Saturday, May 19, 2018
Education

PHSC professor Wollam made science a contagious interest

The admitting nurse at a Brooksville hospital last month heard that a patient's name was Michael Wollam and recalled that he'd once taken a biology course with a teacher by that name.

"Did you pass?" Wollam's wife, Sheila, asked him.

"I got an A," he said.

"Okay," she responded. "You can work on him."

There was no grading on a curve, no easy A's, in Wollam's science classes at what is now Pasco-Hernando State College.

A passing mark guaranteed that students who went on to careers as nurses, teachers and scientists — and there were thousands of them over the years — knew their stuff.

Wollam, who died late last month at age 72 of a septic infection, was one of the original professors at PHSC's Brooksville campus, starting when it was housed in a storefront on E Jefferson Street.

He stayed there for 32 years, but mere longevity isn't the point here. Long-term excellence is.

"Think of the best teacher you ever had, and that was Mike," said Robert Westrick, a former PHSC provost. "He was the total package."

Community colleges — which is what PHSC mostly is, despite the recent name change — are amazing places if you think about it. They democratize college. They put kids with few prospects into university classrooms and on their way to rewarding jobs.

We always hear cops and soldiers called "heroes," and some of them surely are. But what could be more heroic than regularly pulling off this kind of transformation for more than 30 years?

Not much, which was clear when you went out in public with Wollam, said friend Mary Dowdell, a biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Nurses and teachers were always coming up to him and thanking him for inspiring them to pursue their careers.

He was a fascinating instructor because he was fascinated by his subject, said Colleen Werner, a former student who is now a biologist with the state Forest Service.

He knew that not everyone in his classes was ready to do college-level work, so he also taught them how to study, she said — telling them, for example, that if they read the assigned material they'd get a lot more out of the lectures.

It helped that these lectures were often funny and always intelligent.

"He was a smart guy. He really was," Werner said.

Fortunately, I don't have to take her word for it. I once followed Wollam on a field trip and listened to him talk authoritatively about every insect and amphibian his students happened to dip out of a pond. I joined him on bird counts and can vouch that he lived up to his reputation as a superior birder. On a hike through a salt marsh, he entertainingly taught my son and me everything we wanted to know — and things we didn't realize we wanted to know — about fiddler crabs and polychete worms.

He was so good, I wondered why he didn't teach at a big-name university. He probably could have, said Sheila Wollam, whom he met when they were both high school students in Fort Lauderdale; he needed only a dissertation to earn a doctorate at USF.

But the couple were happy in Brooksville, where they raised two children and where he found the perfect job.

"I think it's pretty cool that he did teach at the community college and he reached so many people," Dowdell said.

Actually, very cool.

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