With name tags from Hinman College’s various resident assistants covering his door, he flashes an inviting smile as he finishes reading an email from a Binghamton University alum requesting to see him during an upcoming visit to campus.
These kinds of emails are normal for Al Vos. He isn’t your typical professor.
After 42 years at BU as an English professor, Al has connected with generations of students, and has become a mentor to a sizable portion of the campus population. He’s what you could call the “Mr. Feeny” of Binghamton. He doesn’t just teach students. He nurtures them and helps them discover who they are and what they’re capable of.
Seeing Al in the Hinman Dining Hall getting a bite to eat with the Hinman Fellows, or dressed in one of his snug over-the-head winter sweaters as he’s teaching a class, it may be hard to believe he was once a farm boy from Pella, Iowa.
“I do have farming in my blood,” Al explained. “I love the land and I think planting and harvest are very spiritual activities. I could happily be a farmer.”
His childhood activities were based around two things — the farm and the family. His entire family lived within 10 miles of each other, making social events a family occasion. And Al still remembers the day he first learned to drive a tractor.
“I was an outdoors kid, and on the farm there were endless things to do and places to explore,” he said.
Al and his wife went to the same high school and were actually rivals — he graduated as valedictorian, she as salutatorian. They put their competition aside in the name of love, and their family has extended to include two daughters, Miriam and Sarah, and “three and three-quarter” grandchildren, with the latter granddaughter due in December, all of whom star as the No. 1 priority in Al’s life.
After grade school and high school in Iowa, he had to choose between the agricultural school at Iowa University or Calvin College, a liberal arts school.
“When I was a kid, farming had fallen on hard times, so Dad thought maybe I could go to college and be an agricultural engineer and design tractors, which I seriously considered my senior year,” Al said. “It’s pretty obvious which won out.”
He had never heard of the small 20-year-old college named SUNY Binghamton when he applied for a job while finishing graduate school.
“We would just send out dozens of letters to possible places to work,” Al said. “It was the end of 1969 when the school responded to my inquiry. I went to my grad mentors and asked them, ‘What about this place Binghamton?’ and they had told me, ‘It’s an up-and-coming school and it’d be a good place to work.’ So here I am.”
When asked why he enjoys teaching, Al reclined in his chair with his hands resting on his stomach, deep in thought as to how to put it into words.
“Oh goodness, you know I, myself, loved being a student and thought I could do it in a new way, help others become students,” he said. “My favorite word is ‘nurture’ because I love to nurture students in and out of the classroom.”
And that is proven by the fact that Al acts as a professor, an English adviser and a faculty master at BU.
“The three are not that distinct,” he explained. “I have a holistic approach to being here. I am Al whether I’m teaching Shakespeare or eating lunch in the Hinman Dining Hall. I’m still Al. I do feel like I have feeds in different worlds, but it’s all really part of an interaction with students and ways to help them grow.”
Within Hinman itself, there is a student run council, Hinman College Council (HCC), and a student-run theater group, Hinman Production Company (HPC)’. Al does not run or oversee the two groups, but he plays a vital role for the students involved in them, watching the students grow, develop and mature — something he views as his duty as faculty master.
“In some ways, my role as faculty master is curious,” he said. “I don’t supervise anyone and no one supervises me; I create my own job. In respect to government and theater, I don’t run them or manage budgets or influence decisions but I never miss an HPC show and I never miss an HCC meeting, because I’ve discovered the greatest gift I can give in my supportive presence.”
Al feels very connected to Hinman as a community.
“I emphasize the word ‘community,’ the sense of Hinman community, Hinman spirit, Hinman pride,” Al said. “I view one of my roles as a community developer. I view myself as a talent scout, so part of my job is to embody and nurture that sense of community, spirit and pride.”
Alison Mackenzie, a sophomore majoring in English, took Al’s Writing 111 class last fall and is now his teaching assistant.
“Al has a way of teaching his students much more than English,” she said. “He is extremely supportive of all of his students in all aspects of their lives, and really encourages people to come out of their shells, both academically and socially, to fully appreciate college/Hinman life. Al is an incredible person and Binghamton is lucky to have him.”