When interacting with professors at Maryville College, it can be difficult to imagine them outside of their designated classroom. Often times, entering their office is the most personal glimpse you get into who they are outside of “professor.” This is the personal and professional story of Dr. Paul Threadgill, long-time botanist and professor of biology at Maryville College.
When I reached out to Dr. Threadgill for an interview, he said that he was willing but didn’t think of himself as interesting enough to be featured in an article. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth of the matter. His story at Maryville College began in 1988, and it took a lot of twists and turns to bring him to that point.
For a general introduction, he comes from the small town of Middlesboro, KY and it was leaving this small town for college which he believes shaped him to be who he is today more than anything.
“You get enough years on you and enough experiences that it becomes hard to pick out what was the most formative one out of all of them. I think one important formative experience was leaving my hometown and going to university. Nobody knew it at the time, but I turned 18 the year Nixon ended the draft, and no one was expecting that.”
“So, we watched the draft and I was expecting to go to Vietnam, but then I got to go away to college instead and get exposed to lots of different people from different backgrounds and that helped expand my mind and realize there are a lot of possibilities out there that are more expansive than the hometown I came from. That changed the whole trajectory of my life.”
It wouldn’t be until another year at the University of Kentucky that he would realize his curiosity for botany. Interestingly, his career path wasn’t something he realized and pursued but rather something he gradually became acquainted with. As a freshman in a large biology program with a daunting number of pre-med students, he decided the typical doctor route wasn’t for him.
He took a required botany class which was smaller than that of those large bio classes and realized he was good at it, so he kept taking classes and developed a passion for something which had never crossed his mind just a year before.
This is an archetype that we can all relate to—leaving home to pursue something, maybe not necessarily knowing what that something is, and ending up finding passions and interests we never would have expected.
After gaining a B.S in Biology, Threadgill moved on to the botany master’s program at UTK and eventually a Ph.D. in plant sciences from the University of Western Ontario. This unexpected route of botany would carry him to Maryville College in 1988 after being inspired to teach by his Ph.D. faculty advisor.
When applying to several colleges, Maryville College was the only one to give him an interview. He accepted the offer in May and started teaching in August. It was through Maryville College he got to travel outside of North America for the first time.
“I never really got out of the U.S (except for my time in Canada) until I got this job. My experience in Canada enforced my desire to travel and my father was a Korean war vet who went abroad in the far east, so I grew up listening to these stories and had the travel bug planted in my head. We started overseas travel at Maryville College because the dean at the time was a real believer in international studies and having faculty members with experience abroad. A group of faculty members got thrown together to go to Wales…”
Since then, Threadgill has taken a semester-long sabbatical in Thailand and traveled to various places such as South America, Africa, Scotland, France, and more. These experiences changed his previously limited outlook on the world to one with a newfound appreciation for staying in touch with international news. His time at Maryville College has been triumphant so far, including a year off of teaching to receive radiation treatment for cancer.
As for returning from this leave, he said, “It was difficult to get back, physically and mentally.” Fast forward four years, and he is just finishing up a semester as division chair to help out while Dr. Gibson was on sabbatical.
Anyone in Maryville College history who has ever taken a class with Threadgill knows that with every slide show per lecture, there will be plenty of pictures from the “Simpsons”, “South Park,” “Futurama,” or “Looney Toons” to accompany odd facts about biology.
One of my goals for this interview was to get to the bottom of this. Where does he get all of these pictures? Is he really a fan of these shows? How did they become a common theme in all of his lectures? The student body deserves answers, and here they are:
“I used to watch South Park all the time. I decided that textbooks were too brutally expensive so I invested the time to put together all of these PowerPoint presentations and I thought, if you just have words that will put students to sleep. So, I started to find illustrations that would be relevant or at least entertaining.
“All of these shows have been on the air forever so there are so many images from the internet that I just grabbed and put into my slides for something to look at. Honestly, I don’t watch as much television as I used to because of my busy schedule. I’m working five times harder as a faculty member than I ever did as a student.”
Well, there you have it. Dr. Threadgill’s life thus far is a testament to not having it all figured out in undergraduate and ending up with great achievements. Often times, the road to success is nonlinear and includes many surprises and challenges, and even some “South Park.”
From Middlesboro, Kentucky to Maryville College and everywhere in between, Dr. Threadgill has picked up wisdom from people and places that have carried him to be who he is today. His goal now is to live up to the standards of his Ph.D. advisor.