MARQUETTE - To describe Northern Michigan University Professor Mohey Mowafy - a man perhaps best known on campus for his unique, allegorical teaching style - you really have to start with a story.
Picture Mowafy as an 8-year-old boy in his native Egypt, sitting at a desk in a classroom, dressed in a private school uniform of grey shorts, blue blazer and striped tie.
He's in a composition class and the teacher has given her students 10 minutes to think about the idea of "Motherhood," after which they will present their thoughts to the class.
Northern Michigan University professor Mohey Mowafy lectures in one of his last remaining classes. After designing several courses and teaching thousands of students, Mowafy will retire at the end of this year. (Journal photo by Jackie Stark)
This is one of Mowafy's favorite exercises, and one of his favorite teachers.
"Her fingerprints are on my personality," Mowafy said as he recounted the memory of her class. "Here I was, standing, talking about the topic, which was about motherhood, and I really wanted to pee. I wanted to go to the bathroom, but I did not want to stop (talking).
"I ended up peeing in my pants in front of the entire class," he said. "It was a very humiliating moment, but she was beyond monumental in how she prevented any shaming."
After class, the teacher asked Mowafy to stay behind. Though he was already destined for a career in teaching because of the strict Egyptian class system, it was what she said then that indelibly stamped the idea of teaching in Mowafy's mind.
"'Whatever you do, when you get older, never do anything other than teaching, because even peeing in your pants did not stop you from delivering your message,'" Mowafy recalled her saying.
He went on to earn a bachelor's degree from Cairo University, then a master's from Cairo's Ain Shams University and a doctorate from the University of Wisconsin.
From there, he moved to Marquette to work at Northern. It was the only institution in the country to offer him an interview, though he applied to at least 15.
Mowafy had never heard of Northern before 1975, had never even heard of the Upper Peninsula.
"Northern, at the time, was not really as pretty as it is now," Mowafy said. "It was an offer, and I figured, 'OK, I'll teach here for a couple of years and build my resume and go somewhere else,' but I'm not sure whether it is a myth or a reality that there is something about Marquette that just ties people to it."
Mowafy fell in love with the small city he was slowly becoming a part of, and once he received tenure, he knew he would finish his career at Northern. Now, 37 years later, he said the time has come to hang up his hat.
"I'm turning 70, and I figure, that is not a bad time," Mowafy said. "I know I will be missing some of it, but I also know that I've never really had a job."
Mowafy describes his career as a calling, saying he doesn't know any other way he could have lived his life.
His passion for education - and for the well-being of his students - was noticed several times over by NMU. He is the only NMU faculty member to ever receive two Distinguished Faculty awards and three Excellence in Teaching awards.
Former student Isabel Francis, now a registered nurse working in the Marquette area, said his style of teaching was different from most other professors she had.
"Given the assumption that students were there because they wanted to be, Mohey really put the responsibility on you to have an active, inquiring mind and to want to learn the subject material," Francis said. "He would lecture in the most animated manner, frequently digressing into stories ... at the end of the lecture, tying them all together."
What also sticks out for Francis - who remains friends with Mowafy to this day - was Mowafy's emphasis on keeping an open mind.
Since he mostly teaches nursing and other students in health-related fields as a professor in NMU's Health, Physical Education and Recreation Department, she said this idea was especially significant.
"One of the most important things that Mohey tried to impart to his students is to be nonjudgmental and to embrace people of all faiths, of all orientations, of all national origins, of all sizes and ages," Francis said. "He really, really emphasized that in all of his classes and he continues to work at that in the Interfaith Forum."
As a member of the Marquette Community Interfaith Forum, Mowafy represents people of Islamic faith and is highly active in the Marquette community as a whole.
Always the teacher, Mowafy said he tries to help his students not only learn academics while in college, but also to learn the importance of being actively involved in the community.
"I try to also teach that. Sometimes, it may be totally off topic in the minds of some, but in my mind, if there is a teaching moment, you are a teacher before you are anything else and you go with it," Mowafy said.
Now preparing to give his last lecture and to grade his last exam, Mowafy said he had one piece of advice for any other teachers thinking about retirement:
"Don't retire unless you have a bank of memories, a treasure trove of memories," Mowafy said. "It's not only the Ancient Egyptians that adored immortality. They went through hell to be remembered forever, but it's not an abnormal thing that people would love to leave memories. That's it. That's really it."
Jackie Stark can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242.