One phone call changed Paul Wright’s life.
Wright had completed a bachelor’s degree in biology and had spent two years working in a biochemistry lab when he determined that he wanted, or maybe needed, something else.
“I thought of everything from going to medical school to being a laboratory researcher to being a high school biology teacher, but basically I was kind of floating around,” Wright says. “I finished working at the biochemistry lab to start a master’s degree in teaching, and I realized about halfway into that that, ‘I don’t know what I want to do, but this is not the right fit for me.’ ”
He knew he liked the martial arts – he’d been practicing karate since the age of 14 – and he liked holistic physical activity. He also enjoyed research but couldn’t see himself continuing forever with the type of transgenic mouse studies underway at that lab.
And he did love teaching.
During the next two years of tutoring and teaching part time, still trying to figure out his direction, he dialed the number of the kinesiology department at his alma mater University of Illinois at Chicago.
“I said, ‘I don’t know what I want to do, but if I could combine research and teaching and martial arts stuff, that would be good.’ The lady who answered the phone told me, ‘I think Don Hellison runs programs like that. Let me put you in touch with him,’ ” Wright says. “I had no idea that he was a big deal in the field of physical education and sport pedagogy, and to be honest, I didn’t even realize there was such a field.”
Their eventual meeting in Hellison’s office was, as Wright calls it, serendipity.
Forging an immediate connection, the two quickly became mentor and mentee. Wright earned his master’s degree in kinesiology in 1998 and stayed on at UIC to complete a Ph.D. in Education (Curriculum Design) in 2001, with Hellison serving as major advisor on both.
Hellison’s philosophies became Wright’s philosophies. Hellison’s standards became Wright’s standards. Hellison’s spirit flows through the veins of the projects Wright has launched within Illinois and far beyond.
So, when Hellison died in 2018 at the age of 80, Wright knew exactly what he needed to do.
Joining forces with David Walsh, professor of kinesiology at San Francisco State University, Wright co-edited a special issue of the Journal of Teaching and Physical Education dedicated “with a sense of gratitude and love” to Hellison’s life and legacy.
“We are two people whose lives, personal and professional, were greatly influenced by Don,” Wright and Walsh write in the introduction to Volume 39, Issue 3. “We were his students, protégés, friends and collaborators. Like many others we know, it is impossible to say what course our lives would have taken if it had not been for Don’s influence.”
Articles in the substantive and thought-provoking tribute:
- examine “The Man Behind the Teaching Personal and Social Responsibility Model,” with NIU Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education (KNPE) Assistant Professor Jenn Jacobs as co-author;
- provide a qualitative, historical analysis of the TPSR model;
- chart TPSR’s evolution in out-of-school contexts;
- explore its opportunities for professional development;
- salute its flexibility to expand and empower others to contribute their own ideas; and
- posit a reconsideration of Hellison’s scholarship, with KNPE graduate student Karisa Fuerniss as a co-author.
Wright, who handpicked the authors, prescribed the topics and served as a “pretty heavy-handed editor,” calls the results “exactly what I had hoped for” – and that was to “mark Don’s passing and celebrate his legacy.”
“When Don passed, I didn’t want it to go unmarked, because I know how many other people recognized the influence he had, but unless somebody’s intentional about it and proactive, it’s very common that people’s stories and accomplishments aren’t well documented,” Wright says.
“Some special issues to honor somebody are a nice collection of reflections, and they do honor them in a way, but they don’t really share much new information,” he adds. “My thought was that I don’t want people 50 or 60 year from now, if this work really continues to have an impact, to look back and say, ‘Gosh, I wish we knew more about Don Hellison and how he developed this.”
For Wright, the process has given him exactly that chance to look back.
He remembers everything about that initial meeting with Hellison at UIC a quarter-century ago, of learning about a teaching philosophy that was empowering and humanistic in a way “that was really focused on helping people develop their potential” with autonomy.
He remembers feeling energized by talk of positive, adult figures entering the lives of adolescents to set constructive and affirmative examples of how to behave and view the world.
He remembers relief at finding a “perfect fit” with a humble mentor whose work was “was driven by his values and his beliefs about how to be a good person and how to treat other people.”
“Don was just such a genuine, easygoing, easy-to-talk-to person. You could just tell that he was a very reflective and supportive person by nature, and really encouraging of people finding their own path,” Wright says. “He wasn’t really trying to sell me on his program or on coming to work with him. He was just happy to help me bat my ides around – and, of course, that hooked me more than anything else.”
Wright became involved in the martial arts program Hellison ran for inner-city youth.
Soon, Wright was overseeing similar after-school initiatives on the West Side of Chicago and becoming a front-row observer to Hellison’s commitment to blending research with practice to create authentic, field-tested strategies.
As their relationship progressed, transcending academic and professional borders, they became friends. Hellison, Wright says, “was so generous with his time, and so willing to spend time hanging out and talking with me and working with kids in after-school programs.”
Meanwhile, the mentor was celebrated far beyond Chicago as someone with “a unique and profound influence on his field.”
“After a couple years, I started going to conferences with him, and we’d walk down the hall of the conference, and people are just fawning over this guy, and I asked him, ‘Don, are you a big deal or something? What’s going on here?’ As I worked with him, I realized more and more what a big deal he was and what an impact he had,” Wright says.
“He was a real thought leader. He was a maverick in a lot of ways,” he adds, “because the kinds of things he was interested in, the kinds of ideas he was pushing and the way he approached scholarship did not fit the mold of his field or of the times.”
But Hellison “really didn’t care” about the naysayers.
“It’s what he believed in, and it’s what he was committed to, so he did it. The times and the field and the research methods sort of caught up with him decade by decade,” Wright says, “and with the work he was doing, even though he kind of fought for respect on some of those academic fronts, the practitioners always loved it and ate it up, because they really worked with kids. They knew.”
Since his 2011 arrival at NIU, Wright has proven himself an apt disciple.
The EC Lane and MN Zimmerman Endowed Professor in Kinesiology and Physical Education, now in his third term with that title, has worked on a local and international scale. This work has also earned him an NIU Presidential Engagement Professorship.
Locally, he tapped into connections forged by KNPE colleagues Jenny Parker and Jim Ressler with Clinton Rosette Middle School to run Project Leadership, an after-school program focused on youth development and social change through sport.
Clinton Rosette also welcomes NIU student-athletes who participate in the Huskie Experience program to mentor its sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders; Wright trains those Huskies with a structured approach on the philosophy of mentoring or the best practices.
Meanwhile, he’s also influenced Jacobs, who runs an after-school boxing club for girls at Clinton Rosette.
Globally, Wright he launched the Belizean Youth Sport Coalition project in 2014.
He created the College of Education’s first Engage Global initiative in 2018 as part of his work with the ENVEST (Empowering New Voices through Education and Sport Training) Sri Lanka program.
He took a research sabbatical in Scotland in 2016, where he studied how learning objectives in physical education are interpreted, promoted by teachers and experienced by students.
Last year, UNESCO tapped Wright to serve as a consultant and voice at the table to guide the planning of international policy conferences.
Wright’s growing résumé and evangelizing of the TPSR model, and the special issue he and Walsh co-edited, would please Hellison.
And, Wright says, it’s deserved.
“Don was a real innovator and areal role model, just in terms of the literature – the academic side – but I also know personally how many lives he touched. The kids he worked with. The students like me and Dave that he mentored. The coaches and youth workers and inner-city schools and community organizations,” Wright says.
“For all the work we put into this special issue, I don’t know how we even could estimate the number of people that he built real, genuine, supportive relationships with and had an impact,” he adds. “We were two of them who really got a massive benefit from our interaction with him, from crossing over in this world with him.”