In his 47th year at East Central College, and 17 years since he was first profiled in Senior LifeTimes, Dr. Robert Lee “Bob” Mahon is still going strong.
“I’m 77 now, I just don’t like to think about retiring,” Mahon said in an interview at his ECC office, which is decorated with hundreds of model military airplanes and tanks. “I like the job.”
Mahon and his wife Linda each have two sons from previous marriages. In total, they have eight grandchildren.
“I don’t want to be a professional grandpa,” he said. “This is the place where I get to call the shots. I’m the professor. It’s been a lot of fun and it still is, so I’m just going to keep at it until either health or I’m not effective.”
Mahon grew up in Washington, where his father, Robert Lee “Bob” Mahon Sr., was a mail carrier and eventually postmaster. The younger Bob Mahon attended St. Francis Borgia grade school and high school.
“It was like I was coming back home when I got this job,” he said.
After graduating from Borgia, Mahon went to Rockhurst College (now Rockhurst University) in Kansas City, where he received a bachelor of arts degree in English in 1967. He then went on to the University of Notre Dame, where he received a master’s degree in 1969.
Mahon then entered the Army, where he spent three years, including from November of 1970 to November 1971 in Vietnam as a medical records clerk.
Mahon wrote a book about his time in Vietnam called “A Clerk’s Tour,” though the collection of essays has never been published in full. “It’s not like a war novel or anything,” he said. “A couple pieces of it got published in magazines.”
Mahon was based at the Army headquarters at Long Binh Post, near Saigon.
“It was, like totally safe, I, literally didn’t hear a shot fired in anger the whole year I was there,” he said. “It was so big and well defended that you, literally, wouldn’t know there was a war on. That’s what I took away, is if you stayed on the base, it would be like being a normal soldier in the United States.”
Mahon called it “easy duty,” with some of his fellow soldiers on their third or fourth tour at Long Binh. “It was bizarre, because here you are in the middle of this war, but you’re not,” he said.
Mahon went off the base into Saigon a few times. “It was like we had no business being there, because it was just not our country,” he said. “It was strange.”
In 1972, Mahon returned to Notre Dame, using the GI Bill to get his PhD in 1975. He wanted a teaching job and estimates sending out 400 applications in a year and a half while he was finishing his doctorate.
ECC was the first job Mahon had a “legitimate shot” at, he recalled. He said his father heard about the opening and suggested he call the school.
“They were interested because I have the PhD from Notre Dame, and that was, they felt, kind of cool,” Mahon said. “I got an interview and got the job.”
And, after starting in 1976, Mahon has been there ever since.
“I was very lucky after all the jobs I never got a shot at,” he said. “But it, kind of, proves that if you keep at it, something will happen good.”
Mahon has taught classes like English composition 1 and 2, as well as English literature. “The basic introductory freshmen and sophomore courses,” he said. “Comp 1 and comp 2 are our bread and butter because they are the requirements that students have to take.”
Mahon has averaged teaching a total of between 75 and 100 students each semester in up to five classes.
“You add it all up, I’ve seen a lot of students,” he said. “It’s a weird number, but I’m getting close to 10,000 students in all that time.”
Mahon continues doing the job because he likes it, he said. “I have students that say, why didn’t you go on to a four-year school?” he said. “I wouldn’t be comfortable teaching graduate school. What I really like about this job is teaching kids who need the introductory stuff.”
And it is also fun, he said. “I joke with my students that when their evaluations tell me I’m a bad teacher, I’ll quit,” he said. “I look forward to every semester, and as long as that happens, and as long as I have my students evaluate every class every semester, and so far they evaluate me highly, then I’m happy in the job.”
Mahon is now aiming for 50 years at ECC, he said. He thinks he is the longest tenured faculty member at the school.
“A geezer my wife calls me — a geezer on campus,” Mahon said, with a laugh.
Mahon admits it is unusual to have seen so many former colleagues move on.
“It’s strange now, because now I walk around campus and don’t know anybody, because there have been so many to come and go,” he said. “The whole neat thing about teaching is you start new every semester with a new batch of students anyway. So I’m kind of used to the idea that things change all the time. They stay the same in that the job is the same, but the audience is different. … It comes down to the students. Working with them is the best part of the job anyway. It’s strange in some sense, but it’s still East Central.”
Mahon previously served as president of ECC’s faculty association on three occasions. He also helped lead the college’s staff into joining the National Education Association for collective bargaining.
But Mahon has stepped back from leadership roles with the union and faculty association in recent years, which gives him more free time.
“When you get old, you should, like, step aside and let the young people run things anyway,” he said. “They’ve got the energy, and they’ve got the new ideas.”
One negative change in his time teaching has been the increased “educational bureaucracy,” Mahon said. “I’m not blaming East Central by any means, the administration does a good job of doing what they have to do,” he said. “But the educational bureaucracy at the state level and the national level has gotten so intrusive. We spend so much damned time in meetings on paperwork that really doesn’t have any effect on what happens in the classroom. I guess that’s a universal complaint. This is modern life, and modern life is more complicated.”
Mahon is also critical of the “fixation with technology.” He uses only a desktop computer, with no tablets or smartphones. “Every time I learn something on this computer, they change it,” he said. “I’m off the grid at home.”
For teaching, Mahon uses more “on paper, hands on kind of stuff.”
While students might be different in terms of using technology, Mahon said “basically, they’re still good students.”
“The kids have got the brains, and the work ethic is still there for the ones that really want to do it,” he said. ‘The customers are still, basically, good customers.”
While he has been critical of the higher ups at the college over the years, Mahon praised ECC’s current leadership. “East Central did a damn good job with the COVID, staying open and stuff, and the mask protocols,” he said. “They really handled things well, I thought. I’ve got no complaints about the administration for the first time in a long time.”
Mahon used to enjoy canoing on the Missouri River. While he now says it is “too hard to get in and out of the damn things” he has filled his time with grandchildren.
“We’re watching soccer games. We’re watching baseball games,” he said.
Mahon still spends time with his models of military vehicles and planes, which fill his office at ECC, as well as a small prefabricated building his wife bought him for his 70th birthday at Lowe’s.
“She actually jokes that I can’t retire, because where are we going to put this stuff?” Mahon said of the items in his office. “It’s scary to think about how much money I’ve spent on them over the years. I’ve never actually counted them, but it would definitely be in the hundreds. It might even be pushing 1,000.”
Mahon has always enjoyed reading but says he now reads more than ever, estimating he reads at least 100 books a year. “I don’t want to brag, brag, but I do read quite a lot,” he said. “And I read fast. That’s one of the reasons I like this job. I tell my students that I get to talk to you about stuff that I really like to do.”
Not surprisingly, Mahon reads a lot of military history but also enjoys detective books, thrillers, science fiction and fantasy books. “Of course, we’ve got a house stuffed with books and more books,” he said.
A science fiction class in 1984 is where Mahon first taught John Hardecke, who went on to teach the science fiction class himself. Hardecke has been an English instructor at ECC since 1998.
“I just like the way he talks to students,” Hardecke said of Mahon. “I have used that sort of attitude or demeanor ever since. It’s kind of like Bob sitting on my shoulder.”
Mahon has always done a good job encouraging students, Hardecke said.
“One of his lines I remember, he would say, ‘I’ve never thought about it like that,’ ” he said. “I find myself using that line a lot in my own class, whether I’ve really thought about it before I don’t know, but it just really supercharges the student’s self esteem for the teacher to say they came up with something very original.”
People also like Mahon’s “nonconformist attitude” including his casual dress. Hardecke said that reflects both Mahon’s desire to do his own thing but also that how someone dresses is irrelevant to how effective they are as an educator.
“He was definitely an influence, where if I could have a life like that, where you are just working with students and talking about ideas for a living,” he said. “What a great job that would be.”
Mahon has had one book published, a poetry collection called “Private Lives” in the 1980s, but has had poems, essays and articles published in various newspapers and magazines.
“I’ve cut back on that, too, but I always liked to prove to my students that I can do what I was telling them to do,” he said.
Mahon has been published in Newsweek, as well as numerous academic magazines. One essay he remembers fondly was called “The Right Fielder,” about an unlikely youth baseball catch he made in right field, only for the catch to be disallowed because Mahon was using a first baseman’s mitt, which was considered too large.
“It was a little schmaltzy, maybe, but if I got a lesson out of sports, the sports career that it was, it was, a lucky catch but I caught the damn thing,” he said.