Jim Wilcox Retires after 43 Years

Well-loved professor made an impression on thousands of students—including Howard Stern (CGS’74, COM’76).

Forty-three years teaching at the College of General Studies, with roughly 110 students on his rolls each year. Add in the California high schoolers he taught in the early 1960s and the undergrads seated in his first college classes at Northern Illinois University, and CGS Associate Professor of Humanities James Wilcox estimates he’s taught more than 5,000 students over the course of his career. That’s enough people to fill half the bleachers at BU’s Nickerson Field.

Wilcox, 77, completed his final year of classroom teaching this spring, to be followed by a two-year sabbatical and then a much-deserved retirement. Imagine the scene if all his past students were able to gather at Nickerson to bid him farewell. Despite the size of the crowd, Wilcox would likely remember many of the names, faces, and stories of these former students. As a professor of rhetoric, then literature, and finally of philosophy at CGS, Wilcox instructed students by the thousands but is known for approaching each of them as individuals.

Always encouraging, always available

“I remember going to BU and feeling overwhelmed by going to college,” says radio personality Howard Stern (CGS’74, COM’76), arguably Wilcox’s most famous former student. “In high school, I was very hesitant to speak up in classes and became very introverted and shy—which might shock people, based on what I’m about now,” he says. “And the guy who brought me out of my shell in classes was Professor Wilcox.”

Stern remembers Wilcox praising his papers, asking his opinions, and creating such a comfortable classroom atmosphere that he began confidently chiming in on class discussions. “He made me feel so good about my writing, and so good about my own intellectual capacity,” Stern says. “I’ve never had another teacher bring that out in me quite that way.”

Bill Blakeslee (CGS’70, CAS’72), who as a freshman in 1968 was among Wilcox’s first CGS students, remembers Wilcox as a professor who was “always available to talk” about any topic, academic or personal. “Jim was a guy who really gave a damn about his students,” he says.

Stepping into Wilcox’s classroom nearly four decades later, Lois Yoon (CGS’08, CAS’09) discovered a more grandfatherly figure than the one Blakeslee remembers, but one with the same willingness to “take time out of his day to speak one-on-one” with students, getting to know them on a personal basis. “It’s funny the things he remembers, too,” Yoon says. She spoke often with Wilcox about her future plans and her decision to travel to South Korea to teach English after graduation. “He used to tell me, ‘Lois, you’re like Siddhartha on your Axial journey.’ And when I came back—two years later—the first thing he said to me was, ‘Welcome home from your Axial journey,’” she says. “It’s just nice to know that a professor remembers you.”

Memorable lessons

Wilcox himself might be flattered to know how well students remember him and the concepts he strove to teach them. Blakeslee, now working in computer sales and consulting, says he can still recall the different forms of rhetorical argument he studied in Wilcox’s rhetoric class those 43 years ago.

Erica Mosca (CGS’06, COM’08), who recently completed a master’s degree in education policy at Harvard, says she thinks often of the ethical principles she learned in Wilcox’s philosophy course. “The thing that I most got out of his class was about Kant and the practical imperative,” Mosca says, “which is that people are ends and not means. So, basically, you have to always treat people as though they are the ends in themselves.” This ethical lesson stuck with her, she says, because Wilcox did more than simply explain the concept. He illustrated his explanation with examples his students could relate to, she says, and then he lived the principle—showing by his own example that he considered his students to be far more than just a means to a paycheck.

That Wilcox exemplifies the concepts he teaches isn’t surprising, considering his ideas about his profession. “I have a theory of teaching,” he says. “It’s that you end up teaching yourself. What you’ve internalized is this knowledge, right? You’ve got it in you, and so it becomes part of you, and so you’re teaching that part of you.” To be successful, he says, teachers must master their material and then be authentic in the classroom. “It’s an interesting problem, I think, in teaching as a whole,” he adds. “Much of secondary education now is teaching to the quiz or the exam. That’s not the teacher, is it?”

Moving on

After decades committed to imparting knowledge to students, Wilcox could well be nervous to step away from the lectern and into retirement. But the transition doesn’t worry him, he says. To be an effective humanities professor, he explains, he has filled his life with a “mosaic” of books, travel, theater, film, and other cultural pursuits. After retirement, he says, “there’s only going to be one piece missing, and that’s coming over here and teaching these courses, but that can be easily filled with extending or expanding the mosaic that’s already in place.”

His former students are reluctant to accept his departure so philosophically. “I’m saddened by the fact that he won’t be able to inspire more students,” says Yoon. “It’s a shame he’s retiring,” agrees Stern, adding that he wishes CGS could clone Wilcox for future generations “because he’s a unique individual—because he really does care.”

13 Comments on Jim Wilcox Retires after 43 Years

  • Prof. Wilcox,
    You might not remember me but I certainly remember you. I was in CGS class of 78-80. Kim Kiddoo was my advisor. Both of you were so incredibly supportive and helpful to me during my two years at BU(some very tough times along with the good!) All my teachers at CGS gave me a true understanding of education and love for learning. I would have pushed my daughter to go this year if we could have afforded it. What a great teacher you were Sensitive, caring and energetic great passion for teaching and giving back to the world!! Congratulations on your retirement. Have FUN!! Katherine Sharp

  • Prof. Wilcox was an awesome teacher who cared very much about his students. I’m proud to say I was 1 of his 5000 served. I wish him all the best!

  • I am a CGS ’80 grad and Jim was the greatest teacher I ever had. He basically threw out the standard curriculum and decided to teach us about art and classical music. Something that I am still deeply involved with today. I’ve had many fun discussions with his old tennis buddy, Michael Lustic, about the good old days. I have told my children about Jim for years and truly wish him the best in all future endeavors.
    Best of luck, Mr. Prof!!
    All the best,
    Gary McWilliams

  • I graduated from the School of Communications in 1979. Professor Wilcox was a wonderful teacher. He stayed in touch when I moved on from the College of Basic Studies. He encouraged my passion for writing after publishing examples from my first paper I wrote freshman year in one of his books. The title of my paper was “The Vicissitudes of Life” that focused on Margaret Mead’s book, “Coming of Age in Samoa.” I often share stories of my freshman year in Prof. Wilcox class with my daughters. I hope his retirement is full of wonderful and exciting days. All the best to him!

  • I was lucky enough to spend two years in Humanities with Prof. Wilcox and I think back to his lessons often. He was easily my favorite professor at BU. I still have many of his handouts and work from his classes.

    The passion he had for what he was teaching was unmatched – and he was just a great guy. I’m not surprised to hear so many students talk about the major impact he had on them. All the best!!

  • I was a student in his Humanities class in 1989. He was by far the best teacher i encountered. I always looked forward to his class, as did all of the students. The way that he taught just lightened up any subject and made it very interesting and easy. He definitely inspired me on my life path of being a photographer / artist. When I look back on the year that I had in his classroom I am filled with happy memories and full of gratitude. Thank you Professor Wilcox you are a shining star.

  • Going way back…1962-1964….I was in Sophomore English in High School…one of the first classes Jim taught. Jim had come out of the Air Force and landed in Strathmore a 1000 person, agricultural town near the foothills in central California. He was something entirely new to us farm kids. A wiry, dynamic, inspiring Yankee Transcendentalist intellectual. He invited me and my friends into what was, for us, a brand new world of literature and thought about literature and life. He started us with Romeo and Juliet, but was then right off the curriculum map – having us read Catcher in the Rye, and Lord of the Flies. He invited us to read and think and write and “join the dance” of humankind reflecting on our own experiences, sharing them in story and poetry. – It was a small high school. There were probably less than 20 kids in Sophomore English – but Jim Wilcox lit us up! And the fire continues to this day. We’re organic farmers, and community theater actors. We’re directors of high school athletics in the state, and nurses, and singers in community choirs. We are social workers and teachers and librarians and Unitarian Universalist ministers. We’re torch bearers, each of us and we pass the fire along because, way back in the 1960s, Jim Wilcox looked at us and said “I see your fire. Let’s doing something with it.”

  • Professor Wilcox made learning fun… plain and simple! I graduated the School of Management (SMG) in 1983 and I was in the CBS class of 1981 and I loved attending his class. His guidance and knowledge has served me well over the years. Beyond his educational credentials he was just a cool guy!

  • Just noticed Prof. Wilcox in the Emeritus faculty section at CGS while looking for information regarding my daughter who was recently accepted into CGS. I was profoundly affected by his personal teaching style and uncompromising commitment to quality during my days at CBS 1968-70. His lessons have served me well while finishing at CLA as a philosophy major, through dental school, residency and now as an editor for dental and periodontal newsletters. His “voice” continues through these publications and other communications with my dental colleagues and I think of him often.
    Thank you Prof. Wilcox!

  • James Wilcox is simply awesome. The movies I saw in the film section of his course, The Pawnbroker, The Conversation, Walkabout, Persona…..are still some of my most favorite films of all time. (I was at CBS 1978-79). He could highlight dirt on the sidewalk and we could see something shimmering in it. He gave me a book when I left his class, with this written in it: Life is not a having and a getting, but rather a being and a becoming…………that phrase has proved true throughout my life. An unforgettable teacher & man!

  • I can honestly say I love the man, the professor, the mentor. And I thank him every day for giving me the tools to discover who I am.
    Oh, and thanks for turning me on to Richard Brautigan and James Joyce.
    Happy retirement!
    Heather Wyse. CGS Class of 1974

  • We admired this guy! He referred to me and another student as Scylla and Charybdis. Ha ha ha, it was 1973 and I’m old now too!

  • Professor Wilcox changed the trajectory of my life. I was his student in the early ’90s. There are few professors who could truly reach inside of you and unlock hidden potential.

    In an almost Yoda-like way, he would make you “unlearn what you have learned,” and see the world with new eyes.

    I am eternally grateful to him.

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