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BSC legend finishing a 50-year chapter

Published: Jun 01 2016
BSC legend finishing a 50-year chapter - Photo
He answers to “terminal extrovert” and has the credentials to prove it. He knows, and has said good-bye to, more people than the population of some mid-size towns. As master of ceremonies to all, photographer of many, singer of songs, scholar advisor, and author editor with a crammed resume of presidencies, chairmanships, speakerships and good will – Mike McCormack has made himself famous. Some might say infamous… but that’s another story for another time.

What happens when someone considered to be an institution leaves an institution? Bismarck State College finds out next fall when McCormack’s archival office rests bookless, empty and quiet, the antithesis of the boisterous, sharp-witted professor who taught and entertained history classes for 50 years.

Among the few full professors at BSC, McCormack is legendary among generations of students, including grandchildren of his early ones. He taught the sprawling “Western Civilization” class and “History of the Western Frontier.” Though his subject was vast, he made himself, and therefore his message, stick, as so many students have told him over the years. For that, he feels a lucky man.

“Teaching is a little bit like being an architect because you are trying to form knowledge,” McCormack said. “What happens sometimes is those constructions don’t get completely built. But I believe there are multitudes of students in whose life I have made a difference.”

Former students who have traveled to Egypt, Italy and elsewhere tell him that while in country, they recall something he said or a class discussion about emperors, Roman architecture, or the real purpose of the pyramids. Remarkably, a former student engaged him in Denmark, when McCormack was there on a Rotary Foundation study exchange, saying she remembered his class and enjoyed her time at BSC.

“I’ve had more than a fulfilling life doing what I was meant to do, teaching at a college. Never did I not want to enter my classroom. Any teacher will tell you, the best legacy is your students.”

His first association with BSC was as a student himself. It was 1960, the year before Bismarck Junior College moved from the capitol grounds to Schafer Heights. The new Schafer Hall building held everything, and McCormack joined everything, from choir and The Mystician to Circle K service club and all things social. By then, he was already the “indentured servant” and “slave,” he says fondly, of Jane Gray Stewart, BJC’s longtime theater director.

A song and dance man since high school at Bismarck St. Mary’s, McCormack was plucked from the hallway by “Lady Jane” to replace a lead in “My Three Angels.” He not only played in everything ever-after, but wherever Jane needed men, including escorts at the Miss North Dakota Pageant. After McCormack returned to BSC as faculty, Jane Stewart asked him to design sets, a dubious skill made brilliant with help from technical program students. He claims to have turned out a few theater tech majors and professional set men from those days – some still in town. McCormack said his time with the “charismatic, demanding, charming, 5’ 2” perfectionist” remains his fondest BSC memory.

He also admired history teacher and West Point veteran, Col. Wesley Wilson, Ph.D., who mentored his academic life. Wilson’s beguiling, after-class, war story salons helped steer McCormack’s love of history into a career. After his 1962 graduation, McCormack chose University of North Dakota to sing with the Varsity Bards and to earn a master’s degree. In 1966, at the request of BJC Dean Ralph Werner, he was hired and began teaching from his deceased mentor’s office. His first day made reassuring by applause from his new faculty colleagues.

McCormack worked with a cavalcade of BSC’s best people and on several landmark events, but his favorite was the Visiting Scholars program and, later, the BSC Jazz Festival. He was designated raconteur and chauffeur to Gen. William Westmoreland, Dr. Benjamin Spock, James Doohan (“Scotty”), feminist Bella Abzug, and many of America’s greatest jazz musicians.

“That was one of the best experiences of my life,” he said. “We had everybody, the biggest names – Dizzy Gillespie, Herb Ellis, Jaki Byard – all those superb musicians will never happen again.”

Whether as student or teacher, McCormack has been sustained by the camaraderie of supportive BSC friends and something he calls institutional companionship.

“I’m not sad about retiring because this college has been a family to me since 1966. I plan to be an active former faculty member and available. In many ways, it will be like coming back to a family reunion, though every year I will have less family left.”

Away from BSC, McCormack will be singing and traveling with his children.

“I want to go back to Europe and see the areas I have talked about. I want to eat the food and drink the wine. I want to see the sun set over another castle in my life.”   

For more on this story and others like it, check out the Spring 2016 issue of BSC Magazine.