James Ethridge of Shorewood grew up in a small farming community in Milledgeville, Ill., where he started his own garden at the age of 6.
“I was surrounded by 36 aunts and uncles as a kid and was the youngest of 86 cousins," he said. "We had a family reunion every week when we got together for church."
Ethridge enjoyed that way of life so much that he made it his career. While earning his B.S., M.S. and Ph.D at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, he studied abroad whenever possible. In 1972 he started teaching at Joliet Junior College.
Last week Ethridge retired from his position as professor and chair of the Agricultural and Horticultural Sciences Department at JJC where he was well known for keeping his students engaged and inspired.
“Being a teacher is a huge emotional commitment," Ethridge said. “It’s important to take the time to know your students and also to take a vested interest in making sure their needs are met. I’ve seen students go from being students to graduates to colleagues and that’s really why I love teaching so much."
Ethridge recently gave the 2011 commencement speech at JJC, where he imparted the following words of wisdom to graduates with respect to being true to yourself:
“You know what’s right and wrong. You know what you love to do. You have to match these things up in order to be happy.
“Don’t be afraid of death, what you should be afraid of is not being prepared for it … If you are doing what you love and you die in 30 seconds, you have lived a good life –it’s as simple as that”
For Ethridge, happiness truly is digging in the dirt and educating people about plant life. He recently started his “second career” at Ted’s Greenhouse in Tinley Park, where he has access to 4,200 different kinds of plants and gets to learn something new every day.
“I absolutely love it; it’s like going back to school again for free and getting paid to do it," he said. "I’m learning at least three to four new plants a day. Ted’s is a family-run business and three of my graduates work there – that’s the cool part!”
If you are looking to plant your own garden, don’t hesitate to stop by Ted’s and ask for Ethridge’s sage advice, where he is still happily answering a variety of plant-related questions.