An Ignorant Man Thinking:
The Legacy of Jim Hurley
August 13, 2004
“Newton tells us that we are playing on an island in a sea of mystery,” says Jim Hurley. “ Our role is to expand the island, to expand the knowledge we have with the knowledge we have not yet discovered, because our knowledge is only limited by the questions we ask. We need to have a holy curiosity for all realms of life.”
Several months before the end of the Korean War, in 1953, a young microbiologist entered the Navy as an officer and began working at the National Naval Medical School in Bethesda, Maryland. He would spend a little under three years in the service. A friend then had invited him to help start the microbiology laboratory at the Washington Hospital Center in Washington, D.C. After several years, he made his way back to his native Tennessee to finish his Ph.D. at Vanderbilt University. Jim Hurley had grown up near the Nolichucky River in east Tennessee.
His family owned 100 acres where they grew corn and tobacco. “I was always a bookish person,” Jim says. “I carried books with me to chop corn on the farm, and at the end of a row I would read a book.” This hunger for knowledge was narrowed at Vanderbilt to the study of anaerobic bacteria, or bacteria that cannot live in air. He planned to return to the D.C. area, but at the National Meeting of American Society of Microbiologists, held that year in Kansas City, his life moved a step closer to a teaching career. Despite having a commitment from a hospital in Tulsa and a contract from a college in Wisconsin, Jim added a day to his trip and visited a school in the middle of Oklahoma.
“I was not terribly interested in OBU when I agreed to visit,” Jim says. “To make it worse the airline lost my luggage, but once Dr. Neptune escorted me to campus I was wowed. The faculty were my type of people. Their interests were my interests. Their dreams were my dreams.” The year: 1962.
“It should be the chief aim of a university professor,” says Jim, quoting the philosopher Alfred Whitehead, “to exhibit himself in his own true character – that is, as an ignorant man thinking, actively utilizing his small share of knowledge. In other words, my job as a professor is to ask questions.”
Over his tenure in the Shawnee area, Jim has asked many questions, and he has observed the ways this has positively changed the students he has taught. “I watch the entering students as they master the fundamentals their first year, are urged to question everything by their junior year, and teach the class in their final year.” And this structure of integrated learning came by way, in part, of Jim’s work as he became one of the principal faculty members who helped birth the Unified Studies program in 1970.
“Newton tells us that we are playing on an island in a sea of mystery…and science is a game we play but it is a wonderful game. Our role is to expand the island, to expand the knowledge we have with the knowledge we have not yet discovered, because,” Jim continues, “our knowledge is only limited by the questions we ask. We need to have a holy curiosity for all realms of life.” It is this curiosity, this wonder of life with all its beeps, buzzes and whirls, that impresses students about this carefully spoken, unbecoming, gray-white bearded teacher and purveyor of life’s curiosities.
Jim Hurley, professor emeritus of biology, is the same Jim Hurley who watched 13 plays in a 10-day tour through London. He has joined the cast of OBU theatrical productions and the local Shawnee community theatre playing parts in Fiddler on the Roof, Death of a Salesman, Agamemnon, A Man For All Seasons, Rainmaker, and many others. Jim is also a music aficionado, proven by his longstanding season tickets to the Oklahoma Philharmonic Symphony in Oklahoma City.
During his 36-year tenure at OBU, Jim spent many summers as a visiting professor, often with former students. He continues to communicate with many of his former students and says that every week he receives some type of correspondence. Last fall, Jim’s teaching legacy received recognition by the Oklahoma Higher Education Heritage Society, which inducted him into The Oklahoma Higher Education Hall of Fame. Many of his students also set up an endowed professorship in his name at OBU, the position that one of his students, Brad Jett, ’89, now fills. “Life is a process,” says Jim. “everything builds like the season, in small steps. Life is not as much a momentary thing like a butterfly emerging from its cocoon, but rather a whole process of learning and discovering.” For many, Jim continues to serve as a beacon on life’s journey.
Judith James, M.D., Ph.D.
“Dr. Hurley has provided an incredible service to his students as well as to the many states to which his previous students have traveled,” says Judith James, ’89. He devised a curriculum which was extremely challenging and instilled in us the need for excellence in all that we do.” Judith serves as a member of the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation and an associate professor of medicine and adjunct associate professor of pathology at University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center.
The work that she engages seeks to understand why certain natural defense systems go awry, and lead to disease as the immune system begins to attack itself. Her primary research involves systemic lupus erythematosus, or Lupus, which has no known cure. “We focus on going back in time to understand the initial abnormal human responses,” she says, “so that we can ideally either keep these events from occurring in genetically predisposed individuals or develop selective, targeted therapies to modulate these abnormal immune responses but leaving the normal responses in place.” If this sounds complicated, then it may help to look at a recent result of her work published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine. Judith and the team of researchers progressed toward finding a cure to Lupus by isolating when the disease first occurs. This study paves the way for future work in the hopes of curing Lupus.
In large measure, Judith credits her lifework to Jim Hurley. “He led us by example and provided an outstanding role model,” she says. “He not only taught us to be critical thinkers, inquisitive doubters, and serious lifelong students, but also to be compassionate and caring, deep seeded in our faith. He gave us a culture from which all “Hurleyites” have the same frame-ofreference. No matter where you run into an OBU alum in the medical field, we all share stories and wisdom that we learned from this master teacher.
From Christmas caroling to tri-beta parties, collecting eclectic leaves to theatre productions, writing in enlarging circles to debating the ‘Life of a Cell,’ we were all slightly intimidated, but at the same time in awe, of this individual who clearly committed his life to the scientific, research, medical, and personal development of all of those that he touched.
“Without my strong belief that I was called by God to practice medicine,” she says, “I fear that I would never have completed the arduous task of becoming a physician scientist. Based upon my OBU and church experiences, as well as my personal religious convictions, I always felt compelled to provide medical care to those without resources. I always assumed this would be through short-term medical mission experiences. However, I was astonished to discover that there are many people in Oklahoma without resources for medical care. I currently direct an underinsured medical clinic and serve as an advocate to improve care to the underinsured in Oklahoma.”
J. Michael Pontious, M.D.
“There is much to say about this wonderful role model,” says Michael Pontious, ’75. “Jim Hurley is a talented teacher and such a wonderful mentor for many generations of OBU students.” Michael is a professor in the Department of Family and Preventive Medicine at the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine. He is also the program director for the OU/Enid Family Medicine Residency Program in Enid, Oklahoma. For the last four years he has also served as the editor-in-chief of the Journal of the Oklahoma State Medical Society. “This is one of those jobs of which you dream,” he says about his editorship. “It gives a monthly forum for which I can write an editorial about how I see professional life. Many of the things that I talk about, the approaches that I take and the things that concern me have a “Hurley-esque” nature to them. They are questions and struggles to which I was first introduced as a biology major in Jim Hurley’s class.”
Michael came to OBU “basically clueless” about his future career. “My high school experience was rather traditional, rather easy and not very thought-provoking,” he says. “It was not long into my freshman year at OBU that it dawned on me that this was a different approach to learning, and that the learning could be exciting and enjoyable.
“Jim Hurley had a lot to do with this transformation in my life. He was fond of telling us that we were not judged on the answers that we had for life’s questions, but rather by the value of the questions that we asked of ourselves and the world around us. This was a common thread that was woven into the tapestry of our educational pilgrimage. This is an empowering concept that still motivates me to this day. Academic medicine has allowed me to practice this concept on a daily basis, to teach it to the students and residents with whom I have crossed paths and to take pride and joy at seeing them practice it on their pilgrimage.”
Michael counts teaching and practicing medicine a great privilege and recognizes that with such a privilege comes a “continuous responsibility.” “I sense that my Christianity prepares me for both of these tasks and allows me to understand this walk as a calling,” he says. “Some give their work either a secular or a religious slant. I have not had this privilege. I work in the secular world. Yet, that is where Christ worked as a teacher. The lessons I am called to teach are not always labeled ‘scriptural lessons,’ but they can be mentored, or lived out. The fascinating thing about teaching physicians is that you see your medical skills replicated and amplified in the lives of your students.”
How to teach and ask the right questions of himself and of his students has come by way of Jim Hurley. “He has instilled in me an intolerance for intellectual laziness,” he says. “His quest for understanding does not know a boundary, whether understanding the cell wall or bacteria, world religions or a piece of music. He teaches that the quality of the questions asked define who and what we are. It is the questions and not the answers that define each and every one of us.
“Oklahoma Baptist University has had a wonderful impact on my life. A large part of that impact was the mentoring of Jim Hurley Ph.D. and the cadre of faculty who were similarly dedicated to allow me the freedom to find my way and equip me with the tools to repeat the process for many of the students and patients with whom I have crossed paths.”