Karl Fields was born on a 7,000-acre Idaho cattle ranch and grew up riding every foot of its 45 miles of fence line, working a thousand head of purebred cattle.
It taught him the value of hard work.
Today, just inside his office at the University of Puget Sound are six bookshelves, each holding more than seven feet of books.
Fields has read every one. They’ve helped make him an expert on Asia and its culture, political system and financial structure.
“The top shelf is China, the second shelf Japan,” Fields said, ticking off his library system.
This week, the man who grew up on horseback – and now teaches Asian politics and government – was given the prestigious 2012 Washington State Professor of the Year Award from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education.
He and winners from the other states received their honors Thursday at a luncheon at The National Press Club in Washington, D.C.
“I’ve lived two lives and loved them both,” Fields said in an interview. “I have colleagues here who are brighter, more well-read, but I can match them with my enthusiasm ...”
Fields stopped a moment, then laughed.
“I’m pretty certain I’m the only faculty member who ever delivered a calf by C-section,” he said.
What changed Fields from a young cowboy to an Asian expert who speaks fluent Mandarin? Religion.
“My dad still insists he’s an atheist, but I’m a stake president in the Mormon church and my brother is a Methodist minister. My dad likes to say he failed with both of us,” Fields said.
“What changed me the most was a Mormon mission to Taiwan. I knew nothing about Asia from high school, but in two years I fell in love with it. I learned to speak Mandarin.”
Fields continues to profess that there’s no substitute to “being there” if one wants to learn about a foreign culture. Twice, he’s joined UPS students on a nine-month PacRim study abroad adventure through Asia.
The father of four lives in Gig Harbor with wife Melanie and their two sons. His two daughters are at Brigham Young University in Utah – one on the verge of becoming a teacher, the other pursuing a major in Asian anthropology.
Fields, now 54, started his teaching career late.
“I’ve taught here the past 22 years. I didn’t start until I was 32.”
UPS president Ronald Thomas has seen the impact Fields has made on students.
“I have met with graduates in Seattle and New York, Hong Kong and Tokyo, Shanghai and London – all of whose lives were reshaped by the influence of Karl and the Asian Studies Program,” Thomas said.
One of Fields’ students, Rachel Gary, called the professor “one of the most influential figures in my life.”
“His office door is always open. Once he even arranged to Skype with me about a project while I was abroad in India, waking up absurdly early so he could accommodate my schedule across time zones.”
Fields said his decision to teach developed from his love of learning.
“I liked the rhythm of courses, the intensity, and then you were done,” he said. “If you didn’t like the way it had gone, you started over again the next semester.
“I wanted to impact the enthusiasm for learning in my students. The goal is teaching students to become responsible citizens, happier citizens with a love of learning.
“I’ve learned from students as well as colleagues. I’ll read something a student writes and think, ‘I wish I’d taught it that way.’” Fields said. “I’ve changed as a teacher. I read student evaluations at the end of each semester. There are good suggestions in them.”
As for his focus area of Asia, Fields is passionate about the timeliness of it.
“I look at China and think if we ignore it, we do so at our peril. In the presidential campaign, both sides made China a cartoon caricature,” Fields said. “China is going to become a dominant country in this century.
“I don’t think everyone needs to speak Mandarin, but I wish more of us did.”Larry LaRue: 253-597-8638 firstname.lastname@example.org