CMC astronomy prof gets 'Faculty of Year' award

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— For as many stars there are in the sky, Jimmy Westlake has as much passion for the galaxies, planets and Milky Ways that surround our atmosphere.

And because of this passion and his enthusiasm for teaching others, Westlake recently received the 2001 Faculty of the Year award at Colorado Mountain College's Alpine Campus.

"It seems odd to be honored for just doing your job," Westlake said in a southern Georgia accent. "I sooner thought I'd be honored for the most consecutive days wearing the same blue jeans."

Westlake, professor of astronomy at CMC, said seeing students' eyes sparkle at the sight of the universe's phenomenons is what makes teaching students worthwhile.

"I am quite humbled and honored. Every day I walk through the halls with some phenomenal teachers," Westlake said, giving those professors just as much credit.

CMC used the following criteria to base this award: effective teaching, active in academic advising, creativity in meeting students' needs and involvement in the local community.

Westlake has taught astronomy at CMC for three years after leaving Young Harris College in Georgia, where he taught for 15 years.

Westlake holds a bachelor of science in astronomy and physics from Valdosta State University and a master's in science from Louisiana State University.

Larry Lucas, assistant campus dean of instruction, nominated Westlake for the award.

"Jimmy's quiet manner belies the fact that he is one of our most dynamic faculty. He is one of our more effective and popular teachers on campus," Lucas said in a news release.

With his cat Charlotte tied up with bungee cords to the rear of his bike in a pet taxi, Westlake left the institutionalization of astronomy and searched his soul for the truth on a 4,500-mile bike ride from Atlanta, Ga., to Anchorage, Alaska, in 1993. After the 57-day ride and two years in Alaska, Westlake decided the vast barren land didn't offer what he truly missed family and friends in Georgia.

"It was a life-changing experience. That was my midlife crisis at 40," Westlake said.

Westlake received a psychology degree while in Alaska and returned to Georgia to tutor in math and science. And while Alaska was the perfect landscape and atmosphere he was looking for, he also missed teaching astronomy.

"A chance to excite other people about astronomy, that's what I really missed. I missed the contact with students," Westlake said. "I was born programmed for astronomy. I'm convinced of that."

The mountains in northern Georgia were getting cluttered with retirees and Steamboat Springs was an interesting place in the country that needed an astronomy professor.

At Young Harris College, Westlake created a Sky Club of students who have an interest in the sky. When he moved to Steamboat, he established the same club to involve the students here.

"It's just a Jimmy Westlake club. Where ever I go I leave little astronomy clubs around," Westlake said of his own chapters of a club that has no national recognition.

Ten of the 15 CMC Sky Club members recently returned from a long weekend in Roswell, N.M., "mixing a little science with a little fiction."

Westlake's plans for the near future is to convince his wife, who still resides in Georgia, to move to Steamboat after his children leave the house. But for the time being, he'll continue to teach astronomy at CMC and lobby for a planetarium in Steamboat.

"I wish we had a planetarium so we could regularly look at the stars and planets," Westlake said. "I really think the interest is out there."

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