Traverse City News and Events

At 79, With 50 Years On The Job, Steve Drake Is Just Getting Started

By Craig Manning | June 13, 2021

Meet Steve Drake, Northwestern Michigan College’s first half-century man.

A professor with the college’s mathematics department, Drake recently celebrated 50 years of employment with NMC – marking the first time in the college’s 70-year history that any instructor has hit that milestone. The Ticker caught up with Drake to learn about what brought him to NMC in the first place, his recollections of the college’s different eras, and a background that includes everything from National Science Foundation (NSF) grants to FBI security clearances.

Drake graduated from Northwest Missouri State College in 1964 and officially took the job with NMC in 1971. In between, he worked with teenagers “in a state mental institution in St. Joseph, Missouri,” taught high school math and physics, landed his first NSF grant – to study nuclear physics and mathematics at the University of Wyoming – and spent a few years teaching overseas on military bases.

“There was a time after Sputnik got up there that the NSF was given the charge to upgrade education throughout the country,” Drake recalls. “The government had a different idea back then about education: They felt that if teachers knew more, they could teach more. So, my wife started applying for me to some of those NSF programs. We applied to two or three, and I got into the University of Wyoming, where they had a lot of federal research going on.”

After three semesters at University of Wyoming, followed by two years teaching on an Air Force base in The Philippines, Drake – his wife pregnant with their first child – moved back to the states. He landed his second NSF grant upon return, this one to study mathematics and computer science at the University of Michigan. Then, with that year-long grant nearing its termination and Drake in need of a job, his ever-prepared wife took it upon herself to find him a new employment opportunity. She found six, one of which was at NMC.

Drake had never visited Traverse City before his meeting at NMC and “didn’t even know where it was.” He also had rather low expectations going into the interview, which followed several meetings with several other community colleges, most of which he says were staffed by “burned-out high school teachers” dispassionate about their work and only teaching at community colleges because “they couldn’t stand high school kids anymore.”

NMC was the exception.

“I remember thinking, ‘Jeez, I don't think I'll be able to survive at most of these community colleges,’” Drake laughs. “But when we came [to Traverse City], it was a whole different story. I didn't meet a single person at NMC that wasn’t serious about what they did. They were truly professionals. It was a good experience right from the start.”

Soon, Drake and his wife had relocated from Ann Arbor and joined the NMC team. His career since has given him a front-row seat to the evolution of the college and of education in general.
The 1970s, for instance, brought NMC’s first forays into technical programs. Those trends were spurred on, Drake says, by Vietnam veterans enrolling at the college by way of the G.I. Bill, seeking different opportunities than what NMC offered at the time.

“A lot of them didn’t necessarily want to do academics,” Drake says of the vets flowing into NMC.  “They wanted to get into some hands-on field. So we started to expand and experiment with those technical programs.” Those programs eventually evolved into NMC’s technical division, housed today at the Parsons-Stulen Building and encompassing everything from construction trades to automotive technology.

The 1980s, in turn, were dominated by the growing reliance on computers, which Drake says had “started to become dominant in most fields.” Programming, computer science, and other tech-heavy courses and programs became the order of the day.

Those types of evolutions have continued even to the 2010s and the 2020s, by way of the internet and online learning. Though Drake estimates that NMC has dabbled in online course options since at least 2005, he’d never taught one personally until COVID hit. “I went from being a classroom teacher to being an online teacher in two days,” he tells The Ticker.

Drake recalls other major milestones, too: the establishment of the Dennos Museum Center in 1991; the opening of the NMC University Center in 1995; the construction of the new Great Lakes Maritime Academy campus in 2003.

In the mid-1980s, Drake also played a key role in another milestone: linking NMC with Michigan Technological University (MTU) to promote better pathways for students looking to transfer from NMC to larger universities. The NMC-MTU connection remains intact today.

“We got a grant of about $93,000, which was a lot of money back then,” Drake says of the initial MTU partnership. “And we spent three years where we would take our instructors up to MTU, and they would meet personally with the professors teaching classes that we were transferring students to. We were able to get acquainted with the professors up there and learn about what their styles were, so we could prepare our students better to transfer. And those students have done very well: We have a lot of students who now have PhDs from MTU in engineering.”

Drake’s passion for accessible transfer pathways hearkens back to his first NSF grant, and to the idea that anyone – even a well-versed teacher – always has more to learn. He’s demonstrated that example himself, even going back to school on a third NSF grant in the 1980s, to continue his studies in nuclear physics. That experience took him to the Argonne National Laboratory (famous as the home of the Manhattan Project during World War II) and necessitated his first FBI security clearance.

“I’ve heard these myths about overeducated people,” he says. “But I’ve never met one of those creatures. I think education is a great thing, and that we should be pushing students to do more – and helping them finance it.”

At 79, Drake isn’t ready to let that passion for learning and education rest just yet. Though he’s been around long enough for some of his past students to return to NMC, have full teaching careers, and retire, he’s still not to the point where he’s eyeing retirement for himself.

“I just take it a year at a time,” Drake says. “I don't have any major health issues, and I still enjoy what I do. So I'll probably stay with it awhile.”

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