Don Hellison.


I received word this morning that Don Hellison died last week at the age of 80.

When I first met Don Hellison he was a professor at UIC in the Department of Kinesioglogy (physical education) and ran a program that put students in the field to work in communities that we politely call “under served.”

I was introduced to Don Hellison by my own mentor, Dr. William Schubert, one time President of the John Dewey Society. That should tell you where on the educational spectrum he planted his flag.

Hellison’s flag was planted nearby.

There were quite a few progressive educators in UIC’s College of Education in those days, those days being the early 80s.

Hellison didn’t have an office in the College’s sterile building that stood alongside the Congress Expressway. His office was over in the P.E. building way on the other side of campus by Taylor Street.

Yet he would find his way over for informal discussions. And besides. He had quite a few students that he advised that were enrolled in the Masters and Doc programs in the College of Ed.

The thing is that Don was not like any P.E. teacher I had ever met.

In high school, it seemed as if every Gym teacher I ever had was a former Marine drill sergeant and on the principal track.

Ironically, Hellison was also a Marine veteran.

But his approach to teaching was anything but that of a drill sergeant.

As an example, Hellison believed in empowering young people to assess their own performance and do it constantly and in real time. And, he developed simple techniques for doing it.

Like calling out a number after a practice. Or holding up a number of digits as you left the playing field.

No response was offered to the score the student gave themselves.

Even though I was never in any of Hellison’s classes, I remember adopting this approach in my art room. I cut out three colored circles and taped them to the glass by the door, I asked each student to tap the color that matched their self-assessment. No matter if it was an assessment of their work, or effort, or behavior, or whatever they thought was important. They didn’t even have to say.

Some of my younger students never did fully grasp the concept of “tap,” banging the glass panel instead.

Yet over the years, the concept of creating simple techniques of self-evaluation and empowerment became a fully integrated part of my thinking about teaching.

When I was ready to pull together my doctoral committee, I asked Don if he would be on it.

I don’t think he ever was asked to be on an Art teacher’s doctoral committee before. He said he would be pleased to to do it.

I never finished, of course.

I think it was enough that we had the chance to meet and talk about teaching, learning and young people.

He was my teacher in a class I never physically attended.


4 thoughts on “Don Hellison.

  1. Some of the best teachers, professors and coaches have served UIC proudly. Hellison, Schubert, Ayers, Remini, Dee are among those that make UIC one of the outstanding urban universities and a local treasure.

  2. I would like to add to that list my beloved, late Art Professor, John Walley, who had started out at IIT &, with others, brought the Art Dept. to the U.I.C. campus.
    AND, kudos to Suzanne Cohan, who I’d also been lucky enough to have as an Art teacher either in middle school or in high school in Skokie. She was one of the forward-thinking faculty at U.I.C. who initiated pre-student teaching; rather than wait until senior year to actually teach (& to either find that this wasn’t the career for year so late in the game), U.I.C. Ed. profs. had us start sophomore year, which has since been adapted by colleges & universities throughout the U.S. (We were placed at schools that had no Art teachers or programs, so it was a double good deal.) I was an Art Ed. major, BTW.

  3. BTW, Barbara Hillman, who was a “longtime labor attorney…a ‘champion’ for workers” (Chicago Tribune Obituaries, Sunday, June 17th), passed away in her Lakeview home on June 5th. Many readers here may have known her/know of her: a graduate of the U. of Chicago, she acted as “pro bono attorney” for the U.F.W. during the grape boycott, was active w/the SCLC & the Chicago Freedom Movement, & “spent her career working on behalf of public employees, teachers, steelworkers, coal miners, university professors & retail workers, among others…she represented AFSCME in the ’70s.”
    Her “memorial service will be held at 2 PM July 14 in the Lyric Opera Graham Room, 20 N. Wacker Drive, Chicago,” according to the Tribune.

  4. Fred, this is a magnificent tribute to Don Hellison. One of a kind, and a master teacher (like you). Bernardine

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