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updated: 6/25/2012 4:19 PM

Harper College activities director says thanks for memories

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  • Michael Nejman, director of student activities at Harper College in Palatine, has gotten many big names to the campus during his career.

      Michael Nejman, director of student activities at Harper College in Palatine, has gotten many big names to the campus during his career.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Michael Nejman is retiring after 31 years at Harper.

      Michael Nejman is retiring after 31 years at Harper.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Tom Kenny, the voice of "Sponge Bob Square Pants," visited Harper in 2002.

    Tom Kenny, the voice of "Sponge Bob Square Pants," visited Harper in 2002.


The photos have started coming down in Michael Nejman's office at Harper College, and with them have come a flood of memories.

He is retiring after 31 years in Harper's Student Activities Department, including the last 10 as director.

They have been prolific years for the college. The Activities Department annually hosts more than 200 events, drawing more than 25,000 people annually, say Harper officials.

Even more importantly, they just reached a record of more than 2,000 students joining clubs and activities.

"I thought I'd be here for two to three years," Nejman said last week during a wide-ranging interview. "It's funny how life presents itself. It turned out to be an incredible fit."

Nejman grew up in Schaumburg and graduated from Schaumburg High School in 1975. He was the first in his family to go to college, attending Harper for two years before transferring to Northern Illinois University, where he earned a journalism degree.

He ultimately earned a master's from DePaul University in multicultural affairs and student services, a degree he designed himself.

However, his career in student programming took hold during his days as a student at Harper, when he served on the college's Program Board. The first concert he booked, Journey, hooked him for good.

"They played in our Student Center," Nejman says with a laugh. "They used so much juice that the lights dimmed in the parking lot."

Nejman returned to Harper in 1981 when the job of student activities coordinator opened up. He worked under Director Jeanne Pankanin, whom he describes as a mentor, as she brought such icons as Oprah Winfrey and Steve Martin to campus.

Nejman also learned the value of networking in bringing celebrities to campus, and of collaborating and not competing. He started working with Rick Uchwat, former owner of the Zanie's Comedy Nightclub.

What began with Uchwat looking to test the waters about expanding his chain into the Northwest suburbs, ended up in a near 20-year partnership between the two in co-promoting shows that featured young, up-and-coming comics.

Together, they landed such comedians as Jay Leno, Jerry Seinfeld, Bill Maher and Jon Stewart, to name a few.

"Michael has been remarkable at keeping Harper College a hot spot for big-name talents and high-end cultural arts," says Joan Kindle, associate provost.

"Due to his almost innate ability to spot rising stars just before their price tag skyrockets, the Harper community has been able to enjoy quality entertainment even in poor economic times."

The trick, Nejman says, is landing talent before they break.

He ultimately booked Leno three times, finally selling out his last show in 1984. But it was while driving Leno, in 1983, from the airport to Harper that he learned to repair his car.

Cruising down the Northwest Tollway in Nejman's modest Toyota Tercel, Leno noticed the brake light flickering and he insisted they pull over. One look under the trunk, revealed a brake cylinder out of place, which Leno quickly popped back into its socket and they were on their way.

Working in Student Activities wasn't all fun and games, Nejman says. In his last 10 years as director, he introduced more "curriculum infusion," bringing national speakers to campus that tied in with academic units.

Television personalities like Reed Timmer from "Storm Chasers" and Paul Watson from "Whale Wars" drew earth science and biology students; civil rights activist John Carlos and Reza Aslan, a Middle East expert, drew academics from across many interests.

Most of all, in looking back, Nejman enjoyed working with student leaders, who worked with him in programing campus activities.

"As a community college, students often come here with blinders on," Nejman says. "They go to class and go home. I try to tell students to develop peripheral vision and to explore all areas that the college has to offer."

He did, back in the mid-1970s, and he hasn't looked back.

"It's been a fun, fast-paced fulfilling career," Nejman says, "that allowed me to befriend many artists, agents, student activities professionals, and above all, student leaders."

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