Unassuming was a word that described Ronald Kirkwood, or Kirk as many called him.
Kirkwood, 81, of Germantown Hills, died Sept. 23.
He was a professor at Illinois Central College where he taught composition and
literature. In fact, he was one of the founding teachers when the junior college began.
Kirkwood retired in 2009.
“As a lit teacher, Ron really created the Shakespeare course we still teach. That was his baby. He developed the whole thing,” ICC Professor Rick Becker said.
To make the course even more interesting and real for his students, Kirkwood linked it to the Illinois State University Shakespeare series in the summer.
“Ron would arrange to get tickets and would take the whole class to it. It was a lot of work,” Becker said.
Both Becker and professor Craig Shurtleff taught classes with Kirkwood.
When Becker was hired in 1980, he was assigned to teach team humanities with
“About four days before class started, he had the whole class planned out,” Becker said.
“He was incredibly gracious. I never felt like I was being patronized. That was really important to me at that time.”
Shurtleff worked with Kirkwood since 1985.
“He was kind of a mentor to me,” he said, describing Kirkwood as humble.
“He was still a learner. I think that’s what made him such a good teacher. He was
always curious,” Shurtleff said.
The two colleagues shared a love of literature and had friendly banter about Charles Dickens.
“He was one of the few people I met in this department who would talk about literature. ... He always wanted to talk about books. I appreciated that,” Shurtleff said.
“I always admired Dickens and he called him a hack third rate writer,” Shurtleff said.
While Shurtleff related to Kirkwood through literature, Becker could also relate to him through singing.
Becker plays guitar and sings.
“Ron was a good musician too. He had a wonderful tenor voice,” Becker said.
Both men said Kirkwood was more than a colleague; he was a friend. Shurtleff had lunch with Kirkwood about a month before he died. Both of them visited their friend in the hospital.
Retired ICC professor Mike Foster also met Kirkwood for lunch on occasion. They were also in a book club together.
“I had lunch with him before our ICC English Dept. survivor’s book group met on Sept. 11. Donnelly’s cheese soup is forever sanctified; we both had bowls of it,” Foster said.
During lunch, stories were shared.
Page 2 of 3 - “If only Kirk had written down the stories he told, of growing up on a horse-powered Mennonite farm in Indiana, of his travels to Wales and Saudi Arabia, of a life of teaching and music,” Foster said.
The stories and conversation is something that fellow professor Eric Christian will miss.
Christian taught an international studies course with Kirkwood.
“We worked together to develop a course on Middle Eastern cultures, and he had traveled a lot to the Middle East. It was always fun when he would be in the classroom, and he could bring in those personal anecdotes and personal experiences,” Christian said.
One of those stories Kirkwood told was about when he got to attend the wedding of the king of Jordan.
“He was always trying to engage the students. ... He just loved teaching so much,” Christian said. “He always had kind of a story to get a point across for the students, because again, that was his goal to try to have the students feel engaged, interested.
“He was always wanting to learn, find out more and share what he learned. I think that’s what made him such an excellent teacher,” Christian said.
It was Foster who alerted Shurtleff and Becker of Kirkwood’s death.
“In the days since he died, I’ve been amazed at the multitude of Kirk’s former students who remember his passion for Shakespeare or whatever he taught. Some say he saved their academic lives. I remember him as a genial and kindly mentor to me and many others,” Foster said.
Becker shared in Foster’s sentiments.
“He was a really good guy. The thing about Ron ... Ron was one of the most unassuming people I’ve met. Most people want to sell themselves along ... and that was never Ron,” Becker said.
“He had all kinds of interesting experiences he would speak of, but Ron was a very unassuming man. .... He would very quietly do his job and ... you thought, ‘Wow, this man had experiences I could only dream of.’”
Before coming to ICC, Kirkwood taught at school districts in Ohio and Indiana. He was a graduate of Bluffton College on Ohio and received his master’s degree from Ohio State University.
He served three years with the Mennonite Central Committee and two years with the World Council of Churches in Europe and the Middle East, according to his obituary.
He was a member of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Peoria, where he sang in the choir, and a member of Peoria World Affairs Council.
When ICC opened in the late 60s, Becker said “they stole the best teachers they could get from the high schools.”
Page 3 of 3 - “Ron was one of the founding members. All those guys had a sense of ownership and justifiably so,” Becker said, adding that it was Ron and those like him who made the community college what it was.
Shurtleff said he will miss his friend’s honesty.
“He was always very honest about who he was and what he’d done. He was a very humble man,” he said.
The office Becker is in at ICC reminds him of his friend.
“The office I am in now used to be Ron’s. I told him he could come in and sit in the chair,” Becker said.
Ron is survived by his wife Suellen and their four children.
“The world’s a little less because he was a good guy,” Becker said.