Professor James Polk to receive presidential medallion

  • English department chair taught at UMES for 17 years

    Friday, April 13, 2018
    James Polk courtesy of WMDT 2015

    A respected educator who spanned the transition from Maryland State College to the University of Maryland Eastern Shore during those challenging times will be honored May 25 at the 2018 spring commencement exercises. 

    James A. Polk will be awarded a presidential medallion 35 years after he retired. 

    Polk, who turned 103 this spring, taught English at the secondary and collegiate levels on the lower Delmarva Peninsula for 37 years. 

    The New Jersey native graduated with honors in 1941 from Virginia Union University, a historically black institution in Richmond where he studied Latin and English. He earned a Master of Science degree in education from the University of Pennsylvania in 1955, specializing in social studies and also did extensive post-graduate studies in English at Johns Hopkins University. 

    The World War II veteran taught in public schools for African Americans in Worcester and Wicomico counties from 1946 until 1966, when a friend and future colleague, Dr. William A. Link, urged him to pursue a teaching job at Maryland State. 

    Polk wrote on his job application that he felt “college instruction will offer a greater challenge than that which I encounter currently on the high school level.” 

    By 1974, he was head of UMES' English department and is credited by colleagues with stabilizing an academic unit that struggled to attract students. 

    “Jim not only chaired the department, but he also revitalized the teacher education program and saved both … from pending extinction,” former colleague Richard C. Keenan said. 

    Polk succeeded by backing creative ideas to add new department offerings such as film studies, an area of personal interest. He served nine years as English department chairman until his retirement in 1983. 

    Shortly after Polk announced his intentions to retire, (Chancellor) William P. Hytche sent him a letter congratulating him on a stellar career. 

    “We are proud of our accomplishments and even prouder of individuals like you, who through great effort and sometimes sacrifice, helped us to take the steps we have towards meeting our mission of providing the best possible educational experiences for the students of UMES,” Hytche wrote. 

    Link once described Polk as an educator who “exemplified … the finer characteristics of a teacher who is interested in doing an expert job of teaching and who has the interest of his students at heart.” 

    The university's governing board awarded him the title of professor emeritus upon his retirement. 

    Keenan described Polk as “a fair and enlightened leader through times of racial and political tension, not uncommon at HBCUs in the 1970s. All of us on the faculty at the time were grateful for and appreciative of his wisdom and steadfast leadership.” 

    Polk is currently a member of Wesley Temple United Methodist Church in Salisbury, where he served as a Sunday school superintendent and chairman of the building committee. He was a member of the Salisbury-Wicomico Human Relations Council, the NAACP's Wicomico County chapter and a board member of Shore Up! Inc., a jobs training program.