The path to academia was not a straight one for John Kline. Today, he is a professor as well as the director of the Institute for Leadership Development at Troy University in Troy, Alabama. He got his professional start, however, on a farm.
“I was a farmer in Iowa, where I grew up, for six years after high school,” says Kline. “I was told I wasn’t college material.”
Obviously, he proved the nay-sayers wrong. Not only did he go on to earn a Ph.D. and become a professor, he distinguished himself as an excellent teacher and mentor to countless students and a devoted community servant both on campus and in his community. Now, his 17 years as a vital asset to Troy have been honored with a Sullivan Award.
As a professor of communication and leadership, teaching has always been a major passion for Kline—he’s won plenty of awards for it. The recognition for service, however, was a new high point in his career.
“I thought I’d received the best award I would ever receive, and that was the classroom teacher award,” says Kline, referring to Troy’s Ingalls Award for Excellence in Classroom Teaching, the university’s highest teaching honor. “This means more, though. It really does. It’s for service, and service is what I’m all about.”
An unexpected life
After his stint as a farmer, Kline eventually found himself at Iowa State University, a half decade older than most of his peers, and at first felt ill-prepared.
“I got a 16 on the English portion of the ACT. I go off to college and get a ‘C’ on my first paper,” Kline says. “I told my teacher, ‘I don’t talk good and I don’t write good.’”
He turned things around quickly and majored in English and speech education. After finishing his undergraduate work, Kline went on to get both his master’s and doctoral degrees at the University of Iowa. He completed all three degrees, astonishingly, in a total of six and a half years.
Kline found work after graduate school, serving as a professor at the University of New Mexico and at the University of Missouri-Columbia, before opening the next major chapter of his life. A mentor suggested he apply to the United States Air Force Air University. He thought he had no chance at getting the job. A surprise was in store for Kline.
“Dog-gone if they didn’t hire me,” he says.
He became a professor, teaching communication and leadership, and spent the next 25 years with the Air Force, rising to the top civilian position as University Provost and Chief Academic Officer.
A teacher of leaders
The Air Force had brought Kline to Alabama, and it turned out he was destined to stay. His next job was at Troy, where he cultivated a reputation as an attentive and astute teacher, as well as an excellent example for his students of how to be engaged with a community.
As director of Troy’s Institute for Leadership Development, whose stated mission is to facilitate “development of ethical, responsible leaders who want to use their leadership abilities at school, on the job, and to serve society,” Kline fosters what he calls “Servant Leaders” through conferences, courses, and campus partnerships. Citing his religious faith, he says the greatest servant leader who ever lived proclaimed 2000 years ago that he “came not to be served but to serve others.”
The impact of his work has left a lasting impression on many students. Sam Moody, a Troy student majoring in Risk Management Insurance with a minor in Leadership Development, has been profoundly impacted by Kline. For Moody, he exemplifies the Sullivan spirit.
“Dr. Kline has maintained a level of integrity, honesty, and servitude that far surpasses anything I have seen from another professor,” he says. “I have never had another professor that genuinely cares as much about the well-being of his or her students.”
And Kline’s service involvement goes far beyond his care for his students. He is active in his church, teaching Sunday school and holding other leadership positions. He works with the Special Olympics and the state’s Youth Leadership Forum for High School Students with Disabilities. He served as president of Montgomery, Alabama’s Partners in Education program for three years. And for many years both Dr. Kline and his wife, Ann, have been volunteers at the Wesley Gardens Assisted Living Facility in Montgomery.
A radiating impact
These are only a few of the service efforts that make Kline a worthy Sullivan Award recipient. After 17 years at Troy, not to mention the rest of his tremendous career and the years still to come, the impact he’s made on his students and the larger communities where he’s lived and worked, is impossible to measure.
His biggest legacy, however, may be in the many Servant Leaders he has helped form, whose impact will radiate out into the world from the Troy campus and continue impacting the world long after he retires.
“Dr. Kline has played such an instrumental role in my time at Troy,” says Moody, a junior and the Vice President of Campus Activities for the Student Government Association. “I know that our relationship is something that will help me grow for years to come.”