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From music to teaching: Professor strikes the right chords

“You’ll learn to play a polka,” was his trumpet teacher’s answer when asked whether or not to continue playing trumpet professionally for the symphony or leave to earn more money by playing in a polka band.

Dr. Lucas

“I didn’t want student loans so I was playing in the Northwest Indiana Symphony to pay my way through grad school,” explains Dr. John J. Lucas, professor of human resources management at Purdue University Calumet. A friend approached him asking if he’d join him playing in a polka band. “Not having ever played a polka, I went to my mentor and trumpet teacher, Robert Rushford, first trumpeter of the Chicago Lyric Opera, for his opinion. When I told him how much I made playing for the symphony and how much I’d make playing in the band he told me I’d learn to play a polka,” Lucas chuckles.

But before the symphony or the polka band or graduate school, there was a desire to teach. “Originally I wanted to major in music – to play and to teach,” shares Lucas. But at one point, he wasn’t even sure college was attainable. During his senior year in high school, Lucas’s father, Robert, a construction electrician, became ill and the family’s income and savings were wiped out during his two-year battle with cancer. It appeared college was not going to be an option for him.

With the help of scholarships, Lucas earned his bachelor’s degree in history from Purdue University Calumet in 1981. To him, the need for scholarships is very personal and the driving force behind why he established the Lucas Endowed Scholarship in honor of his father. “If it hadn’t been for scholarships, I would not have been able to attend college.”

And Lucas could not be more proud of his Purdue degree. When he was applying to Loyola for graduate school, Lucas questioned if his Purdue education gave him a strong enough background to handle the rigorous graduate program. “The answer was definitely yes,” Lucas says. “I wanted to establish a scholarship here because I want students to have the same access to education I did, and I know the coursework they do is solid and will lay a foundation for them to do whatever they want.”

Lucas went on to attain his master’s degree in industrial relations from Loyola University Chicago and began working for Commonwealth Edison with roles in human resources and labor negotiations. During that time, he was asked to teach a training course to first-line supervisors. “I always said that if I was successful in the business world, I would teach,” shares Lucas.

It was while teaching the course at Commonwealth Edison, Lucas was approached by professor at Purdue University Calumet and asked to talk about resume writing in an English class. Eventually, he decided to leave the corporate world and went back to Loyola for his Ph.D., and then made the move to PUC where he’s been teaching for the past 16 years. “I really enjoyed being in the corporate environment but it’s no comparison to being a teacher,” Lucas states. “I love teaching. I don’t consider this a job.”

His love of teaching and passion for Purdue take the gold and black imprint far beyond his Calumet campus. It travels with each and every one of his students and wherever their lives take them. “The responsibility to my students doesn’t stop after the lecture is over or once they graduate,” Lucas states. They stay in touch with him, ask for advice and keep him informed about the happenings in their lives. Lucas continues: “It’s not just about teaching, it’s about connecting – really connecting with them on a deeper level. That’s what Purdue has given to me. I can’t envision teaching at any other university and it’s why I give back.”

Lucas credits Purdue for laying the foundation and carrying him through each step that led him back to Purdue Calumet, this time as a professor. He looks back on his education and career at Commonwealth Edison and wonders, “What would have happened if I hadn’t had scholarships? There is no a greater gift one can give than allowing students educational opportunities and knowledge to better themselves."