“I’m not sure whether they still want to have me around or whether they want to send me off. I don’t want to bother people.”  – UCLA Emeritus Professor of Education John McNeil, who just turned 100.

Trust me, professor, you are no bother. They love you over at UCLA. What John Wooden did for UCLA basketball, you’ve done for the university’s Teacher Education Program for the last 63 years.

Develop winners. The only difference is yours were in the classroom, not on the court.

Long after your peers have retired or passed on, you’re still working five days a week – 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. – offering over six decades of on-the-ground knowledge to graduate students looking to make education a career.

A bother? No way. An inspiration? Absolutely.

“I get a smile on my face every time I see John walking the halls,” says professor John Rodgers. “He just lights up the place, and is a role model for all of us.”

It’s been more than six decades since you traded in your Navy uniform after serving in combat in both World War II and Korea, and took over UCLA’s fledgling Teacher Education Program.

You had 50 rookie teachers under you, and few resources in 1956, but you had a solid game plan. Every rookie would spend a mandatory one year as a practice teacher in inner city schools because you knew from your experience teaching migrant children that if you could make the subject matter meaningful and interesting to them, you were ready for any classroom.

That 50 has grown to thousands of young teachers you’ve sent to the front lines of education in this city, prepped and prepared.

“Our program was really a training school for Los Angeles city teachers,” you told me last week, sitting in your office at Moore Hall working on research material for a class you co-teach for undergrads on creating businesses that support the social good around the globe.

The social good. It’s always been right there, front and center in your mind since the first day you walked on this campus. You saw your father lose everything during the Great Depression, and the pain it cost your family.

All those migrant kids you taught – the sons and daughters of Okies who lost their farms and livelihoods during the Dust Bowl, and came west looking for opportunity – also taught you about the social good and how important education was to it.

Today’s students are not the children of Okie migrants – kids who shared the same up bringing and looked alike. Now, they’re students from all over the world – China, India, Japan, Haiti – sitting next to students born right here in the USA. Nobody looks alike.

“The kids from other countries add so much more to the class,” you say. “They bring in so much information and news, and give a spark to the class that’s absolutely wonderful.”

But with that spark comes some deeper questions that not even you, with all your experience, can answer.

“What is education?” you ask. “We don’t know yet. That’s our topic right now in the United States. What do we mean by education? Is it preparing for a job, or preparing for intellectual enlightenment? Is it opening our eyes and looking at the world differently?

“What is education for? What does it mean for your children? What do you want them to be if they’re educated? There are so many questions, so many options.”

Like coach Wooden, you deflect most of the credit for your accomplishments. It was your parents, both of whom died in their early 70s, your older sister, and your wife of more than 50 years who died four years ago, who were your inspiration, you say. They deserve the credit, as well as many of the people you’ve worked with through the years.

“All my life, people have given me more than I deserve. I’ve had a lot of people who helped me.”

But, like Wooden, you were the head coach, professor. You assembled your team, wrote the lesson plans and cirriculum, and watched over this city’s rookie teachers to make sure they were ready for the classroom. You deserve the credit.

And now, a few weeks after your 100th birthday, you sit in your office in Moore Hall wondering if maybe you’ve become a bother after all these years, and it’s time to go.

Not a chance, professor. Not a chance.

Dennis McCarthy’s column runs on Sunday. He can be reached at dmccarthynews@gmail.com.

LA Daily News