When Bill Punkay reminisces about his early teaching years at Harper College, he talks about a horse barn, coliseum and holding office hours in trailers behind Elk Grove High School.
Punkay is the only remaining member of the college's charter faculty, hired by its first president, Robert Lahti, in 1967. He, like the college, celebrates 45 years of service this year, and he is still teaching engineering technology.
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He was honored this month during the president's fall opening session, in front of 400 faculty and staff. They gave the Palatine resident a standing ovation.
"My heart is still pounding," says Punkay, with the trademark humility and grace that has made him a favorite teacher and colleague over the years.
At the meeting, Roger Spayer, Harper's chief human resources officer, introduced Punkay, describing him as a "living symbol" of the value and consistency in delivering education to the community that Harper has aspired to over 45 years.
"Bill is the only person who has been here from the very beginning," Spayer says. "He represents the spirit and the bedrock of what the college was intended to be and continues to be as we approach our Golden Anniversary in 2017."
Kenneth Ender, current Harper president added, "We built this place on your shoulders and lots of others."
Punkay was hired to design the college's machine design program. He had an engineering degree and a master's degree in engineering technology from the University of Illinois in Champaign and experience teaching in downstate Canton.
In Canton, a colleague told him of ambitious plans to build a community college in the Northwest suburbs of Chicago. Punkay was intrigued. When he interviewed, he saw the plans for converting the former 240-acre horse farm in Palatine into a sprawling college campus, and he was hooked.
How many times, he reasoned, do you get to help shape a college program?
For the first two years, he and the rest of the faculty holed up in trailers behind Elk Grove High School that doubled as their offices. At 4 p.m. they would enter the school to teach college courses.
Punkay, his 2½-year-old daughter in his arms, attended the 1969 college dedication, held at the coliseum on the original horse farm. As the first fall semester approached, college officials hung a banner out front to announce registration. That day, it drew a line of students that almost reached Algonquin Road.
"We had expected 650 to 700, based on our enrollment at Elk Grove," Punkay says. "We ended up with 1,875 registered that fall. Five years later, we had 15,000 students, with 800 of those attending full time."
Right from the start, Punkay and his colleagues in the engineering department were training students to work in suburban companies. Consequently, he reached out to area business leaders, working in the field, to join an advisory board.
Over the years, Punkay was coordinator of the mechanical engineering department before becoming dean of physical science, math and engineering. For the last 13 years, he has been a part-time adjunct faculty member.
Speaking to the faculty, Punkay reflected how his years at Harper have been stimulating and enriching.
"So what will the next 45, or even 145, years look like?" he asked. "You will be the ones to cast that vision every day, every semester, every year. But whatever the vision, you have a solid foundation upon which to build."