"Don't Shy Away From Bow Ties"
From witty to sobering, the life lessons Johnny El-Rady shared as USF’s inaugural Last Lecture Series presenter provoked laughs as well as reflection.
By Mary Beth Erskine
TAMPA, Fla. (April 5, 2010) – From the witty to the whimsical, the serious to the sobering, USF biology professor Johnny El-Rady generously cast his “pearls of wisdom” before an enthusiastic and crowded audience of students, faculty, family and friends gathered in the Marshall Student Center’s Oval Theater last week.
“You know you’ve made it when students dress up as you for Halloween.”
“Don’t shy away from bow ties.”
“Let your words and actions match.”
“War is stupid.”
With good humor and modesty, the inaugural speaker for USF’s Last Lecture Series – and one of USF’s most popular professors as indicated by the cheers and whistles following his introduction– told the sometimes poignant, sometimes wacky tale behind each “pearl” – the life experience from which it was gleaned.
Through nominations and a lengthy selection process, El-Rady was named the kick-off presenter for the Last Lecture Series sponsored by Housing and Residential Education. A tradition at universities around the country for several decades, the program gained popularity in 2007 when computer science professor Randy Pausch gave his last lecture at Carnegie Mellon University, making news around the world and spawning a widely acclaimed book, The Last Lecture.
El-Rady titled his presentation, “Thugs, Bugs and Augs: Chasing Ever-Changing Dreams” – a patchwork quilt of stories spanning his childhood in Ghana and Lebanon, his young adult years in Europe, to present day at USF. It was a casual, yet intimate dialog that was both enlightening and entertaining, punctuated by images, cartoons, illustrations and a plethora of family photos, as well as audience interaction via questions and clicker response.
In describing his first day of teaching at the University of Southern Mississippi, El-Rady said he was eager to make a good first impression with his students. He sensed early in the day, however, that things were not to go as planned. Revealing photos of a butchered haircut to emphasize the point, he said, “I looked like a dork before I even left the house.” Subsequently, his carefully planned lesson about bacteria that grow on human teeth fell flat when in his Lebanese accent, he described to the students how bacteria attaches to the “animal” of one’s teeth.
“It took a while, but the students figured out I meant enamel.”
The lesson learned? “Don’t judge your career by your first day on the job.”
For USF senior and biology major Christina Horner, who has taken El-Rady’s genetics class, his dictum, “Drink, but don’t drink in excess” was particularly meaningful.
“The fact it has to do with alcohol is not what made this stand out to me, but that it is true in many aspects of life,” she said. “He also mentioned the same concept with food. Everything in moderation is acceptable, but it is being able to control that moderation that is the difficult part in life.”
“Professor El-Rady is a professor who lives to teach,” said Ana Hernandez, dean of Housing and Residential Education, during his introduction. Noting his many awards for teaching excellence, as well as his support of residential education, Hernandez said El-Rady was a natural choice to kick off the program at USF.
Horner agrees. “He has had many great life experiences which can be seen not only in this lecture, but in his classes,” she said. “He understands that everyone is still learning in life and is willing to help out in any possible way.”
“The premise behind the Last Lecture, which is given by a distinguished faculty, administrator or staff is simple,” says Elizabeth Kaplon, assistant director, Academic Initiatives. “If you were to have one last chance to speak to a group, what would your message be? The intention is that a hypothetical ‘last’ lecture will evoke inspirational, engaging and entertaining messages.”
“I have been fortunate to have spent the last 40-plus years on four continents, so there are many stories to tell.”
Stories with a life lesson attached.
“It’s okay to have your cake and eat it, too.”
“Double check your answers.”
“Know your destination.”
And perhaps, the clearest of all, “Don’t take yourself too seriously.”
The University of South Florida is one of the nation's top 63 public research universities and one of only 25 public research universities nationwide with very high research activity that is designated as community engaged by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. USF was awarded $380.4 million in research contracts and grants in FY 2008/2009. The university offers 232 degree programs at the undergraduate, graduate, specialist and doctoral levels, including the doctor of medicine. The USF System has a $1.8 billion annual budget, an annual economic impact of $3.2 billion, and serves more than 47,000 students on institutions/campuses in Tampa, St. Petersburg, Sarasota-Manatee and Lakeland. USF is a member of the Big East Athletic Conference.