Mentor, adviser, professor…and friend

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Professor of political science is great asset to school, supportive mentor.

He’s nervous. He doesn’t want to talk about himself.

“I don’t think I’m that good,” says Peter Longo, a political science professor at UNK. “I have the best job in the world, and I’m lucky to have it. I have the best students.

“I’m so proud of them.”

So let’s talk about his students. Maybe that way we can learn about Longo and why UNK – and his students – are so proud of him. A few stories:

A UNK student recently sent a text message to four people. He wanted them to be the first to know the big news, that he’d been accepted into the grad school at Notre Dame. The four people were his mom, his sisters and Professor Longo.

While traveling around to graduation parties one afternoon, Longo was sure he’d contracted the flu. When he returned home, his wife quizzed him. How many parties did you go to? Twenty-three. And how many pieces of cake did you eat? Twenty-three.

Charlie Bicak, senior vice chancellor for Academic and Student Affairs at UNK, walked across campus with Longo one day this past spring. He noticed that Longo greeted almost every student they saw by name. Not only that, he remembered details about each student.

Did you decide to follow through with applying to law school?

Remember when we talked awhile back?

Says Bicak: “Sometimes this catches the students and they’re a little startled. But they know he has their best interest at heart.”

Longo came to UNK in 1988. In 1999, he was honored with the Leland Holdt/Security Mutual Life Distinguished Professor Award for his “sustained excellence in teaching, research and service to UNK and the Kearney community.”

He says his students inspired his academic focus over the years, especially his current research on school consolidation.

About 40 percent of UNK’s students, he says, are the first in their family to go to college. Many come from consolidated schools across the state. Some had to drive round trips of up to 40 miles to attend those schools. Many come from small communities where people learn to pull together and participate for the good of the community.

You don’t have to lecture at them, Longo says. You see just a genuine expression of community life on campus. They treat one another with respect.

That, he says, is the nature of his students.

He smiles. “And if your car breaks down on the edge of campus, they’ll stop to fix it – and they’ll actually know how to fix it.”

Next year, UNK will play host to the Center for Great Plains Studies Symposium. The topic will be school consolidation. Longo chairs the planning committee for the event, which will draw people from across the country.

Even though the symposium is about school consolidation, he says, it’s really about preserving rural life – and that generous spirit that produces people like his students.

Longo grew up in Bellevue, Neb. He graduated from Creighton University and then earned a law degree and a doctorate in political science from UNL. In Lincoln, he found a mentor in Bob Miewald, a political science professor. They wrote a book together on the Nebraska Constitution. (The second edition was written with Longo’s former UNK student Anthony Schutz, a native of Elwood, Neb., who’s now a UNL law professor.) Miewald was a wonderful man, Longo says. He knew how to treat people.

“He always thought Kearney would be a good place for me. Early on, he’s the one who said, ‘Carve your niche out there, and pay attention to the things happening statewide.’ I still hear his voice at least three or four times a day.

“And he always used to say to me, ‘Treat your students well. Treat those Lopers well.'”

Miewald died in 2006. He could have had many teaching awards, Longo says, but he refused to even be nominated. “He was so humble.”

Over the years, Longo has become a mentor himself to many Lopers.

UNK grad James Reed teaches Social Studies and Modern Problems at Southern Valley Jr./Sr. High in Oxford, Neb., a consolidated school in south-central Nebraska.

“Working with Dr. Longo has made me a better teacher,” says Reed, who earned his bachelor’s degree from UNK in 1999 and his master’s in 2011. “He’s encouraged my students and me to tackle projects we thought were beyond our scope.”

A few years back, Longo and another UNK professor, John Anderson, encouraged Reed and his students to pursue a community school project. The professors helped them conduct a survey of Southern valley students. The results showed that the students wanted a store at the school. Longo and Anderson – using grant money from the University of Nebraska Foundation – bought flash drives and gave them to Reed’s students to sell.

They raised enough money to buy a vending machine. So far they’ve raised about $4,000 with the machine. Overall, with other grants and donations, they’ve raised more than $20,000.

Reed and his students developed their own grant process. Other students and staff can apply for grants from the money. Grants that have been awarded include netbook computers for the guidance office, software for the journalism class and some money to the junior class for prom.

Says Reed: “The best lesson Dr. Longo has taught me is that I can think big.”

Bicak, the vice chancellor, says three things strike him about Longo – his creativity, his work ethic and his “tremendous personality.” It’s rare, he says, to find all three in one person.

“He would be a major academic asset wherever he might go, wherever he might be,” Bicak says. “But he doesn’t act like that, not in the least.

“His heart and soul is with the students.”

Supporting the best and brightest faculty members – professors like the University of Nebraska at Kearney’s Peter Longo – is a priority of the Campaign for Nebraska. If you’d like to help, please give online or contact the University of Nebraska Foundation at 800-432-3216.

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