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Nationally renowned historian retires from WMU after 50-plus years

by Cheryl Roland

April 18, 2011 | WMU News

Photo of Dr. Paul Maier.
Dr. Paul Maier, history
KALAMAZOO--When Dr. Paul Maier delivers his last lecture on the history of ancient Rome this week, Western Michigan University will close the book on a long chapter in its history.

Maier, WMU's Russell H. Seibert Professor of Ancient History, will retire at the close of the spring semester after more than 50 years on the history faculty and 52 years as a member of the University community. He is WMU's longest-serving faculty member ever, and his expansive research findings and prolific writing career have put him in demand among scholars and reporters as an internationally known expert in his field.

His attitude about his WMU role remains as fresh as the day he was hired.

"There is no greater job than being a university professor," he says. "I've actually had a little pang of conscience all these years about cashing my paychecks."

The Rolodex had just been introduced when Maier launched his academic career at WMU, and he quickly became a fixture on the files of reporters at some of the nation's leading publications. Reporters have long since moved Maier's name from the Rolodex to their Smartphone directories, and the calls keep coming. He has been a favorite source for reporters at media outlets ranging from U.S. News & World Report to Time, Newsweek and the "NBC Nightly News."

One of the nation's foremost authorities on early Christianity, Maier is a Harvard- and University of Basil-educated historian and a seminary graduate who first came to WMU in 1958 as the Lutheran campus pastor (a position he held until 1999) and a visiting professor. However, he views his official start date as 1960, when he accepted an offer to become a full-time member of the history faculty.

As a faculty member, his research has focused on manuscript and text analysis, archaeology, and comparison of sacred and secular sources from the first century A.D. That means he's been able to uncover fresh information on such topics as the actual date of the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, the hidden politics behind his trial and condemnation, the circumstances of the persecution of Christians under Nero, and many other topics he has explored in nearly 300 published articles and reviews.

Maier has penned 25 books--academic tomes, translations, biographies, novels and children's works--that have sold more than four million copies and been translated into 18 languages. Nearly every weekend during the academic year, he gives seminars across the country on topics reflected in the seven DVDs he has produced that offer new light on Jesus, St. Paul, the early church and current Christianity.

He's been named WMU's Distinguished Faculty Scholar and a winner of the WMU Alumni Association's Teaching Excellence Award. In 1984, he earned a citation as one of America's 25 finest educators by the Washington-based Council for the Advancement and Support of Education.

During his WMU tenure, Maier has worked under the administrations of six of the University's eight presidents, and he's fond of pointing out that today, most people know about the people he worked with during his early years on campus for far different reasons than their personalities or teaching skills.

"Most people I've known through the years are now buildings," he says. Those who have had University buildings named after them include Maier's early history colleagues Willis Dunbar and Robert Friedmann as well as friends in other disciplines like George Kohrman and administrators like Paul Sangren and Russell Seibert.

Those who think his retirement may mean he'll be easier to reach or that he'll spend more time indulging his favorite nonscholarly hobby--operating heavy equipment--are in for a rude awakening. His post-WMU life is already beginning to take on the frenetic pace he kept up as a faculty member.

His plans during the coming years include:

It's the latter plan that best characterizes Maier's approach to studying and learning history. Ever the student himself, Maier relishes the opportunity to share what he knows and learn even more.

"That sharing is very big for me, " he says. "I don't want to ever be bored with my own lectures."

That commitment to making lectures exciting and interesting has led to a decades-long role as a beloved professor who teaches introductory history courses in addition to his advanced offerings.

"They kept me teaching the introductory course so that students would learn that history can be pretty entertaining," he says.

Asked to single out any regrets he has in what, by any measure, would be called an exemplary and productive career, he points to a lifelong addiction to the lure of the construction/landscaping equipment he has collected, restored, repaired and used to clear his 50-acre Oshtemo Township property.

"I'd be several books ahead if I hadn't devoted so much time to heavy equipment," he confesses. "But I couldn't resist it. It was something so quintessentially different than what I was used to doing every day."