“If the person next to you in class leans over and whispers, ‘I love you,’ you have to say: ‘Not until after class. I have to focus on Kochanek’s lecture now!'”
That’s one of the many witty remarks that Professor Richard “Dick” Kochanek has used to engage the 250 underclassmen in his “Principles of Financial Accounting” class.
Kochanek, who retired at the end of fall semester, is one of the most beloved and highly regarded professors at UConn. He has extremely high ratings from his students and is widely credited with turning their curiosity about accounting into a life-long career.
He taught his final class this December, capping an amazing 43-year career in which he has won almost every major teaching award at the University. Although he officially retired 10 years ago, he continued to work as an adjunct professor, teaching four classes, and 1,000 students, a year.
“After I do two of these classes back-to-back, there’s nothing left in me,” he said during a pre-retirement interview. “It’s a joyous experience and a hard job. I think the reason my students give me such high marks is that they sense that I genuinely care about them.”
That’s also the impression that Dean John A. Elliott has received.
“As dean, I meet with alumni constantly and often ask about their favorite professor,” Elliott said. “It is amazing how often they have an immediate and passionate answer to that question, and even more amazing how often the person they cite is Dick Kochanek.
“Fall of 2015 was Dick Kochanek’s final semester in the classroom at UConn. He is a legendary teacher,” Elliott continued. “At my request, he shared some of his practices with his colleagues this fall and many of us, myself included, sat in on his class to see if we could pick up some pointers. Did we ever! He will be sorely missed but some of his practices will live on at UConn.”
‘Being the Best You Can Be’
One of the many things that set Kochanek apart from his peers is his insistence that each class contain a life lesson. At the beginning of the semester, students grumble about it. At the end, they say it is one of their favorite parts of the class.
“I really believe with all my heart that I’m teaching accounting, but more than that I’m just trying to teach young people how to be a better person and how to achieve more in life,” he said.
“We have a quote for every class and they all focus on being the best you can be,” he said of the practice he started 20 years ago. “I want them to get the point that every day they should be using more and more of their talents… that they can achieve great things but they have to work very, very hard.”
Some of his favorite quotations include:
“Life is the sum of all your choices.” —Albert Camus
“We can do no great things, only small things with great love.” —Mother Teresa
“It’s hard to beat a person who never gives up.” —Babe Ruth
For more life advice, follow @UConnBusiness on Twitter, where we’ll be posting “Professor Kochanek’s Thought of the Week” for the rest of the semester.
In the Classroom
“On the first day, I say hi to everyone as they’re coming in. Some people look at the floor,” he said. “We have to lecture them that the face they present to the world is the face the world sees.” He’ll shake their hands as they are leaving. Some smile, some look away—others sneak out the back exit. But eventually they muster the courage to present themselves in a professional manner.
Since he started teaching in 1972, the biggest change has been the way students view their professors.
“Back then they held teachers in immediate respect and would try to give their best. And they went on to achieve greatness,” he said. “Now I have to earn their respect. But it comes hard. I have to say, ‘You people in the back, get off your cell phones. Put them away.'”
Soft-spoken and kind, the bespeckled grandfather can command the class with a few carefully chosen words. A simple, “This is so disappointing,” can quiet even the noisiest lecture hall.
“After the first exam, every time, students come to me, some crying, and ask what went wrong. ‘I don’t know what went wrong,’ I’ll say. ‘I don’t know if you studied. I don’t know what you did last night. But you do!'”
“Sometimes I think they expect me to pop off the tops of their heads and say, ‘Oh, it’s just a loose wire’ and fix it,” he said. “They laugh when I tell them that, but it’s true.” Self-reflection is an important part of life, he said.
The average grade in his accounting class is a C-plus/B-minus. Kochanek is fine with that.
“Not everyone is meant to be an accountant,” he said. “But everyone is meant to be a thinker.”
In 2010, an endowed chair in accounting was created in honor of Kochanek, started by one of his former students and her husband, and matched by many others. It is a tremendous source of pride for Kochanek.
Having been associated with the UConn School of Business for so many decades, Kochanek has had a bird’s-eye view of the school’s transition. One of his favorite memories was when, for a brief time, the school allowed students to bring their dogs to class.
One day he was sitting in his office and a young woman dashed in with two Golden Retrievers. “Take them!,” she wailed. “I have an interview!” Before he could protest, she ran back out the door.
Soon after, the school revoked its pet-friendly policy.
‘Unleashing’ His Inner Artist
Kochanek and his wife, Marge, have three daughters, Kathryn, a lawyer; Christine, a physical therapist, and Jennifer, a poet, as well as six grandchildren. Christine majored in accounting at UConn, before she and her dad had “the talk”—in which she very gently explained that accounting wasn’t for her.
No hard feelings, Kochanek said. In fact, few people know the importance of pursuing their passion as distinctly as Kochanek does.
As a young man, his dream was to become an artist. His parents strongly discouraged that pursuit, refusing to pay for him to attend art school. At age 60, he decided to pursue the painting classes that had intrigued him all those years.
“From age 60 to 66, I took all the art classes offered at UConn,” Kochanek said. “I was a demon. I worked so hard. It’s just an incredible art department and they’ve been so good to me. I so appreciate all of them. They’ve opened their hearts to me.”
He doesn’t regret his career pursuit—”You have to pick something you love and also will be able to support you in life”—but now he devotes at least two days a week to his art, which decorated his UConn office.
“When you create an art piece, you start with zero. You can use any color, any brush, any paint. You have to dig deep down inside you,” he said. “I didn’t realize how much I had to dig into myself and see what I had to give to the world. It caused me to be a better teacher because of the self-examination. You have to find new talents and values within yourself. It’s made me more willing to try to get students to a new level as well.”
‘I Need To Take It Up A Notch’
At the end of the evening, Kochanek and his wife have a ritual.
“I ask her, ‘Did you meet your expectations today?'” he said. And she responds, “I don’t play that game, Dick.” And he says, “I fell short today. I have to take it up a notch.”
“I reflect on every day,” Kochanek said. “I wish the students would too. I wish they’d say, ‘I need to take it up a notch.'”
Striding across campus recently, toting boxes filled with teaching props, Kochanek said being at UConn has made him feel perennially youthful.
“All of a sudden, I’m 20 again and I’m back in college. When I stop working,” he said recently, “I’ll miss it all terribly. UConn is a wonderful place to be, a gentle environment that really brings out the best in you. I’m so incredibly proud to be here. I never dreamed it would be so good.”
Of all his famous advice and quotes, what is Kochanek’s favorite? That’s an easy question, he says. His favorite is one from the late columnist Erma Bombeck and it goes like this:
“When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left—but could say I used everything you gave me.”