Beloved CHS teacher Jon Campbell retires after 25 years
Visitors to Columbia High School, found Jon Campbell’s classroom easy to spot amongst the maze of hallways and herds of students. Through the main doors of CHS and just beyond the front security desk, Campbell’s classroom was the first classroom to the left, framed by two doors and three trophy cases of dusty awards from generational school victories.
Stepping inside room A136 could seem overwhelming – a hodgepodge of boxes of worksheets, bookshelves full of miscellaneous dictionaries and law books, posters with little cohesiveness, maps, globes, a liberty scale, other knickknacks, and a few generic yellow printed papers taped above the SmartBoard that read, “off & away,” with lines crossing out a cell phone.
Somewhere, nestled away in what some may call “clutter,” was Campbell, in his tie of the day, either standing alongside the blackboard that stretches the length of the room, behind the podium in the far corner or at his desk. Wherever you found him, he was doing what he loves most: teaching.
In June, at the age of 76 and after 25 years at CHS, Campbell closed the door to room A136 one last time and retired.
Campbell was born in Chicago, Illinois, and moved to Jonestown, Pennsylvania in fifth grade. In Jonestown – a “steel mill town” as Campbell himself calls it – he received his formal education. As Campbell recalls it, “I decided in 7th grade to be a lawyer, and while never expecting to be a teacher, I adored and respected my teachers.”
Returning to Illinois to attend Northern Illinois University, Campbell gained his Bachelor of Arts in psychology, later followed by his Juris Doctor degree from Rutgers Law School. During his time at Rutgers, Campbell worked for a drug abuse clinic, representing clients in criminal cases. It was also during this time that Campbell gained his Master of Arts in Education at Montclair State University and began working with Seton Hall University students who also volunteered at the drug abuse clinic.
In addition, Campbell began teaching nighttime law classes to adults at Rutgers Department of Urban Education, covering real estate, land usage, and zoning law.
Campbell recalls his great love and enjoyment in teaching both the Seton Hall University students and at the adult school. He pinpoints these experiences as what pushed him to the decision to give up litigation – although choosing to continue practicing law – and pursue teaching full-time. No longer dealing with timely court trials, Campbell was able to continue with his other teaching positions while expanding to high school.
In 1996, Campbell arrived at CHS, originally teaching U.S. History I and II along with judicial and legislative procedure classes. “Practicing law was so similar to teaching that the merger of the two was natural and seamless,” he says.
Soon it was clear that his classes operated differently from most. He allowed students to learn through the real world.
“His style is different than any other teacher I’ve had because he brings us back to the basics by giving us assessments that quiz us on things like geography, grammar, and the preamble of the Constitution,” says former student Bella Jasper.
These teaching methods remained true throughout Campbell’s two and a half decades of teaching. Technologies that became staples in classroom teaching during his career did not greatly sway Campbell's approach to teaching. In boxes, rather than on computer hard drives, Campbell continued storing original and photocopies of newspapers, textbook pages, quizzes, maps, newspapers, and case studies to reference in class, many of which were dated far before any of his present students were born.
Often scribbled at the bottom of these documents would be essay questions thought of by Campbell where he would encourage students to “show off” and write as much as they could about the topic, constantly emphasizing the consideration of all arguments. “Mr. Campbell really wants to ensure that his students know the material front and back,” Jasper confirms.
“Campbell would put our thoughts and questions over the subject matter, pausing class to let us speak our mind,” recalls former student Fiona Bristol. Bristol had Campbell for both AP Comparative Government and Politics and AP U.S. Government and Politics.
One of Bristol’s favorite parts of Campbell’s classes was his prioritization of current events over the curriculum, “That’s when everything we were learning in the classroom began connecting to the world around us – it’s such an empowering feeling,” she says.
Campbell would begin each class by asking, “Any current events?” and would allow for his students’ answers to take up a large majority of class time if necessary.
Bristol goes on to elaborate about how Mr. Campbell constantly questioned his students, asking them “why” they did or didn’t believe things, pushing for them to elaborate, defend their point, and consider all sides of an argument.
“Mr. Campbell is a teacher that taught me how to think, not necessarily what to think. He taught me how to go through life, how to be open to other opinions, how to question myself and my preconceived notions of others,” Bristol explains.
As Bristol put it, “Mr. Campbell definitely loves to talk.” Often, class time would slip away as Campbell shared personal stories about his past. A favorite of these stories is how Campbell sued the United States Marine Corps and won.
With an early draft number, Campbell joined the Marines with the hope of avoiding deployment to the Vietnam War. He was not deployed, and instead most notably came out of his time in the Marines with winning a lawsuit regarding his hair length. Campbell was granted the ability to wear a short wig over his long hair to Marine Corps meetings, only having to cut it for his two-week training courses. At CHS, Campbell often cited this story to encourage his students to fight for what they believe.
Campbell also frequently talked passionately about his travels. Although he did not fully step away from practicing law until two years ago, he and his wife, Marsha, managed to find time around school and law work to travel to all 50 states and more than 50 countries; he can tell memorable stories about all of them.
In retirement, Campbell will be able to continue his travels and adventures. “In five years,” he predicts, “I expect to be traveling the world and bouncing between grandkids in Illinois and New Jersey.”
On his last day at CHS, a clap-out was held in Campbell’s honor. Teachers, staff, and students lined the hallways and applauded as Campbell took one last stroll through the school that he had called home for the past 25 years. He graciously accepted hugs and a plaque to commemorate his time at CHS on the way out.
Cassandra Ratkevich had the pleasure of being taught by Mr. Campbell during her sophomore and junior years at CHS. She will be a senior this year at CHS and wishes Campbell the best in his retirement.