Posted at 2:19 p.m., April 28, 2015

Laidlaw retires in response to admin's new direction

When the student no longer comes first, it's time to go at last

Laidlaw and student

Down to a science:

Laidlaw and Kellsey Kimmel 25, test melting points of compounds prepared in organic chemistry.

Photo by Ike Fredregill

After teaching for nearly 38 years, Laramie County Community College’s senior member of the math and sciences department said he cannot wait to put the college in his rear-view mirror.

Dr. Richard Laidlaw, 71, is retiring at the end of the spring 2015 semester. He started at LCCC in August 1977, with five years of teaching general sciences, chemistry and biology already under his belt, he said.

Nearly four decades later, Laidlaw has been presented with LCCC’s Teaching Excellence Award twice, the Association of Community College Trustees’ Faculty Leadership Award and taught long enough to see one of his students become his doctor.

Yet, despite his extensive experience in the fields of education and science, Laidlaw said higher education wasn’t a goal when he was young.

“In high school, I didn’t think I was going to college,” he said chuckling, which caused his creased features to dance around his smile.

Born in Geneva, Ohio, Laidlaw grew up with an older brother and two sisters. His father was a crane operator, and his grandfather worked at Geneva’s True Temper factory. After his older brother followed in their grandfather’s footsteps, he said he intended to as well. None of his family had attended college, he added.

That all changed when his high school English teacher wouldn’t take no for an answer, he recalled.

“He drove me from my hometown, about 50 or 60 miles, to (Cleveland State University) and got me enrolled,” Laidlaw said. “It was pretty amazing for a teacher to do that.”

In 1961, Laidlaw started as an accounting major because he had done well with accounting in high school and even took home first place in a regional accounting competition.

“But, something inside me said this isn’t really for me,” he said. “I really want to major in chemistry.”

“I was woefully unprepared to make that switch,” he added. “The best I could do was switch to biology.”

A few years later, Laidlaw said he was faced with a decision: Go to Vietnam or become a science teacher. He opted for the latter.

Go West, young man

It didn’t take long for Laidlaw to find his new home.

“I was walking down the halls one day in grad school, and I saw a sign,” Laidlaw recounted. “Chemistry teacher wanted: Cheyenne, Wyoming. And, I thought: I’ve never been out West. Why not?”

For the next few years, he taught high schoolers the basics of chemistry and biology. Then, in the late ‘70s, he signed on with LCCC.

By the time English instructor, Randy Fetzer, was hired in 1988, Laidlaw had about a decade under his feet at the college. Fetzer said Laidlaw was instrumental in making him feel welcome at LCCC.

Fetzer grew up in Colorado and had worked as an anchor in broadcast media, but he said, “I always wanted to teach.”

Laidlaw was the first full-time instructor outside of the English division with whom Fetzer struck up a friendship, he said.

“He loves to laugh, and I do, too,” he said. “We hit it off right away.”

“He is a man of integrity, consistency and his word,” he said.

Fetzer was inspired.

A person could tell Laidlaw really loved what he was doing, and his focus was always his students, Fetzer said.

“He knew his content material inside and out, upside down and backward,” he said. “It was obvious he was very good at getting his students to succeed.”

Teaching excellence

Sitting in his cluttered office, Laidlaw shuffled through several disorganized piles of paper work. Two bronze eagles—teaching excellence awards—casually lounged amid the myriad knickknacks, books and beakers full of stationary. Among the paintings and certificates decorating the walls, photographs of young, smiling faces added splashes of color to the otherwise academic and dreary workspace. His gray eyes twinkled blue and a smile reached for his ears as he pointed to each snapshot recalling the student’s name and year.

“I just like to teach,” he said. “I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.”

To be a good instructor, one should “let the students know you really care about what they do in life,” he said.

Laidlaw said seeing his students succeed is one of the many joys teaching has brought him. On a recent field trip to the HollyFrontier Refinery, he was greeted by chemists, who took his courses years ago, he said. Many of the pharmacists in Cheyenne were once his students including Jackson Quick, who shot an armed man attempting to rob the Medicap Pharmacy in 2014, Laidlaw said. His nephrologist, Dr. A. John Meares, passed through Laidlaw’s courses about 20 years ago, he said.

Laidlaw’s laboratory assistant, Samantha “Sami” Haller, said Laidlaw’s main goal is to get everyone through his courses.

Haller, a 19-year-old biology major, is working to become a surgeon or pathologist, and Laidlaw’s classes have taught her how to study harder, she said. But, even though the course material is “fairly involved,” she sarcastically understated, he finds ways to make it digestible.

“He doesn’t mind explaining the same thing three times in a row,” she said. And, “instead of memorizing details, he gets you to think about how it works.”

“He doesn’t micromanage,” but he reviews the material before a test with the students until he is sure they understand and provides plenty of practice problems, she said.

“He’s a really funny guy,” she said. “You can tell math is really his area, and sometimes he makes math jokes that you don’t really get.”

Even though she is transferring to the University of Wyoming, Haller said she was sad to see Laidlaw go, but she won’t miss his pop quizzes.

The chemistry instructor’s lessons aren’t reserved for students alone.

Leif Swanson, English instructor, said, “(Laidlaw) introduced me to the idea a teacher can expect a lot out of a student but still give a lot of support.”

Laidlaw emphasized that college courses should be college level, but instructors should provide abundant time to help students, Swanson explained.

When Swanson started as an adjunct instructor at LCCC nearly 25 years ago, Laidlaw made it a point to stop by his office and say hello and

“always went out of his way to interact with people,” he said.

Supporting up-and-coming faculty and building strong relationships were top priorities for Laidlaw, Swanson said.

Of the many lessons imparted by Laidlaw, Swanson said one quip stood above the rest: “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.”

A changing culture means it’s time for a change of scenery

During spring break, Laidlaw and his wife bought a winter home in a Tucson, Arizona, retirement community. He said he plans to use his retirement to improve his golf game, do wood working and play with his model trains.

Because many of the chemistry reference books were written in German when he attended college, Laidlaw said he minored in German.

“Today, I still read German books,” he said. “It’s a hoot.”

Although he has never visited, Laidlaw hasn’t given up the idea of one day seeing Germany.

“Before I cash it in, I could maybe go,” he said.

Despite being retirement eligible for years, he said he had only flirted with the idea only recently.

“I don’t feel like I belong here anymore,” he said. “We really don’t put the student first.”

LCCC’s culture has changed throughout the years, he said. When once faculty operated as a family and aired out differences at get-togethers hosted by the college’s president, nowadays, a good working relationship is hard to come by, he said.

The familial environment at LCCC was on the decline at the end of President Dr. Charles Bohlen’s term, but then “(President Dr. Darrel Hammon) came on board, and things went to hell,” Laidlaw said.

Hammon’s successor, President Dr. Joe Schaffer, hasn’t done much to improve the situation and possibly made it worse, he added. 

“The values I have, and the values I see the administration promoting, they diverge too much,” Laidlaw said. “I think we put the institution first on terms of how much money it can make.”

After conversations with Schaffer about the direction LCCC is heading, Laidlaw said he decided it was time to retire.

“Rather than get in his way and impede his progress,” he said, “I think it’s just time for me to leave.”

Even though his colleagues still made working at LCCC fun, he said he was ready to retire.

“I can’t wait to put this place in my rear-view mirror,” Laidlaw said.

Dunn and done

Retiree to focus time on family, hobbies

Retirement leads to cabin in Red Feather Lake