A colleague from San Diego State University described Emeritus Professor Henry Janssen as the embodiment of Michelangelo’s phrase ancora imparo, “I am still learning.”
After more than six decades of teaching students to revere learning—and earning widespread acclaim for his skill—Janssen himself continued to be a practitioner of the art until his death in San Diego last week at age 92.
“I have a host of friends that were once my students, going all the way back to 1953,” Janssen said in an April 2013 interview. “In one way or another, and probably not always with intention, they have created me. I learned from them and hopefully was able to transfer that learning to students who came after them.”
Janssen taught political science at SDSU for more than 35 years, and later continued to mentor students as adviser to the Honors Council. The council is comprised of students accepted into five of SDSU’s six campus-wide, multidisciplinary honor societies (Phi Eta Sigma, Golden Key, Phi Kappa Phi, Mortar Board, Phi Beta Kappa and Scholars Without Borders).
“Henry is the main reason I’m now studying at M.I.T.,” said Levi Lentz, an SDSU honors graduate and 2012 valedictorian for the College of Engineering. “He was a titan of education, and he taught us that education is not just part of life—it is life itself.”
Even after his retirement in 1989, Janssen remained active in academic and community life at SDSU. He frequently met with faculty, students and academic administrators.
Shaping Aztec history
As a guest of honor at the recent commemoration of John F. Kennedy’s historic 1963 speech to San Diego State graduates, Janssen proudly recalled his leadership role in bringing the sitting president to campus.
His efforts to secure Kennedy as the commencement speaker are documented in "Hail Montezuma: The Hidden Treasures of San Diego State." Author Seth Mallios, chair of SDSU's anthropology department, was a good friend of Janssen's.
"I feel quite certain that nobody loved San Diego State more than Henry," Mallios said.
Born June 3, 1921, to farmers in Lyons, Kansas, Janssen was the second of three children. His father died in an accident when Henry was just 13. Ownership of the farm reverted back to his paternal grandfather, and the Janssen family became renters.
Despite their financial struggles, all three siblings attended college. Henry worked in the oil fields to raise money for his studies at the University of Oklahoma.
After graduation, he joined the Army and became an artillery reconnaissance observer during World War II. That’s when he discovered his aptitude and passion for teaching.
“It was the first time I realized I might like to teach,” he said in a 1997 interview. “I had a knack for helping people learn things.”
Influenced generations of students
Janssen resumed his studies, earning a master’s degree from Oklahoma and a Ph.D. from UC Berkeley. He taught briefly at UC Santa Barbara before joining the faculty of what was then San Diego State College in 1953.
Over the years, thousands of students have taken his classes, their interest piqued by Janssen’s burnished reputation as one of the most popular yet demanding professors at San Diego State. He did not disappoint.
"Henry influenced generations of students, broadening their vision, their understanding and their contributions to our society,” said SDSU President Elliot Hirshman. “His spirit and intellect were extraordinary, and he helped create the legacy of student achievement and student success our campus enjoys today. He will be deeply missed."
Awards and honors
Hirshman awarded Janssen with a Presidential Medallion in February 2012. Five years earlier, he received a Monty Award from the SDSU Alumni Association in recognition of his outstanding contributions to the university.
An Honors Council room in Love Library is named for Janssen, as is the “Last Lecture” series, an event sponsored by the council at which SDSU’s most distinguished faculty members are invited to speak.
Earlier this year, SDSU announced Janssen’s planned gift of $1 million to an endowment for the University Honors Program. The gift will increase scholarships for honors students, expand student participation on the honors advisory board and support faculty dedicated to teaching honors courses—all significant steps in the transformation of the program into the University Honors College dedicated to excellence in teaching and scholarship.
“I have a notion that [teaching] is a social action, not a passive thing,” Janssen said. “And I think it is legitimate to try to create a different society through educational techniques. It may be the only legitimate way.”
Janssen is survived by a son, Mark, a 1979 graduate of SDSU. His wife, Marjorie, passed away in 2003.
A memorial service in celebration of his life will be held on Sunday, August 25 from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. at the Parma Payne Goodall Alumni Center. There will be free, reserved parking on the top level of Parking Structure 5, right next to the Center.
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