COVID-19 Symptom Attestation

After 42 years teaching students at WWU, Merle Prim decides it's time to retire

Matthew Anderson
Western Today editor
  • Merle Prim laughs during a gentle roast of him Saturday, June 4, in the Old Main Solarium. Photo by Rachel Bayne
    Merle Prim laughs during a gentle roast of him Saturday, June 4, in the Old Main Solarium. Photo by Rachel Bayne
  • Roughly 35 current and former faculty, students and staff attended a retirement dinner in honor of Merle Prim June 4 in the Old Main Solarium. Photo by Rachel Bayne
    Roughly 35 current and former faculty, students and staff attended a retirement dinner in honor of Merle Prim June 4 in the Old Main Solarium. Photo by Rachel Bayne

Merle Prim leans forward in his chair with a huge grin. He's talking about students, one of his favorite subjects, and he's getting into it.

Prim is proud of his former charges, and he could talk for hours about the brilliant minds he's mentored over the years in his psychology classes at Western Washington University. He remembers their names, he tracks their careers. There's the student working as senior scientist at the Federal Aviation Administration. There are the former students now at Microsoft, at Gonzaga, at Ohio State University. He goes on. One ex-student is a carpenter, another is a hospital chief of staff. Then there's the post-doctorate fellow at the University of Texas, Austin. Prim, collar popped on his polo shirt, leans back and stops listing names. But he doesn't have to; he can think of many more.

There are so many kids who've gone on to accomplish great things with the knowledge they first picked up at Western.

"Our little school is not bad," Prim says.

Prim's classes are widely known on campus as being tough, and the man himself isn't shy on admitting it. He knows what he wants to say and how he wants to teach it, and the rest is up to the students, he says.

He remembers having a conversation a while back with a woman whose son was struggling in one of Prim's classes.

"I told her, 'I can't learn your son; I can teach him'," says Prim, who has been teaching since he was 15 years old leading swim lessons at the downtown Seattle YMCA. "A student has to find out how he himself, unique to himself, learns. Some students don't like the way I teach. And I tell them they have to learn how to study."

Scott Ottaway, a former WWU professor and a former student of Prim's, joked at Prim's retirement dinner that "Merle had probably over 12,600 students in his 42 years, and about 126 got an 'A'."

Prim knows that those thousands of students over the years weren't just signing up to learn when they took his classes. They were committing part of their lives to his care, whether they realized it or not.

"They gave me the greatest honor I can get," Prim says. "They put their lives in my hands to determine what their academic career was going to be about. That's a heady thing to deal with, and I look at it as my life's honor that those kids put themselves in my hands."

Thirty-five people attended a dinner the other night in honor of Merle Prim, who's retiring at quarter's end from the faculty in Western Washington University's psychology department.

The dinner was an honor 42 years in the making.

At 78, Prim can see that his body is getting old. He makes more errors than he used to, and he doesn't like that. So he's calling it quits. But will he miss it? Absolutely.

Though he won't be teaching, Prim will continue doing research, working with assistant professor Jackie Rose on her studies of the C. elegans worm.

"It's a true intellectual and technical challenge," Prim says. "And it's kind of a fun thing to do. It keeps me off the streets at night."

In addition to his students, Prim is proud of his research, which in the past four decades has focused on physiological psychology, neuroscience and animal learning.

He earned his bachelor's degree from the University of Washington, his master's degree from San Diego State College (now University) and his doctorate from Washington State University.

Among those attending Prim's retirement dinner June 4 were former WWU president Charles "Jerry" Flora, who hired Prim back in 1969. Also on hand were Peter Elich, former dean of the College of Arts and Sciences; Dale Dinnel,  former chair of the psychology department; Ted Pratt, current dean of students; Fred Grote, an emeritus faculty member of psychology; Arleen Lewis, a current psychology professor; Max Lewis, a senior instructor in psychology; Lou Lippman, an emeritus psychology faculty member; Kelly Jantzen, an assistant professor of psychology; McNeel Jantzen, an assistant professor of psychology; Ron DiGacomo, from the University of Washington; staff members Renee Collins, Ruth Hackler and Kay McMurren; and several students who traveled from as far away as Ohio, Oklahoma, Missouri and California. Former undergraduate students in attendance included Ian Dobbins (Washington University), Karl Obrietan (Ohio State University), Andy Self, David and Carol Francisco, Joe Edmonds and Scott Ottaway, himself a former professor at WWU.

Friday, June 10, 2011 - 10:23am

Share