Cardinal Cadence Fall 2012

The accidental psychologist

James EsserJames Esser traded tennis for industrial-organizational psychology and the heartland for the heart of Cardinal country. Along the way, he turned soccer fanatic and diehard basketball fan while swapping leisurely European backpacking forays for intensive, summer-long pilgrimages through Spain. An accidental academic pursuit led him to Lamar University, where he is one of the university’s most-honored faculty members.

Among many accolades, Esser is Lamar’s 2012 Distinguished Faculty Lecturer, having stepped to the University Theatre podium Nov. 13 to focus on “Negotiating with Terrorists”—the latest area of research in an impressive and diverse body of scholarly pursuits. He is a University Professor, the highest honor accorded an LU faculty member.

“Psychology was an accident,” Esser said. “Back in the day, all I really cared about was tennis. I didn’t care about academics.”

Home for Esser—back in the day—was Charles City, Iowa, population 10,000. He played basketball in the winter and tennis in the spring. When his father took a job in the Chicago area, Esser moved from a small town to a large suburban school where the tennis team had won the state championship the previous year. “All of a sudden, I wasn’t good enough to make the team,” he said. “I got better quickly and was No. 2 my junior year and then No. 1 during my senior year at Arlington High School in Arlington Heights.”

Esser went to the University of Iowa to play tennis, eventually earning scholarships and a No. 1 ranking in singles and doubles for the Hawkeyes.

A headline from a clipping he saved brings back not-so-pleasant memories: “Benched with mononucleosis.” The newspaper article begins: “Jim Esser, Iowa’s top singles tennis player, has been stricken with mononucleosis and may be forced to sit out the remainder of the season.” In fact, he returned in three weeks.

Although Esser entered Iowa in the honors program, he didn’t have a major and had no idea what he wanted to do. “When I took my first psychology class, I had already gotten bad enough grades not to be in the honors program.”

He signed up for a special section of an introductory psychology class open only to honors program students or psychology majors. It interested him because it included labs. “Supposedly, you learned a lot more. And it sounded interesting. I walked into the first class, even though I wasn’t really eligible, and the professor gave the scare talk that there were too many people in the class and he was going to throw everybody out, so you’d better be an honors student or a psych major. So I changed my major to psychology. I liked it enough that I stayed.”

But Esser still had not mapped a career path. When he was a senior, a professor recommended he attend graduate school and specialize in social psychology. Esser went on to earn a Ph.D. in the field from Indiana University, with minors in math psychology and business. “The business minor got me my job at Lamar,” he said. “I attended a psychology convention where Lamar recruiters were looking for somebody who would fit into the master’s program in industrial-organizational psychology”—a specialty involving the application of psychology methods to the workplace.

That was 36 years ago, and, for Esser, the rest is history. “I like what I do,” he said. “I’ve been the face of industrial/organizational psychology, which makes up half of our graduate program.” He loves his job, he said, first because “I like working with the students on a more individual basis at the graduate level. Second, I’m able to pursue what interests me in research, and that’s always a fun thing.”

An especially fulfilling part of Esser’s job is arranging and supervising practicums. Each semester, teams of graduate students under his supervision provide free industrial/organizational psychology services to local organizations, including cities, counties, hospitals, refineries, the local power company and other for-profit and nonprofit organizations. “Recently, it’s been mostly non-profit, and that seems to work very well for us because they’re eager for assistance in view of budget challenges. We do things that, I think, are very valuable to them.”

Another high point is following the achievement of his graduates—a mix of those who go into Ph.D. programs and teaching positions in universities and those to enter the workplace in a variety of settings. Many of them keep in touch, Esser said, “and we enjoy that because we get to see how they move up through the ranks.”

Gone are the days of racquets and tennis balls, although Esser remains “a definite sports fan,” sharing a love of soccer with his family, including his wife of 16 years, Christine Bridges-Esser, associate professor of Spanish, the 2006 Distinguished Faculty Lecturer and his partner-in-adventure on summer pilgrimages through Spain. “My two kids played through high school and in college intramurals, but my whole family is kind of soccer crazy.”

Esser coached for several years, and his stepson now coaches the Midland Soccers, a semi-pro team in Midland affiliated with FC Dallas. Christine was already a fan when the two met, having coached her son. Esser also follows NBA and college basketball, which brings him to a series of coincidences: “When I was in college, Ralph Miller was the basketball coach at the University of Iowa, and his team, when I was a senior, went undefeated in the Big 10 and made a good run in the NCAA tournament. When I moved to Indiana for graduate school, it was Bobby Knight’s first year at Indiana. So I was able to watch Bobby Knight build that first NCAA championship team.

“And when I got here, Billy Tubbs had just arrived, so I got to watch Billy Tubbs build that really good bunch of teams. I had great luck being in the right place at the right time, and what goes around comes around because here comes Pat Knight.”

Compared to the Essers’ annual pilgrimages in Spain, Esser said, his European forays during college “were just put a backpack on and go. You get a Europass, get off the train, take your backpack to the hotel and leave it there.”

Later, when he and Christine began traveling in Spain, he said. “We would just see the sights. Soon, the trips involved relatives and, eventually, more interesting locales—not just the tourist attractions.

“We’d gotten off the highways and onto the little back roads where, near the end of El Camino, we saw people coming out of the woods. It was raining, and they were all miserable. They were sopping wet and grubby, and Chris’s mother says, ‘Who are they? Do they have hobos in Spain?’ And Chris thought for a minute and said, ‘Oh, I know who they are. They are the people walking the Camino.’ Our reaction was, ‘Those poor slobs. I would never do that.’

“The next year, we were getting ready for our annual trip, and Chris says, ‘I think I want to hike it. Our decision was to walk a long ways—longer than we should have, given the fact that we were beginners, and we didn’t know what we were doing. Our eyes got opened.”

Determined to hike the entire Camino the next year, they did some planning, with the help of guidebooks—“and we’ve done it eight or 10 times since.”

Although American-born, Christine often says she has been Spanish in her heart all her life. She speaks Spanish fluently. While he is not fluent, James said, “I’m a lot better than I used to be. My specialty is menus, wine lists and ‘Where’s the bathroom.’”

In summer 2012, Christine was teaching at the University of Salamanca, so the Essers involved her students in a sampling of the pilgrimage. Jim, armed with a laptop and a heavy load of reference articles, proceeded to work on his lecture.

His interest in Spain had led him to research on terrorism and the opportunity to gather material up close and personal through interviews with the Basque terrorist group and its political arm. “Terrorism got to the forefront of everybody’s mind in 2001, on 9/11,” he said. His research is worldwide, but Esser said, “I started with Spain because my familiarity with it. That seemed a natural place to begin.”

by Louise Wood
October 2012