Barry McNamara  |   Published May 03, 2017

First Chet, now Lee

McGaan ’69 retiring after 31 years on faculty at alma mater
  • After 31 years teaching at Monmouth College, Professor of Communication Studies Lee McGaan is retiring.
Lee McGaan’s alter ego at Monmouth College, Chet Amagan, retired from his “MC Consulting” company in December. The announcement created quite a buzz on the Department of Communication Studies’ Facebook page.

“Many people were distressed,” smiled McGaan, regarding the announcement that Amagan was closing the doors to his company. “Chet had a lot of fans.”

Six months later, after 31 years as a professor at the College, McGaan is following Amagan out the door.

McGaan’s career at Monmouth began in 1986 with a focus on lecturing to his classes, but his style evolved, leading to the creation of Amagan and a more project-centric teaching philosophy.

“The early part of my teaching career at Monmouth, I was a lecturer,” said McGaan. “I thought I was quite good at it, but not everyone was as complimentary. I began to realize by the mid- to late ’90s that things needed to change. I came up with more in-class projects that allowed the students to apply what they’d been reading.”

His methods continued to evolve, and he regularly communicated with his students in advance of a session, having them think about the day’s activity and what they needed to do to be prepared.

Students in his “Organizational Communication” got to know Chet Amagan, who McGaan said “looked very much like me, only he always wore a hat.”

Other differences were also intentional. Amagan was not “warm and fuzzy” like the professor with whom he shared a classroom. Rather, he was only interested if students’ ideas could make money for the company.

“A lot of organizational communication is about knitting a culture, but college students don’t have a lot of job experience coming in,” said McGaan. “Talking about how corporations work is all foreign territory for them. So I created the simulated company so they could get a better feel of communicating in the professional world.”

Throughout his career, McGaan kept a keen eye on that professional world for his students, exposing them to scores of internship opportunities.

“Back in 1996, we started requiring our communication majors – and eventually our public relations majors – to have internships,” he said. “I’ve done a lot of internship supervising in the years since. … As a college, we are doing pieces here and there with ‘deep learning’ activities – internships, off-campus study, civic engagement, etc. – but I’d like to see us do even more.”

McGaan knows the value of a Monmouth education, both as a professor and as a Monmouth student.

A 1969 graduate, he said he knew Monmouth was a likely landing place for his college education, but becoming a professor “was not on my radar.”

McGaan’s family benefitted from a United Presbyterian Church rule that allowed children of its clergy to attend a handful of colleges, including Monmouth, for free. Attendees included his mother, Lois Bailey McGaan ’30, for whom the College’s prize for excellence in communication is named. Among other family members, his brother and sister, Dean McGaan ’59 and Lynn McGaan ’61, graduated from Monmouth, as did an uncle, Hall of Achievement inductee Kenneth Bailey ’52.

“My mother was the biggest Monmouth College fan,” said McGaan. “She was slightly more committed to beating Knox than (longtime basketball and baseball coach) Terry Glasgow was. The Monmouth-Knox games were so intense for her that she really had to consider whether or not to go.”

With the help of communication professor Tom Fernandez, and with a profound admiration for the late economics professor Jim Pate (who went on to serve as CEO of Pennzoil), McGaan completed a topical studies-type degree that included those two disciplines, plus psychology.

“Coming out of Pate’s classes, I had hoped to get a Ph.D. in labor economics,” he said. “During graduate school, I had to serve as a teaching assistant, and I thought ‘This is kinda cool. I really like this.’”

McGaan said it was during grad school that his appreciation for his Monmouth education reached a new level.

“I remember thinking, ‘How am I going to compete with these university kids? They know more than I do.’ No, they didn’t. It wasn’t that I was smarter, but I was way better prepared to do graduate course work than they were,” he said. “While they were taking multiple choice or short-answer exams, I was writing all those papers and conducting research.”

Also key to his development was a stint in the Army, which McGaan says “is the only lottery I’ve ever won. I think my number was 65.”

During an interview about his background to determine his best Army placement, he mentioned his communication experience.

“Like radio?” asked the interviewer.

“No, nothing like that,” McGaan replied quickly, knowing that such soldiers in the Army carried huge radio equipment on their backs and that the enemy “shot the radio guy first.”

The interviewer began running through a list of possible areas of interest.

“You know, architecture, art and on down the line,” said McGaan. “He was getting near the end of the alphabet, and he said ‘social psychology.’ I said, ‘Yes, that’s it.’”

That job “match” led to McGaan working with detainees at a military prison and to work involving making the Army experience better for enlisted men so that they’d re-enlist. Along the way, he had a commanding officer who was a “fabulous leader,” and his lessons in leadership and effective communication have stuck with McGaan since.

Between his Army service and returning to Monmouth, McGaan completed his Ph.D. at Ohio University and taught at Olivet (Mich.) College and Wabash (Ind.) College. At the latter school, he was on the faculty with Ira Smolensky, who headed west to Monmouth two years before McGaan and, coincidentally, is also retiring this year. Six years after he left Wabash, McGaan said the person who held his position there was David Timmerman, now dean of Monmouth’s faculty.

“When I applied to Monmouth, I interviewed with (theater professor) Jim De Young, who had been my first academic adviser,” said McGaan. “A short time ago, I was asked by Mortar Board to speak in their ‘Last Lecture’ series. Jim was there. He told me, ‘I saw your first lecture at Monmouth, and I wanted to see your last.’”

In addition to his work at Monmouth with internships, McGaan is also proud of work he did outside of the classroom with fraternities. He served as adviser during a memorable stretch for Sigma Phi Epsilon, when the organization won several Buchanan Cups for overall excellence, and he was also part of a movement that bettered all Greek life.

“We changed the rules regarding rush,” he said of a group that included faculty colleagues Pete Gebauer, Craig Watson and the late Richard “Doc” Kieft. “The process had gotten out of hand. It took a critical mass to make it happen, but after we went to a shorter rush period and a dry rush, the students all told us, ‘This is way better.’”

McGaan isn’t certain what he’ll do when he joins Amagan as a retiree, but two family projects come to mind – organizing photos taken by the first Bailey to attend Monmouth in 1914, as well as making his first trip to Scotland to visit the Ayreshire grave of a McGaan ancestor that is specially marked as a friend of poet Robert Burns.

“I need to renew my passport. I gotta get on that,” said McGaan. “I’ll be looking into finding ways to not be in Monmouth, Ill., in January.”
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