Eyes Wide Open | Elmhurst College


Eyes Wide Open

Professor Andrew Prinz was standing under the Picasso in Daley Plaza, offering students in his urban history class a lesson in art appreciation, Chicago-style. “When this sculpture first appeared, people didn’t know what to make of it,” he explained. “In fact, they didn’t like it very much.” The fifteen or so students gathered under the artwork seemed to possess no great enthusiasm for it themselves. They circled the sculpture warily, as if it might come snarling to life at any second. When Prinz asked the group what they thought of the piece, the only response was a snatch of nervous laughter. 

Maybe it was the weather: it was one of those blustery mornings in early spring that might make a college kid wonder why he ever agreed to get up early on a Saturday to follow his professor around the Loop. Still, one doesn’t teach for forty years without learning a few things about dealing with a group of unresponsive, half-awake students. So Andy Prinz climbed the Picasso. He started up the ramp-like base that forms a kind of pedestal for the piece, stopping every few steps to continue his lecture. “Over the years, people have grown to really love the Picasso. You see them out here with their children climbing on it,” he observed. “There are so many experiences where all you hear is, ‘Don’t touch,’ but I say, use all your senses. This is a place, a public sculpture, that people can enjoy.” By now, the professor was at the top of the ramp, a spot usually reserved for daredevil skateboarders in baggy shorts. He stopped, turned to his class and waved them forward, like a commander urging on his troops. 

That is what Andy Prinz has done for forty years now, in classrooms at Elmhurst, on the streets of Chicago, and in Sydney and Beijing and London and Moscow and Toronto and elsewhere. He has sent out wave after wave of students—suburban kids mostly, brought up to believe that cities offer little more than danger and difficult parking—and urged them to see the great cities of the world, freshly and for themselves. In the process, if they’re lucky, they’ll absorb some of their professor’s joy for city life, a sense of wonder still apparent after a lifetime of exploration. (“Look at these very nice bus stops,” he implores his bleary-eyed charges on State Street. “Look at all the planters, and the very sturdy garbage cans!”) 

His students may also learn to encounter cities the Andy Prinz way: with eyes wide open, and subway pass at the ready. (Prinz’s First Law of Travel: Get out of your car and ride the train, the bus, the trolley.) Maybe they’ll even acquire a healthy skepticism for modern architecture. (“This building is supposed to speak to you, but it’s never said a word to me,” he admits, as the class passes another glassy skyscraper.)

Thus equipped, the students of Andy Prinz will be ready to head out on their own travels. In return, he asks for only one thing: after you’ve graduated, if you should find yourself in another great city and should think of your professor at Elmhurst, drop a postcard in the mail. It will find a place of honor in his office, among piles of term papers and travel guides and forty years of memories. 

Andy Prinz remembers the interview that made him a professor at Elmhurst College. He especially remembers the number of interviewers: nine. “It was the first and only time I’ve been interviewed by so many people,” he recalls, with a fondness born of safe distance. 

He came to Elmhurst in the fall of 1969, from Concordia College in River Forest, where he had taught for nine years. He was hired to establish a program in urban studies, part of a wave of such programs founded in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when American cities were experiencing acute social problems. Like most urban studies programs, the one at Elmhurst was to draw upon a range of social science disciplines—which is why, at his job interview, Prinz found himself facing nine people. 

“There were faculty there from sociology, history, geography, political science. Even the chaplain was there,” he remembers. “It was a good thing, too. I wanted to develop a program that would be interdisciplinary, and unless the people from all those disciplines agreed to it, I didn’t want to come. It’s a rare thing—the chance to build your own program—and I sure wanted to get off on the right footing.”

Not that Prinz is the sort to be daunted by an army of interviewers. He has a knack for reaching out to anyone in conversational range and engaging him. Stroll through downtown Chicago with Prinz and you’ll see him stop to talk with more than one stranger. Sit him down for an interview for a magazine profile and be prepared to have him ask most of the questions. Meet him for lunch in a restaurant  and watch him try to sell the waitress on pursuing a degree in urban studies. 

Back at his office, he will pull out a box of ballpoint pens and present one to you as a gift. The pen is inscribed, DR. ANDREW K. PRINZ, DIRECTOR, URBAN STUDIES DEPARTMENT, ELMHURST COLLEGE. Like a natural-born salesman, Prinz has a gift and a set of tools for communicating his enthusiasm for projects, ideas, buildings, or whatever he happens to be doing. So it’s really no surprise that the Elmhurst faculty moved quickly back in 1969 to approve a new Department of Urban Studies—Dr. Andrew K. Prinz, director. 

Prinz began teaching immediately: first a course in metropolitan government, then one in American government. In 1971, Elmhurst graduated its first urban studies majors. It wasn’t long before Prinz was recruiting classes of fifteen to twenty majors each year. 

“I was one of his many converts,” laughs Rita Athas, ’76, director of regional programs for Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. Twenty-five years after taking a Prinz class in relations between cities and their suburbs, Athas is now responsible for Mayor Daley’s outreach efforts to suburban governments and to organizations like the U.S. Conference of Mayors. She started at Elmhurst as a political science major, “but Andy convinced me that my life just wouldn’t be the same unless I took a double major with urban studies. He was able to persuade me because he’s so passionate about the subject himself. You pick that up from him, and it makes you passionate about it, too.” 

From the start, Dr. Prinz wanted his students to understand the practice of urban studies as much as the theory. He taught courses in practical politics and political campaigning. Students earned credit by volunteering for national, state, and local campaigns. Others served internships with public agencies.  “He’s not just a textbook teacher,” says Dave Bennett, executive director of the Northwest Municipal Conference, who has hired several Prinz students as interns. “He wants his students to understand how things really get done out there.”    

Prinz also wants his students to see first-hand how big cities function all over the world. In 1971, he took his students on a tour of European cities: Stockholm, Helsinki, Leningrad, Moscow, London, Amsterdam. It has become an annual ritual. “Give me fifteen people and I’ll go anywhere in the world,” he likes to say, and he means it. His classes have been to Australia and New Zealand twice, to Russia five times, to Japan once, and to China once, in 1979, when the sight of Americans on the streets of Beijing was still rare. His students have made shorter trips to places like Montreal, Orlando, and Washington, D.C. They have been to New Orleans and Toronto so many times that both cities have made Prinz an honorary citizen.  

The professor sets an agenda for each trip, but always leaves room for improvisation. A chance encounter with an American diplomat in a railroad car led to a tour of the American Embassy in Moscow. A Georgian family in Tbilisi invited the Prinz group into their home on short notice, pulled whatever they could find out of their refrigerator and laid it out for an impromptu buffet. “I say, expect the unexpected and be prepared to take advantage of it,” he declares; and his students like to hold him to it. A few years ago in the Toronto airport, they spotted the actor Leslie Nielsen. “The students were all too shy to approach him, but they thought I should give him a pen,” Prinz recalls. “So I did. You have to be prepared to seize opportunities.” A framed photo of the exchange stands on a bookshelf in the professor’s office. 

His travel courses are an exercise in learning by immersing oneself, as much as possible, in a culture. “Our approach is to walk a lot, and find not just the cultural places but also the people places,” the professor says, “places where people meet and shop and wait for trains. That’s where you get a taste for what the ordinary life is like.”

The value of his approach was apparent during the very first travel course, when his students spent time on both sides of what was then a very-much-intact Iron Curtain. “You could talk until you were blue in the face about the difference between the two systems, but there is nothing like seeing a system at work, or not at work, as the case may be. When we arrived in London from Moscow, one student said to me, ‘It’s nice to see people smiling again.’”

Whatever their destination, the groups follow Prinz’s First Law of Travel. “You have to be ready to take public transportation if you come with me. These are kids from the suburbs for the most part, and many of them have never been on a city bus. It’s fun to see them learn to do it. Most are not mass-transit users, but after a visit to a place like Toronto, they’re asking, ‘Why can’t we have a system like that back home?’”

He is proud to tell the story of how his students showed the staff of the American Embassy in Beijing the location of the city’s central subway station. Marooned behind security fences, the staff had not explored the city. But the students had sought out the people places, where they could see ordinary lives being lived.

Most urban studies majors at Elmhurst make at least one trip with Dr. Prinz. Many travel on funds provided by an anonymous donor-alumnus. The professor learned of the gift a few years ago, in a call from the College’s development office. “They said they’d received a gift for the travel courses and I should sit down—it was a substantial gift,” Prinz recalls.

“Well, in my mind, $500 is substantial. They said it was $50,000. I was staggered. What it means is, we never have to deny any student the opportunity to make one of these trips.” All Prinz requires is that a student who uses the travel funds write the alumnus a letter of thanks. The professor himself wrote the benefactor immediately, taking care to enclose one of his pens. “For $50,000, a pen is the least we can do,” he says. 

Prinz once served as an adjunct professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. One day a student asked him if he would write him a letter of recommendation for graduate school. “I told him I’d be glad to; but I asked why he wasn’t asking one of the regular faculty,” he recalls. “He said, ‘You worked harder to get to know us than the regular faculty did.’ Well, I was pleased to know that. But it was also very sad to think that you could complete a major and not know any of the faculty well enough to ask for a recommendation. That’s one of the reasons I’ve always made an effort to get to know my students, not only in terms of their academic work but also as people. It might be the most rewarding part of teaching.”

Many former students go out of their way to stay in touch with Prinz. Every year he has to find more room in his office to store their cards and letters. He wouldn’t think of throwing them away.  

“He cannot begin a conversation without first asking if everything is all right in your life, and asking how your husband is doing, by name,” Rita Athas notes. “He asks because he really cares—and that makes you care all the more about him.”
In 1990, three hundred or so former students and other admirers joined Prinz in celebrating the twentieth anniversary of urban studies at Elmhurst. “It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” he says. “What a wonderful evening! To think that there were people who wanted to see me after twenty years.”

From his own experience, Prinz knows the difference a memorable teacher can make in a young life. Ask him about the teachers who were important to him and he responds with a long, detailed list that begins in the first grade. He cites his baseball coach, Mr. Rogers, “who spoke softly, like his namesake”; and Theodore Naeser, a grade-school teacher who became a role model—“one of those decent people who reached out to you, quiet and soft-spoken.” 

It was teachers like Mr. Rogers and Mr. Naeser who first urged Andy, while he was still in grade school, to become a teacher himself. The suggestion made sense to him. “I never found school hard,” he remembers. “I enjoyed learning, loved to read; I’d come home at lunchtime and read some more. Of course, at that time, it was the Bobsey Twins.” 

Andy grew up in Lincoln Park, then a German enclave, on Chicago’s North Side. His father, a shoemaker, ran a thriving shop on Armitage Avenue. Neither parent was much of a reader. (The only thing Andy can remember his mother reading was a German-language women’s magazine called Haus Frau.) Like the earliest students at Elmhurst College, Andy grew up speaking mostly German around the house. He attended Luther Institute, a private school on the Near West Side.

It was a fifth-grade classmate who introduced Andy to the Lincoln Park branch of the Chicago Public Library. “It was intimidating, because the librarians were always saying ‘shhh!’ But it was also wonderful. There were all these books and you could take them home!” Prinz laughs at the memory. “Every time you took a book out they stamped your card, and I can still remember the excitement I felt at filling my card up.”

Books became a source of adventure for Prinz, a way of sampling life beyond the neighborhood. The longest trip he remembers as a child was to visit relatives in Milwaukee, which registered with him as a nearly exotic place.

Another avenue for exploration was Chicago’s public transportation system. On the street car or the El, Andy made his way all over the city. “It was simply my world and how I learned how to get around,” he says. “You could even take a date out on public transportation in those days. It wasn’t considered a liability.” By the time Andy finished high school, he was a thoroughgoing child of the city, streetwise and proud of it.

Then he left the familiar streets for the Mississippi River town of Rock Island, Illinois, and Augustana College. “It was quite different,” he recalls. “I was German, and this was a very Swedish place. I dressed differently, too. I wore leather jackets—there were probably people who thought I was a Chicago hood. I didn’t mind that, really; I wore it proudly. They would form a certain impression of me and then be surprised to find that I was a good student. I liked that.”

At Augustana, Prinz pursued multiple majors—in history, political science, and geography—in preparation for a career as a high school teacher. He also encountered several memorable teachers—notably Fritiof Ander, who favored a walrus mustache and three-piece suits, with a Phi Beta Kappa key dangling from the vest. Andy once made the mistake of finishing one of Ander’s essay exams early, thus angering the professor, who figured that anyone in such a hurry could not have taken the exam very seriously. 

Several of Augustana’s more demanding professors, like Dr. Edward Hamming, were the first to steer young Prinz toward graduate school. “I honestly didn’t know what graduate school was,” he recalls. “College itself had been a real leap for me. Neither of my parents had even finished high school. But my professors said I was going to graduate school. I figured, ‘Okay, if you say so.’”    

At Northwestern University, Prinz completed a master’s degree in 1958 and a doctorate in 1963. (His early background made it easy for him to pass the post-graduate German exam.) While still in graduate school, he began to teach a full load of government classes at Concordia. 

He says he acquired what became a well-developed work ethic not at college or in graduate school but at home, from his craftsmen father and grandfather. Andy’s father had left school after the fourth grade. “He would ask me, ‘What is this graduate school? When are you going to get a job?’” Prinz recalls. “And believe me, I understand where he was coming from.”

The professor’s office in Schaible Science Center could pass for a museum of political memorabilia. Buttons, bumper stickers, posters, and pennants from various candidates’ past campaigns for mayor, governor, senator, and president cover just about every inch of wall in the place. Their only competition comes from photos and postcards sent to Prinz by his former students.

Ask Prinz where he grew up and he won’t say “in Lincoln Park” or “on the North Side” but rather “in the forty-third ward.” It was where he was born into politics. His father was a precinct captain. For years, the ward was the fiefdom of Alderman Paddy Bauler, famous for declaring, “Chicago ain’t ready for reform!” 

In Andy, the political gene first manifested itself in grade school, with a successful campaign for student council. As he entered the higher reaches of academia, he maintained a nose for the nitty-gritty of practical politics. In 1964, he won a grant from the Ford Foundation to study Chicago politics. He did his research not at a university library but in the corridors of City Hall. Landing a job as an aide to Alderman Nathan Kaplan, he began to learn how Chicago politics worked from the inside.

When his boss’s constituents became concerned about young people sniffing glue, Prinz researched the phenomenon. His work led to City Council hearings on the issue. Reporters began referring to Prinz, in print, as “an expert on glue sniffing.” It was not an honorific he might have chosen; still, Prinz wrote language on the issue that became part of the Chicago municipal code.

It wasn’t long before Prinz was ready to mount his own campaign for public office. In 1973, a group of independent Democrats asked Prinz to run for Party Committeeman from his adopted hometown, Oak Park. That night, with his wife, Carol, Andy weighed the pros and cons of running. After years of talking about government and politics, Carol noted, “it was time to put up or shut up.” 

Prinz’s opponent, a state senator, had the full support of the Democratic hierarchy. To combat the party’s resources, the professor assembled a small army of volunteers, implored everyone he met to host coffees, wrote thousands of thank-you notes, and stood in the rain at bus stops on too many mornings. He resolved to run a positive campaign. His slogan: “Andy Prinz stands for old-fashioned Prinziples.”

After winning a very close election, Prinz went to present his credentials to the Democratic Party’s central committee. Waiting for him was party chairman Richard J. Daley. “Professor, you ran a helluva race and you deserved to win,” said the mayor. 

“I enjoyed running, but serving was a humbling experience,” Prinz recalls. The position was demanding, nonsalaried, and sometimes frustrating. After four years in office, maintaining his full teaching load the whole time, Prinz decided not to run for re-election. A committed lifelong learner, he recalls the experience as a valuable lesson in practical politics. “I know what it means to get a patronage job for someone,” he says. “I know what it means to serve a constituent.” 

Prinz has taught long enough to see some of his students, like Rita Athas, make their own mark in urban affairs. Other students have followed Prinz into teaching, like Gloria Simo, a professor in DePaul University’s public services graduate program. 

Prinz also has taught long enough to see college students change. “They have more advantages now,” he says. “They’ve been exposed to improvements in elementary education. They try to do more; they work an awful lot during the week. Some work a forty-hour week and still take a full load of classes.”

Some things, though, haven’t changed much. College students, for example, still make excuses for late work. “In the old days it was ‘my dog ate my paper.’ Now it’s ‘my computer ate it.’” He grins mischievously. “The basic message is the same.”

His beloved cities have changed, too, many for the better. For the first time in fifty years, for example, Chicago gained population in the 2000 census. After four decades singing the praises of his native city and many others, Prinz is happy to see that more Americans are starting to agree with him. “I periodically ask my students if they would ever consider moving downtown, and more say yes now,” he observes. “A few years ago, few would have. That helps make this an exciting time to be in urban studies.”

Every once in a while, Prinz even sees hope for his crusade for public transportation. It is a passion with deep roots. “Not long ago, I was in Portland, and I saw a group of little kids on a field trip, riding light rail. It was very exciting for me, because that’s how I got around when I was a kid. Riding the streetcar.” 

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