax; 7) social media’s attention extraction model; 8) unregulated capitalism because profit is more important than people; 9) complete disregard for Veterans health issues; and 10) authoritarians that disenfranchise and suppress voting.
Microbes find it hilarious when humans vote for candidates who blame immigrants, minorities, and the poor for problems in society. On the other hand, microbes are very impressed when psychologists diagnose this as pre-cognitive bias. They also admire research scientists who have taught the immune systems of the Animal Kingdom to prevent infectious diseases with vaccines. On the flip side, it boggles microbes that humans cannot, for the life of them, figure out how to control human overpopulation. Microbes become apoplectic with cytoplasmic waves of laughter when businesses say they can regulate themselves. Microbes define humanity as a failure of leadership on all levels from government to business to institutions to the home.
I enjoy politics because I love the sarcasm of theater. It sounds old fashioned but I’ve participated in 4 marches in 4 years, one since retirement, and wrote and edited policy proposals that may land in legislation, or party planks. I’m pleased to have contributed a chapter to The Promise of the Green Commonwealth, published with my retired colleagues, Dr. Charles Reitz, Dr. Mehdi Shariati, and Dr. Steve Spartan. Our book is available on Amazon and used in some graduate circles. We propose a progressive agenda for the United States regarding economic equality and abundance. We find a problem with dead whales, dead trees, bad air, bad water, and lies being worth more money than truth. In case you haven’t heard, people that are critically objective are the most optimistic people you will ever meet because we offer solutions, hashtag sustainability, Marxist critique, democratic socialism, and heterodox economics. Social media has taken all the air out of good journalism with algorithms designed to make a profit via the psychology of persuasion. Social media needs to be severely regulated if we are to get out of this existential death spiral. Many find it impossible to tell who is gaslighting who. False equivalences are built into conspiracy narratives by those who use media to disrupt democracies around the world. Our education system needs a civics section in every grade that explains how to recognize different forms of propaganda and emphasize John Lewis’ axiom, “get in good trouble.”
Thankfully, my retired colleague Dr. Pam Walden (Louis) offered up the Plant Kingdom in June by asking my help with the Cooper-Foreman Heirloom Garden on the north side of the Flint Building. This was a natural fit since I’ve tended the Campus Garden on the south side of the Flint Building for the last five years. As gardeners we socially distance by having no more than three students at a time spread out among the raised beds and fruit trees with masks on. We have donated plenty of food from the campus garden to the Salvation Army. Pam and I, along with several students needing community service hours, planted potatoes in the Campus Garden. This project was in honor of Junius Groves, the “Potato-King” in Edwardsville, Kansas who became one of the first “comfortable” African-Americans by the late 1800’s.
My favorite retirement activity is research and writing for the KCKCC Centennial Digital History Mural that may be ready for viewing this fall. The mural is a wonderful idea initiated by College President, Dr. Greg Mosier. It is made of print-on-vinyl designed to show photographs and descriptions depicting highlights of the history of the Wyandotte County on four walls in the upper level Henry Louis Building. It will highlight the history of KCKCC since 1923. I’ve been writing about the history of railroads in Wyandotte County, providing a timeline for KCKCC’s history, and co-chairing the History Advisory Committee aspect with Tico Productions Creative Director (Curator) Lydia Knopp. I’ve learned so much from local historians Chester Owens, Ann Lacey, Gene Chavez, Dr. Tai Edwards, and Rochelle Donald as well as from fellow retiree Dr. Steve Collins. Since knowing history sometimes precludes repeating the same mistakes, we are sincere about “getting our history right” so that maybe our new “Hall of Dotte” might point the direction for solving problems in the future.
Before the pandemic I was planning a show in the Campus Art Gallery titled, “Twenty Pacific Railroad Survey Lithographs from 1853-1855.” The date for the opening has been postponed once but is now tentatively set for December 2021. In connection with the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art who owns the prints, the Greater Kansas City Area Print Society, and Shai Perry, Curator of the Campus Art Gallery, we plan to select, frame and exhibit twenty prints from the Pacific Railroad Surveys that reveal native inhabitants, geology, flora and fauna along two proposed routes for the first transcontinental railroad. I hope to do a lecture on the history of railroads in Wyandotte County in conjunction with the opening.
I’ve tremendously enjoyed the privilege of community service as coordinator and treasurer for the Wyandotte County Ethnic Festival held annually in the Athletic Field House. The ethnic festival is where I learned to celebrate our greatest asset in Wyandotte County, human diversity, while at the same time honoring our common humanity. This was Martin Luther King’s vision of a “beloved community.” The festival is my favorite day of the year. It is truly a human family reunion that is tentatively rescheduled for April 10th 2021 in the Athletic Field House. This event is entirely dependent on COVID-19 rapid detection tests, contact tracing; enforced quarantines, and advances in treatments and vaccines. See the nation of Taiwan for more details on how they stopped the spread of COVID-19.
The organization most responsible for my good retirement is the Kansas National Education Association (KNEA). The committee I was most involved with in my years at KCKCC was their local affiliate that we call “The Faculty Association.” Each round of Master Contract negotiations our Faculty Association selects a team for negotiating salary and working conditions in cooperation with the College and its Trustees. If you go to the KNEA website you can review best practices regarding work safety, faculty rights, and responsibilities during a pandemic. You can find information about legislative advocacy and read the Kansas Education Talk, which includes member publications and webcasts. The KNEA provides workshops on retirement issues even if you’re not a member of KNEA.
Judy and I enjoy our three now-adult children and their families. We love cooking at home and do our yoga and exercise early in the morning. We get outside for fresh air, biking our favorite trails, and climbing 14ers in Colorado. I do miss teaching full-time at KCKCC but shall forever extoll that old adage “making life better.” I’m very optimistic about the future and have plans to do a lot more things in life.
When I started teaching microbiology, general biology and nutrition full-time at KCKCC in Fall of 1993, a couple of faculty colleagues, who are literally a couple, Gary and Lorraine Green, said if you sign up for a monthly payroll deduction to the Foundation it goes toward student scholarships. I’ve observed many students who’ve achieved career success through these scholarships. I relish this icing on the existential labors of academia. If you believe in karma, in 2006, the Foundation was among the first to support the Wyandotte County Ethnic Festival by providing beverages and some starter cash. In 2016, during a year of transition for the Foundation, it was a great privilege to be the only full-time employee at KCKCC to ever serve on the Foundation’s Mid-America Hall of Fame planning committee. In retirement I will continue making an annual contribution.
Thanks be to our KCKCC Foundation, and to all Blue Devils, please move forward with due respect for pathogenic microbes in this new “Pandemic-Academic Era.”
Kind regards, Curtis 9.16.20