More than 15,000 Creighton University alumni can trace their professional beginnings to Allen Schlesinger’s lecture hall.
Schlesinger, who died Friday just a few days after his 90th birthday, was a biology professor at Creighton for nearly 50 years. He taught most of the college’s future doctors and dentists and shaped the way Creighton approached the teaching of science for half a century.
“Academically, Creighton is what it is because of just a handful of people,” said Ted Burk, a Creighton biology professor who taught with Schlesinger until he retired in 2000. “He is very much one of those people.”
Schlesinger became an early advocate of the biology department — and what Creighton could accomplish in the field — during a time when science itself was dramatically changing.
He led the charge for two new science buildings, creating research space where there was little. He pushed for the teaching of biology as a look at fundamental properties of all life, instead of separate classes in zoology and botany, Burk said. He made sure students left his class understanding that science was about learning to think, not memorizing a list of facts.
Freshmen were often unprepared for him, Burk said. His students would often rate him as an average teacher during that first class. By their senior year, when they took his embryology class, his evaluations would be among the college’s highest.
“It wasn’t Al that was changing,” Burk said. “It was the students.”
Steven Kern still remembers his intro to biology class, when Schlesinger stood before the packed lecture hall and didn’t bother with introductions.
“Everyone there is gunning for med school, and he’s sort of this imposing figure,” said Kern, a surgeon in Maple Grove, Minn. “He walked in and said, ‘Look to your left and look to your right. Two of the three of you will be gone in a few weeks.’”
Those who made it, Kern said, had the good fortune to learn as much about how to think and act as they did about biology.
“He was interested in a whole person,” Kern said. “I think we could probably use more of that in our medical professions.”
He was a gifted man who could’ve done anything with his life, his oldest daughter, Mary Conway, said, but he loved teaching best. And his students remembered him: even living outside of Nebraska, Conway said she’s frequently met Creighton alumni, Jesuits and others connected to the university who remembered her father.
“There’s a difference between an educator that just passes along the facts and an educator who changes your life,” Conway said. “Anybody who knew him was affected.”
In addition to Conway, he is survived by daughters Sue Schlesinger, Lucy Schlesinger and Amy Kampfe, as well as grandchildren and great grandchildren.
A memorial mass is planned for Tuesday at 10 a.m. at St. John’s Catholic Church on Creighton’s campus. Interment will be private.