A few weeks into the new school year in fall 1991, a well-worn University of Wisconsin Oshkosh math professor pushed his head into the doorway of a newly hired colleague in Swart Hall.
“I just want you to know,” he told the young mathematician, “you were our third choice.”
Warm welcome or not, John Koker had been hired and was officially part of the UW Oshkosh faculty—and would be for three decades to come, either as math professor, department chair, college dean or, in the role he’s served in since 2018, provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs.
From the start of his career, he also became a familiar face on commencement day. Since 1991, he’s attended ceremonies at both midyear and spring commencement and, when he does so Saturday and steps to the lectern as the guest faculty speaker, it’ll be just weeks before his retirement. Koker will call it a career after 32 years this summer.
“I’ve been here 32 years and that’s 64 commencement days. I don’t think I’ve missed one,” said the 61-year-old Koker, who will work his last day June 30. “One of the things that makes me most proud is to see those students graduate, because it’s all about the students.”
The right factors
Before coming to Oshkosh, the Kenosha native earned a bachelor’s degree from St. Norbert College, a master’s degree from Purdue University and a doctorate in mathematics from UW-Milwaukee.
During his undergraduate years he debated studying either math or theater, ultimately choosing his path with help from a math professor who shared some words of wisdom.
“(He) told me it’s a lot easier to make math your living and theatre your hobby than vice versa,” Koker said. “So I guess I believed him.”
Also before Oshkosh, Koker spent the 1990-91 academic year teaching at the State University of New York at Potsdam, meaning his retirement really comes at the end of a 33-year career.
Well, higher education career, that is.
“Part of me says that I have literally had a job since I was 14,” Koker said. “There’s a part of me that just doesn’t want to have a job anymore.”
That first gig? Taking care of Sally Lambert’s lawn. An elderly widow and friend of the family, she paid the teenager $3 an hour for weeding, mowing, raking and the like—a wage the future provost’s mother argued was too extravagant.
This summer presents the opportunity for Koker to not work, then, for the first time in more than 40 years. Even while pursuing his degrees he had summer jobs. Same for his early years as a professor. Among them was helping write and edit vocational math materials for an Oshkosh company.
That second job likely sounds appropriate to anyone who knows Koker—or has heard him give a speech or read one of his emails to the University community—given his affection for math. Over his career he’s built a reputation for having fun with numbers, often working them into his communications.
Making a difference
He’s also retiring with a reputation for impacting change at UWO. He was integral in creating and implementing the University’s revamped general education program, which launched in 2013, for example.
“John is very much a builder,” said UWO Chancellor Andy Leavitt. “Under his leadership, such enduring programs like UWO’s University Studies Program, engineering technology, engineering and many other academic offerings have been created and thrive. His impact on our curriculum will be his legacy.”
Leavitt offered Koker the interim provost role in 2017, before he was officially selected for the job following a national search in 2018. He’d previously chaired the math department from 2000 to 2006, after which he became the dean of the College of Letters and Science.
He earned the UW Oshkosh Distinguished Teaching Award in 2002, the UWO Rosebush Professor for Excellence in Teaching, Scholarship and Service Award in 2004 and the UW System Board of Regents Teaching Excellence Award in 2006. More recently, his alma mater St. Norbert College recognized him with a Distinguished Alumni Achievement Award for Education in 2014.
He kept up with his hobby, too. Koker stayed involved in the theatre and radio TV film programs over the years, acting in at least a dozen plays and several films produced by students and alumni.
As he moved into leadership positions and away from connecting with students face-to-face as a professor, he said he did his best to always keep students front of mind.
“I’ve tried to bring that to my work, even though I didn’t have a lot of day-to-day interaction with students, to remind myself that’s really what we’re here for,” he said. “The students need to be first.”
In retirement, it’ll be a trio of youngsters he’s spending his days focusing on in lieu of the Titans populating the University’s three campuses—his grandchildren, ages 3, 4 and 6. He said he’s looking forward to spending more time with them. He’s also president of the Habitat for Humanity Oshkosh board of directors and wants to be involved with UWO in some form or fashion, whether it be “friend-raising or fundraising,” he said.
“It’s gone by in a blink of an eye,” Koker said. “It seems like it was just five minutes ago when I pulled my family’s minivan into the parking lot and went into Swart Hall with hope that they remembered me and that they’d hired me a few months earlier.”
It all adds up
Last month it was announced that Edwin Martini, a 20-year higher education professional from Western Michigan University, would take over the role of provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs upon Koker’s retirement.
Giving the outgoing provost optimism for the future of the University, he said, is the strong faculty, including those in leadership roles.
“The strong faculty and staff and new leadership here makes me feel like UWO is going to move in the right direction,” Koker said. “We just launched the new strategic plan to 2030 and implementation is beginning now. It’s a great strategic plan, and I think there’s a great leadership team to put that in place.”
“Given his 32 years as a faculty member and administrator at UWO, John has made an indelible positive impact on thousands of students, faculty and staff,” Leavitt said. “His easy temperament and sense of humor disarms difficult situations and moves folks towards consensus. I will miss his leadership and wise counsel.
“In the end, he is a really good human being.”
Not bad for somebody’s third choice.