Faculty members in Interdisciplinary Studies remembered for passion, care for students
Faculty, staff and students in the School of Interdisciplinary Studies are in mourning after the loss of two of their colleagues and mentors within the past month.
Dachang Cong, associate dean for undergraduate studies in IS, died on Jan. 21 at the age of 65. Just a few weeks later, John Phillip Allen, a longtime professor in the Teacher Development Center, died from a heart attack at a family gathering in Santa Fe, N.M. on Feb. 11. He was 74.
Cong, who started working at UTD in 1991 after graduating with a Ph.D. in anthropology from Yale University, focused mainly on the Healthcare Studies and American Studies programs.
George Fair, dean of the School of Interdisciplinary Studies, said Cong was well liked among students and faculty.
“He was just a real friend to students and a real person that helped students as much as he could, and was always available to students for counseling and whatever needs they had,” Fair said.
Cong, who was born in China in 1950, earned his bachelor’s degree from Shaanxi Normal University in Xi’an, China in 1976 before moving to the United States in 1981.
Cong’s son, Yale, said his father moved to the United States to better his education after being caught up in the Cultural Revolution. When Cong arrived in the country, Yale said he did everything he could to learn English — including watching episode after episode of “Three’s Company.”
Once he finished mastering English, Cong moved on to studying Japanese, Korean and Russian. Yale said he also had a passion for reading, with books always filling his places of work.
“If you ever saw his office or our home, it was just bookshelves upon bookshelves of mostly non-fiction,” he said. “Stuff about technology, history, globalization — things like that.”
Yale also described his father as an avid traveler, with trips to national parks across the country being a norm in the family. He said when Cong first got to the United States, he even took trips by himself to cities to learn more about America.
“When he was a student, during the various academic breaks, he would just hop on random Greyhounds and just go to different U.S. cities by himself,” Yale said. “(He’d) have strangers take pictures of him with all the different monuments.”
Yale said Cong loved UTD during his quarter century of service at the university.
“Especially in this day and age, when everyone switches jobs pretty frequently, I guess to stay at one place for 20 years is telling of the respect he had for his colleagues and his students,” he said.
Fair, who grew to know Cong well and worked with him on an almost daily basis, said they were very close.
“All I can say is that he had my greatest respect and I thought of him as a very strong, academic person,” Fair said.
While Cong worked on American and Healthcare Studies, Allen’s focus in IS was on training teachers how to prepare for the workforce. Twenty of the 40 required field-training hours students in the Teacher Development Center required to graduate from the program were associated with Allen’s course “American Public School.”
Barbara Ashmore, an assistant director for the Teacher Development Center, said Allen was a tough teacher with high expectations, but he was always there to support his students.
“One of the things he always did is he always arrived an hour early before class and he would sit out in the lobby. And students would come out and just sit and chat with him because he wanted to get to know them and he wanted them to get to know him,” she said.
Allen, who grew up poor in Louisiana and was the first member in his family to attend college, graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Northwestern State College of Louisiana in 1963 before obtaining his master’s from Louisiana Tech University in 1967.
After working in public schools in his home state for about 10 years, Allen moved to Dallas and worked for over 30 years in the Dallas Independent School District.
His wife, Rose Marie, said Allen had to work odd jobs in chicken slaughterhouses, a cafeteria and a tire shop just to make ends meet to get through college. She said his desire to help others is what drove him to overcome those obstacles.
“He actually started the disciplinary alternative schools in Dallas, which really were for children who had been expelled or suspended from school for disciplinary problems,” she said. “He actually started the first elementary alternative education program in the state, and there was a lot of school districts that would come to look at that program because it was so good.”
Rose Marie explained that Allen began working at UTD because he was motivated to show aspiring teachers how to excel.
“He had an absolute passion for teaching and he wanted to inspire people to be good teachers … but also (for them) to recognize that there was nothing more important to children than a single caring adult, and that for so many children — particularly in urban school districts — they didn’t have that. And that if a teacher, a good teacher, could be that for them, then there was nothing they couldn’t overcome,” she said.
Fair said Allen earned the respect of his students from his years of work in the field.
“He really was the kind of person that could bring reality to talk about his experience and talk about the kind of experiences he has had as a teacher and as a principal and as an administrator in a school district,” he said.
Fair said the school has temporary replacements to fill in for Cong and Allen while it searches for long-term professors to take their place.
“We’re just going to make sure that students don’t suffer a disadvantage because of their passing, even though that’s hard to do,” he said.