Marvin Druger added zest, zaniness to biology studies
By Lou Sorendo
Marvin Druger finds it difficult to journey about the Syracuse University campus without bumping into a student he has taught.
That’s no surprise, since he has taught more than 40,000 students in his teaching career.
“Of all the faculty members on campus, I’ve probably taught the most students,” Druger said, noting that many hundreds of students sign up for intro to biology every semester.
Druger has been teaching biology for about 55 years, and he taught the introductory biology course at SU for 45 years. The 75-year-old Druger is currently among the elite set of faculty members who have been at SU the longest.
While sitting in his office within the new Life Science Complex at SU, Druger recently discussed his storied career and transition into retirement with his wife Pat by his side.
Pat and Marvin have been married for 51 years. He tells people they’ve been married for 52 years. She corrects him and says: “It’s only 51 years.” His joking reply is: “Well, it feels like 52 years.”
At SU, Druger—known for his zany antics and quirky humor—reinvented the way introductory biology was taught. In a phrase, Druger made science fun and interesting. He would make it a point to relate science to a student’s everyday life. He tried to engage students in experiences and get them excited about understanding the world, not just memorizing facts and figures. His biology course was “Adventures in Life,” says Druger. His goals went beyond mastery of subject matter. He stated that his greater mission was to “provide meaningful, motivational experiences that enrich the lives of students and help them identify their unique talents and where they fit in life. That’s what an education should be all about.”
He’s also known for his leadership as chair of the Science Teaching Department for about 21 years and president of three international science-teaching organizations: the National Science Teachers Association, the largest science education organization in the world; the Association for Science Teacher Education and twice president of the Society for College Science Teachers.
Druger is also highly regarded for his programs for high school students and his numerous publications and professional presentations.
His hard work did not go unnoticed, and he has received many awards. In 1997, Druger was appointed as a Laura J. and L. Douglas Meredith Professor for Teaching Excellence, one of SU’s highest teaching honors. In 1998, he was awarded Honorary Emeritus Membership in ASTE, and in 2000, NSTA awarded him the Robert J. Carleton Award for National Leadership in Science Education. These are the highest honors that can be bestowed by these international science education organizations.
Druger is unquestionably one of the more colorful and popular personalities among SU faculty. At one point, the university bookstore sold “Marvin Druger Fan Club” T-shirts.
There certainly was a market for those shirts. He mostly taught students in the classroom, but for many years, he instructed a number of adult students through the university’s distance-education program.
“I like interacting with people, especially first-year students because they are fresh and you can impact them tremendously and make them think about life in new ways,” he said.
“If I had to list my major accomplishments, the most important one would be having an impact on the lives of over 40,000 students,” he said.
During one of his lectures, Druger parodied the ”modern day” student, dressing in baggy jeans, earrings, tattoos, sunglasses, a cap on backwards, a backpack, running shoes, and equipped with a cell phone and a water bottle.
“I think he grabs students’ attention by being a little crazy,” Pat said. “Students pay attention because they don’t know what nutty thing he will do next.”
On April 28, 2008, Druger gave his last BIO 123 lecture. Because many of his former students wanted to show their appreciation, the Marvin Druger Recognition Fund was established. It raised funds to underwrite a lab in SU’s new Life Sciences Complex that opened last fall. Pat set the ball rolling with a $50,000 contribution.
“I wanted the ‘Marvin Druger Pre-memorial Fund’ because I wanted to know who gives and how much,” he said jokingly. “If they do a Post-memorial fund, I’d be dead.”
The “Marvin Druger introductory biology laboratory” is now part of the Life Sciences Complex. A bench and tree on the SU campus bear the name of the longtime teaching legend. His former students established a “Marv Druger Fan Club” on Facebook on the Internet. The Drugers also donated funds to have their names on two chairs in Setnor Auditorium and on a brick in the Orange Grove. To top it off, a life-sized cardboard cutout of Druger greets students entering the SU bookstore.
“I feel good about making an impact on so many lives. That’s what I’ve done,” he said.
His wife Pat is 70 and retired from an administrative position at SU. Among many of her activities, she serves as a volunteer docent at the Erie Canal Museum. She also does tax returns as a volunteer AARP tax-aide. She is also a talented seamstress and quilter. Pat is also a member of the board at the Jowonio School, an inclusive preschool in Syracuse. Last year, the Drugers contributed funds toward the creation of the Druger Family Community Room at Jowonio.
Perspective on retirement—Druger is on official leave this year and plans to retire in May. The path to retirement, however, is not an easy road for someone who has been teaching since 1954, starting with student teaching at Midwood High School as an undergraduate at Brooklyn College.
Druger envisions two kinds of people: Those who can’t wait to retire and those who “find a life” and won’t quit. “The secret is to find a life. Don’t get a job, get a life,” he said.
“I was fortunate to find something that I think I’m good at,” he said. “If you like something, you have a life and never want to quit.”
“I’m at a transition stage,” he said. “I’m on leave, and all of a sudden there are no undergraduates to teach.”
Druger said he is ambivalent about retiring. “I’m fearful of retiring, then waking up the next morning and regretfully asking myself, ‘What did I do?”
“You can do many things after retirement, but you can’t un-retire,” he said. Druger said the key to a good retirement is to have something worthwhile to do that your job prevented you from doing. He noted that many people thrive on retirement and say that they are busier and happier than ever before.
Druger has his radio program—”Science on the Radio”—and poetry-writing to help him adjust to retirement. He enjoys visiting local schools and reading his poetry for children of all ages. His book, “Strange Creatures and Other Poems,” is available from the SU Bookstore or directly from him ($11.85 including tax). He carries copies in his car to sell. Pat senses when he is going to make a sales pitch to someone, and she sternly warns, “Don’t!” (See related story).
Druger sees retirement as “being out of the club. Even though you may still be on site, you are treated differently,” he said.
“I’m really apprehensive about being out of the action. So many people fade away,” he said.
Upon retirement, his wife Pat “moped around for six months” and was getting up late and just “hanging around.
“Now, she’s so busy that I hardly see her,” he said.
“Work organizes you,” Pat said. “Once you retire, you have to organize yourself.”
Pat says she is goal-oriented and dislikes the dismal feeling of having accomplished nothing during the course of a day.
Druger grew up in a poor neighborhood in his native Brooklyn. His father only made it through the sixth grade and was a truck driver. His mom took care of the kids and home.
“They didn’t think about going to school,” he said. “When you graduated from high school, you got a job to support the family.” His childhood friends—“Beezie” and “Junior”—proved to have huge influences on his life. They encouraged him to go on to Brooklyn College. Since Druger’s older sister went to work after graduating from high school, he was not obliged to do so. Besides, Brooklyn College was free. So, he went to Brooklyn College and graduated Magna Cum Laude.
“We had a gang called the Wildcats, wore purple jackets and had a club room,” he said. “It was not a bad gang and there were no drugs involved. We played basketball, punch ball and stickball. We didn’t drink alcohol because we didn’t want to injure our beautiful, athletic bodies.” When his then girlfriend Pat attended a “gang party”, instead of being greeted with beer and marijuana, it was Pepsi Cola and salami sandwiches.
“My childhood friends were a strong, stabilizing influence on my life. Everyone was successful despite coming out of a terrible neighborhood,” he said.
Druger recounted: “A few years ago, we received a postcard about a Wildcat reunion. I was reluctant to go, but Pat insisted, so I ‘compromised’ and we went. We had a wonderful evening at a restaurant in Greenwich Village in NYC, and we have had a yearly get-together ever since. One year, we all went to Las Vegas; another year, we all took a cruise to Nova Scotia; recently, we all attended the wedding of Beezie’s son. Childhood friendships remain throughout life.”
After attending Brooklyn College, Druger earned his master’s degree and Ph.D in zoology and genetics at Columbia University. He was hired at Columbia as a lecturer in zoology and was in charge of teaching the evening zoology laboratory course for adult students. At Columbia, he was a student of the legendary evolutionary geneticist, Theodosius Dobzhansky.
“To be in his lab was wonderful. He was a mentor to me and taught me a lot about teaching and about respecting other people,” Druger said. “He showed me how to treat students like friends and colleagues.”
“He was a fantastic influence on me, a great man, a leader in his field,” he added.
Dobzhansky taught Druger to always respect the uniqueness of the individual. “He helped me develop my view that you can be taller, smarter, richer, etc. than others, but nobody is better than anyone else. Everyone has unique talents and is special.”
Famous scientists frequently visited Dobzhansky’s lab, and Druger had the opportunity to discuss his research with the greatest minds in the field.
After earning his Ph.D at Columbia, Druger became a highly marketable commodity.
He spent a year doing post-doctoral research in genetics with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization at the University of Sydney, Australia. He later returned to Australia as a senior Fulbright lecturer and then as a visiting professor at Curtin University, Western Australia. He was offered an assistant professor position at the University of Michigan and at Syracuse University.
He accepted the position at SU as a dual assistant professor in biology and science teaching. Druger briefly entertained the idea of getting into a medical field, but opted for an academic career in teaching. “Doctors help people’s bodies. Teachers help people’s minds. It’s just as important,” he said.
He enjoys the seasonal changes in Syracuse, the lack of heavy traffic, the availability of beautiful countryside, and the friendly Syracusans.The Drugers live in Syracuse, but also have a house on Owasco Lake in Auburn.
On the air
Druger also does science information segments as “Science on the Radio” for WAER-FM 88.3. Druger’s goal for the program is to reach the general public and promote science literacy.
This is not Druger’s first foray into radio. For about 11 years, he hosted “Druger’s Zoo,” an information and interview program that aired on WAER from 1972-1983. On that program, Druger interviewed various people in the Syracuse community to inform listeners about different lifestyles and jobs.
He also did a series of TV programs for Newchannels Cable TV Network called “Druger’s Working World,” which explored different careers.
Druger also pioneered one of Syracuse University’s cherished traditions, the BIO 123 exam answer key toss.
Druger would open the second-story window of his office at Lyman Hall and engage in some playful antics with the students before the main event. Druger then would throw sheets of paper down to the students—answer keys to the course exam, just taken by hundreds of students in various locations across campus.
Druger’s premise for “The Druger Drop” was to give students a chance to review their exam answers immediately after the exam when they were most interested in the results. He believes that reviewing answers promptly is important, because students lose interest if they have to wait weeks to get the results. When he meets course alumni, they frequently ask him: “Do you still throw answer keys out the window?”
After several years of doing the “Druger Drop” after major exams, he did a TV program called “The Bio-Answer Show” on the student-run UUTV station. For this program, he performed a humorous “Saturday-Night-Live” type of skit, then reviewed the answers to the exam, and finally drew names of students from a fishbowl and gave out wacky prizes. Students could relax in the residence hall lounges immediately after the exam, enjoy the TV show and learn from it. The show was discontinued when technical difficulties disabled the broadcast. Druger then resumed the traditional key-tossing event.
“You forget information, but you don’t forget experiences,” Druger said. “What I was trying to do was to provide meaningful and memorable experiences that would stay with students the rest of their lives,” he added.
Druger places a great emphasis on physical fitness, and frequents a health club on a regular basis. Many years ago, a colleague took Druger to the gym almost every day for a month to play squash. When Druger complained about how much time was being spent exercising, his colleague replied: “You find time to eat lunch, don’t you?”
“That remark changed my life. You have to build exercise into your day,” Druger said.
Druger realizes that as one ages, bodily functions decline, particularly after the age of 75. “However, if you exercise, the decline occurs more slowly,” he noted.
“I also exercise my jaw a lot at the club through social networking,” he said.
The Drugers also are proud of their longevity as a couple. Druger said there are several keys to a successful marriage. “The first is compromise. Do everything she says and don’t ask questions. ‘Yes, dear’ goes a long way in a marriage,” he said.
“The second rule is let her handle the money. I don’t even know my salary. I get $100 a week in allowance,” he said. He used to buy gas with much of the money. Then he discovered that he could pay for the gas with a credit card, and his wife would handle the bill. So, he says that he now saves much of his allowance to buy presents for his wife.
“A third key is friendship. We just enjoy doing things together,” he said.
Druger sees his legacy as “influencing lives in a positive way.”
“His legacy has been left on students rather than the university,” Pat added.
“We learn from everything we do, and everything we do, becomes part of what we are. Experiences, not information, are most important.”” Druger noted
“My teaching atoms have infiltrated into a whole bunch of people,” Druger said, “My genes have been passed on through three children and six grandchildren, with another grandchild on the way.”