Posted on Mar 22, 2002

His Rolodex is filled with names, and for each name, the professor has a phone number and an observation.

Jodi Tesser. The most upbeat person in the history of the world.

John Vero. Wants to be a member of Congress. I wouldn't bet against it.

Professor Jim Underwood's students have gone on to become lawyers and politicians. And they've gone on to have children who've become lawyers and politicians. Underwood, the longest-serving professor at Union College, has taught them, too.

When Underwood started teaching, John F. Kennedy was president, and the young leader's enthusiasm inspired a generation of students to pick an obscure major for the time: political science. Back then, his students wrote their papers by hand, and handouts were cranked out on mimeograph machines. Today, his students write their papers on computers and surf for court opinions and other course work over the Internet.

Over his long tenure, Underwood, 64, has seen the name of his department change from the Government Center to Political Sciences. He has also outlived two nicknames: Fuzzy, given by his students, who can no longer remember why; and Sneakers, by his fellow professors, for the white, rubber-sole shoes he wore until a well-meaning colleague suggested he buy a new pair. Underwood plans to retire next spring and for now is teaching part time.

Despite the changes, some things have stayed constant, like the moments of joy that arrive unannounced, when the lessons click and his students carry on the classroom discussion themselves. He stands back in awe as they debate the influence of soft money on the political process or racial profiling after 9/11. The saddest moment arrives with commencement each year, when the wooden lawn chairs are smacked shut and an erie silence descends over the campus.

“You just feel empty,” he said.

Underwood was finishing his graduate work at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University when one weekend his roommate invited Union's debate team to sleep on their dorm-room floor. A poli-sci major mentioned that the college was hiring, and in 1963 Underwood joined the faculty. He's been there ever since.

It's not a job he takes lightly.

“First of all, you can never not go to class,” he said. “Most jobs, at some point or another, you can call in sick. But with teaching you have a responsibility to the students. You have to be dying to say to a student, “I couldn't read your thesis.”

A teacher also has to be on the lookout for lessons, a duty that can rob life of some simple pleasures. The New York Times is one. “I'm reading to see what I can Xerox for my class,” he said. “I read it standing up, whenever I can, but I don't read it for pleasure.”

Then there's the business of keeping up with the students who have passed through his door over the last 40 years, seven of which he spent as dean of faculty. Christmas cards line his office. His Rolodex bulges with names. Visitors stop by his cluttered office at random. “Sometimes you remember the name with the face,” he said. “Sometimes it's the other way around.”

Staying in touch with two students, Bob Carney and Phil Mueller, has been easy. Carney, now the district attorney for Schenectady County, and Mueller, his deputy chief, pay a visit to their old professor each year to talk to his civil rights class about the death penalty.

“He's just a guy who loves people,” said Carney. “He's endlessly fascinated by what's important to you and your life.”

“He didn't have the air of a professor handing down wisdom from above,” said Mueller. “He was just there to share it with you and get you as excited about the subject as he was.”

Some of Underwood's quirks have rubbed off on his students. After noticing that Underwood kept his “to do” lists on folded index cards tucked into his front pocket, Jim Sletteland started to do the same. “You pulled out a couple of bucks from your left side pocket and there it was,” said Sletteland, a 1974 graduate whose son J.P. also had Underwood as a professor. “It was always with you so you could keep planning ahead.”

The student Underwood described as the future congressman, John Vero, recalls throwing back a shot of Southern Comfort with the professor at Chet's, the campus watering hole, when he finished his thesis in 1997.

“He's just such a cool guy,” said Vero, now a lawyer who works in Albany. “I'll never forget that.”

The desire to keep in touch with a favorite professor hasn't escaped Underwood, either. A photograph of several political science professors he had at Franklin & Marshall College, where he met his wife, Jean, rests against one bookshelf. He sought out his teachers when his daughters were looking at colleges a decade ago.

“Almost everyone's nostalgic about their college days,” he said and shrugged.

Underwood knows of at least seven students whose children he has also taught. He advised Martin Strosberg on his 1968 thesis about the Capital District Regional Planning Commission, headed by former Albany Mayor Erastus Corning 2nd. Now a professor of health care management at Union's graduate school, Strosberg sees his old professor daily. His son, Nathaniel, a senior, is currently working with Underwood on a thesis about why the Los Angeles metro was built but New York City's Second Avenue subway wasn't.

The Strosbergs' theses share one thing in common — penciled comments. Neither Strosberg could say why their professor avoids pens.

Underwood explained. “I make a comment and two pages later the person has addressed the point,” he said. “I've gotta go back and erase.”

Though retirement is still a year away, the professor has formulated a plan, which he described in the excited tone of a student who has landed his first job. He will spend time at the Otsego County Courthouse, near his home in Cooperstown, observing family court.

“I think if someone wants to see a real picture of America, they should probably go to prison or family court,” he said. “It's going to be pretty depressing, I think. But I want to go.”