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Steve Drake, pictured participating in a Northwestern Michigan College commencement ceremony, has maintained a passion for learning and teaching that now spans 57 years. (Photo courtesy of Northwestern Michigan College)

Steve Drake, pictured participating in a Northwestern Michigan College commencement ceremony, has maintained a passion for learning and teaching that now spans 57 years. (Photo courtesy of Northwestern Michigan College)

Jan. 10, 2022

Doing the math: Drake marks five decades of teaching at Michigan college


Steve Drake ’64 wasn’t sure he would last as a teacher when he graduated from Northwest with bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and biology. Now, 57 years later, he can’t imagine being any place but a classroom, and last spring he surpassed 50 years as a faculty member at Northwestern Michigan College, becoming the first to reach the milestone in the college’s 70-year history. 

“I wanted people to learn mathematics,” he said. “I wanted them to be able to do something with it. I always teach a tremendous number of applications and a wide variety of uses for mathematics and show them why they have to learn about logarithmic and exponential functions and how systems of equations work.”

A native of Mt. Ayr, Iowa, Drake chose Northwest because it was close to home and it was affordable. “The prices were very reasonable, and that meant a lot to me back then. My parents were farmers, and they had money to get along well, but they didn’t have enough money to just send me to college.”

He had worked to save enough money to cover his first year’s tuition and then persisted to complete his two bachelor’s degrees in four years. During three of those years he was a member of the Bearcat wrestling team.

Among the faculty who left an imprint on Drake were George Barratt, an associate professor of mathematics, and Dr. Irene Mueller, a member of the biology faculty. 

“She knew every tree on that campus personally and there were a lot of trees, and nobody dared touch a tree without permission from Dr. Mueller,” Drake said. “I really enjoyed the biology class and Dr. Mueller and our field trips and naming the trees.”

Drake’s professional career began with teaching stints at the former St. Joseph State Hospital and then in King City, Missouri. Subsequently, he received a National Science Foundation grant to complete a master’s degree in nuclear physics at the University of Wyoming – the first in a series of grants, in fact, that also took him for study and teaching to Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines, Kansas State University and the University of Michigan.

“They kept giving me grants to go places,” he said. “All told, they had sent me to about eight different universities to study anything from computer science to mathematics and physics. The National Science Foundation was very kind.”

But as Drake completed his study at the University of Michigan with six job offers, he believed a community college setting provided the fit for him. He chose Northwestern Michigan College in Traverse City.

“I could tell that they had a lot of smart people,” he said. “The faculty is another reason I came. They didn’t want to just play games and get people to pass.”

In his half-century at the college, Drake has watched his students go on to advanced study at institutions such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology and successful careers with companies such as The Dow Chemical Company. One student, he recalls, was just 13 years old when she enrolled in his calculus course before going to study in England and writing flight control software.

He has witnessed tremendous changes to technology but none more disruptive than the COVID-19 pandemic that forced him to transition his teaching landscape from marker boards to livestreams and Zoom sessions. Meanwhile, among his numerous honors, Drake, now 79, says he’s most proud of receiving Northwestern Michigan’s Imogene Wise Faculty Excellence Award – which he has received twice.

“I just enjoy the teaching profession, and that’s why I’m still doing it,” he said. “I suppose I’ll have to quit someday. I take it a year at a time.”


Media contact:

Mark Hornickel, Communication Manager | mhorn@nwmissouri.edu | 660.562.1704