Students fondly remember beloved professor after sudden death

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Students fondly remember beloved professor after sudden death

The nametag next to professor Stettner's office in the springtime after his passing.

The nametag next to professor Stettner's office in the springtime after his passing.

The nametag next to professor Stettner's office in the springtime after his passing.

The nametag next to professor Stettner's office in the springtime after his passing.

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It was midmorning on a weekday in August. Students sleepily claimed seats and scrolled through their phones as they sat in Z204, the classroom where they met once a week before their biology lecture with Professor Craig Stettner.

A couple minutes past the class’s start time, Stettner’s tall, lanky frame sped past the room’s large window. In his arms, he clutched two plastic cages. Classmates glanced at each other and strained their necks to see what was inside them.

After dusting off his khakis and straightening his bird-themed tie, he reached into each enclosure. In one hand, a multicolored snake coiled around his fingers. In the other, he cradled a bearded dragon.

“Alright, eco-warriors, who’d like to hold one of these guys?” he asked.

This was not the start most Harper students expected to have to their mornings, but Stettner’s unconventional class settings, love of wildlife and charming personality would engage young adults in a way most instructors could only hope to. 

Stettner, an associate professor of biology, drowned and passed away unexpectedly on Christmas Day 2018 after being caught in a riptide off the shores of Playa Hermosa, Jaco in Costa Rica.

Much of Harper’s staff was greatly impacted by the loss of one of their favorite coworkers and mentors.

Anthony Miniuk, a biology instructor, knew Stettner for a little over two years. Miniuk commended Stettner as an exceptional colleague in the short amount of time he knew him, describing him as gentle and knowledgeable.

“I remember last year I served as the chair of the hiring committee for the first time,” Miniuk said. “Even though I was in over my head, Craig would always provide me with directions about what should be done next in the hiring process.”

Miniuk reminisced about Stettner’s ability to develop personal relationships with each student. He saw Stettner greet each student individually and wish them good luck on their way to his lab exam. 

“I could tell that Craig’s students knew that he cared for them and wanted them to succeed in college and beyond. This is something that I want to reflect as an instructor,” Miniuk said.

Andrew Iverson, another associate biology professor, knew Stettner for seven years. Iverson described Stettner as mild-mannered and non-judgmental. 

“He was probably the calmest, most down-to-earth person I’ve ever met,” Iverson said.

Iverson and Miniuk help run Harper’s biology club, which worked alongside the environmental club that Stettner advised. They remember him as a wonderful club leader, recalling students’ excitement about the club’s annual camping trip to nearby Granite City,  and the large habitat restoration efforts held at Penny Road Pond in Palatine during Thanksgiving break.

“Craig always kept the environmental club busy,” Iverson said.

Calvin Lam, an art and biology student, was a member of the biology club. His favorite interaction with Stettner was attending Brookfield Zoo’s Party for the Planet in the spring of 2016. 

“He was like a father figure to me,” Lam said.

Students who felt their career choices were heavily impacted by taking Stettner’s classes were devastated by news of his death.

One student that was especially heartbroken by his loss was Sarah Alfirevic, a Harper alumna and junior majoring in biology at North Park University. Alfirevic took Stettner’s study abroad course in Costa Rica in January 2018.

Alfirevic noted Stettner’s most memorable quirk his odd approach to photography.

“He was so bad at it,” she laughed. “He wouldn’t look to see if what he wanted was in the shot, he wouldn’t wait for it to focus, he would just pick up his camera and hit the button and put it away, all in one motion. All of his pictures were blurry, but he still took pictures of everything.”

Alfirevic met Stettner when she tagged along with her friend to a meeting with him. At the time, she struggled with anxiety and felt uninspired and lost after an unpleasant experience at another college. She credited Stettner with reigniting her passion for her area of study.

Jessy Yang, a film student at New York University, had a hard time finding a home for his pet tarantulas before his big college move. Initially, Stettner only agreed to accepting the Chilean rose, the tamer of the two spiders, but after some conversation, he took the salmon pink bird-eater as well.

“While my interaction with him was very brief, it seemed like he genuinely understood and cared for the well-being of these animals — animals most would consider unappetizing, at that,” Yang said.

Of course, Stettner’s family is especially devastated by his loss and is slowly moving through the grieving process.

Stettner’s sister-in-law and wife of his youngest brother, Amy, remembers the first time she met him. She and her soon-to-be-husband, David, visited him while he was still a graduate student studying fish biology at Iowa State University.

“We strapped on our waders, wandered into a local river in Iowa, and used electrical currents to stun the fish and survey them,” she reflected.

Amy Stettner defined her brother-in-law as the “fun uncle” of the family. He drove miles out of his way to their home in Madison, Wisconsin to take his nephews to initial showings of Star Wars, Marvel, and Lord of the Rings movies.

Professor Stettner and his nephews, Aaron and Nathan, enjoy a family outing. (provided by his sister-in-law, Amy Stettner)

She laughed as she recalled his knack for building elaborate pillow forts and love of olive pizza, saying, “It would actually frustrate us sometimes, how many olives he’d order.”

David Stettner noted that his brother’s love of the outdoors began in his youth. Stettner was a Boy Scout and the two went on many fishing trips.

Stettner was a lifelong member of the First United Methodist Church of Des Plaines, but in recent years, he became less active as he provided in-home caregiving to their mother.

“He was still a believing Christian and he and Mom would watch services together on Sunday mornings,” David Stettner described.

If Amy Stettner could say one last thing to her brother-in-law, she would choose to apologize for her impatience with him on certain occasions, recognizing that he was often late to family outings because he took time to help others so frequently. 

David Stettner would have liked to tell him how much they appreciated the way he looked after multiple long-term ailing family members over the years.

“I’d like to tell him he was a great example of many aspects of a life of service well-lived,” David Stettner responded.

The dedication of the prairie located behind Harper’s main campus in honor of Stettner took place on Thursday afternoon, September 19. President Dr. Avis Proctor presented the late professor’s family with a plaque before alumni, faculty and staff members ventured outside to watch Stettner’s loved ones release butterflies and milkweed seeds. Professor emeritus Randall Schietzelt has started a campaign to name a rare Costa Rican silk moth after Stettner.

Even though celebrations of Stettner’s presence on the college’s campus appear to be over, his legacy and influence on Harper’s campus will never be forgotten. Professor Craig Stettner will forever be remembered as an expert educator, a beloved family member and an all-around great man. 

A commemorative poster hangs in the biology wing on Harper’s main campus.