In many ways, the story of UCCS English professor Tom Napierkowski is the story of UCCS itself. Arriving shortly after the founding of UCCS in 1965, Napierkowski has evolved with the campus while contributing to and promoting its charm. And as Napierkowski approaches retirement after 49 years at the university, his loyalty and reverence for the “college campus in a cow pasture” are as strong as ever.
Napierkowski arrived in Colorado Springs in 1973 with his eye on a medievalist position in the UCCS English Department. The university had invited him to speak on the subject, and after a successful showing, he was soon hired for the job.
“I fell in love with Colorado Springs and the mountains and the campus,” Napierkowski said. “There was something special about the campus. They made me an offer, and the rest is history, as they say.”
Napierkowski readily notes the natural beauty of Colorado Springs and the UCCS campus, but for him, the draw to UCCS was – and still is – the people.
“When I came to campus, we had maybe three buildings, and two of them were old hospital buildings. There were very few bells and whistles, and the thing that brought people down that road was a desire for an education. You weren’t going there for football teams or climbing walls. They were coming to get an education, and they were really quite serious about it.”
Napierkowski saw himself in many of those students, even if they were often older than he was.
“I was 27 years old, and the student body was nontraditional. I had lots of students who were 10, 20, 30 years older than I was. Many of them were first-generation college students, and I was the first member of my family to graduate from college. There was a common mission.”
That education-first mission was a uniting force for everyone on campus in the early days of UCCS. In Napierkowski’s estimation, it was what set UCCS apart from its peers.
“We knew we were building something. We knew we were on the ground floor, and we were going to put together something that we hoped would be a really nice institution of higher education,” Napierkowski said. “And I think it is.”
While Napierkowski fondly remembers the humble beginnings of UCCS, his enthusiasm for the university remains as the school has blossomed into a world-class institution with many of the bells and whistles that were missing in 1973.
In his 49 years at UCCS, Napierkowski has served as Professor, President of the UCCS Faculty Assembly, chair of the English Department, Associate Dean of the Graduate School, and chair of the System-Wide Committee on Privilege and Tenure. He’s known to students and colleagues for his demanding courses and infectious enthusiasm for the material.
“The word is getting out, I guess,” he said of his retirement. He’s received thanks and well-wishes from many former students, including one student who is now 95 years old.
“I’ve received some very nice messages, and that one was particularly rewarding,” Napierkowski said. “And many of them say how much I taught them. But they taught me. They taught me a lot about literature, about approaching literature, and about teaching. They taught me what works and what doesn’t, and one of the joys in my career is that my success came from them.”
In retirement, Napierkowski intends to carry on his research and writing, but will add a little more leisure to his routine. Perhaps more than anything, he hopes that he can recapture the magic that he feels on campus and in a classroom on any given day.
“When a faculty member walks out of the classroom, and everything has gone really well, that’s such a great feeling, by golly. That’s better than a glass of wine before supper. And I hope I’ll have that feeling again.”