Herhold: A famous San Jose State teacher heads into retirement
Published by the San Jose Mercury News March 30, 2012.
By Scott Herhold
“You should really think about doing an internship,” Terry Christensen would tell one of his students at San Jose State. With those eight words — a seduction, a mantra, a challenge — he changed hundreds of lives.
Now the professor’s own life is about to change. At the end of the academic year in May, the 68-year-old Christensen is retiring, signing off. After 42 years, San Jose State will lose one of its best-known teachers, a one-time young Turk who turned gray but not dour.
It’s impossible to cover San Jose without encountering his legacy. Among his ex-students are Supervisor Ken Yeager, Assemblyman Jim Beall, ex-Supervisor Susanne Wilson and labor leader Cindy Chavez (for a fuller list, see www.mercurynews.com/scott-herhold).
“Terry was a great hands-on mentor,” says Phil Trounstine, a Christensen student and ex-Mercury News political editor who with Christensen wrote “Movers and Shakers,” a 1982 study of political power in San Jose. “He made local government understandable to generations of San Jose State students. That’s a real service.”
Christensen acted as much as he researched, advocated as much as he analyzed, prodded as much as he listened. His optimistic style made it hard for opponents to dislike him. And his 15-page résumé made you wonder if he ever slept.
(Full disclosure: My wife, Sarah, was a student of Christensen’s in the 1970s, and
my daughter, Becky, worked for CommUniverCity, a social-service program he cofounded.)
Man of the left
Christensen is unmistakably a man of the left: He worked for Chavez in her 2006 mayoral campaign. He guided the district election campaign in 1978, a huge change in city politics. He remains close to labor.
Sometimes this causes friction. I throw my coffee mug against the wall when reporters quote Christensen without identifying his allegiances. Yet his analysis is usually very fair.
“Terry has been very courageous in the sense that he’s never been afraid of putting his values out there,” says Larry Gerston, a colleague at SJSU. “A lot of students cherish that.”
Christensen’s teaching stressed a practical, you-can-make-a-difference approach rather than intellectual theory. In Political Science 103, he required students to attend city council meetings. Then came a three-week simulation in which students played council members and lobbyists.
Meantime, he mentored his charges incessantly. “He took an interest in everything we did,” said Patricia Gardner, the executive director of the Silicon Valley Council of Nonprofits. “He always had an open-door policy, whether you were a student or a graduate.”
With Gerston, Christensen wrote a textbook, “California Government and Politics: A Practical Guide.” He organized the Don Edwards lecture series, which has brought people like Barbara Boxer, Merv Field and Gloria Steinem to campus.
But it has been in running the internship program — where he placed students in political offices, nonprofits and civic organizations — that he had his greatest impact. “I like to say that we provide the public sector infrastructure of Silicon Valley,” he told me.
The professor, who says he intends to stay in town, has heirs. Both Yeager and San Jose Councilman Sam Liccardo have taught Political Science 103. And Gerston will work part time for another three years. But it’s hard to think TC, as he’s known, can be replaced. “He’s a legend,” said one student on a rating site for professors. “Take him if you can.”