By Sarah Campbell
SALISBURY — Dr. Sandy Silverburg has spent more than 40 years teaching students at Catawba College to take a position and stand by it.
“I don’t care what it is, but you’ve got to be able to take a position on events that occur,” he said. “You’ve got to be able to stand up for what you believe.”
When students leave his class Silverburg wants them to “know who and what they are.”
“I want them to be able to tell somebody what they believe and why they believe whatever it is they believe,” he said.
Catawba graduate James Davis, a partner at Davis and Davis Attorneys at Law in Salisbury, said Silverburg’s lessons continue to influence his life.
“He honestly inspired a lifelong love of learning,” he said. “He challenged our views and positions, he taught me to be well-reasoned and to have a supportable position before I spoke.”
Bill Graham, a 1983 graduate of Catawba and partner at Salisbury’s Wallace & Graham law firm, said Silverburg taught him how to think.
“He was difficult, fair and made you want to be better than you were,” he said. “He pointed out your weaknesses and simply made you a better student, better person and more knowledgeable than you thought you could be.”
Graham said Silverburg taught classes about terrorism in the early ’80s, well before the topic became the issue of public interest it is today.
“Dr. Silverburg has been on this issue a long time,” he said. “Any of the students that he had in the ’70s and ’80s are well-versed for the dynamics of the world we live in today and he was preparing us for that 30 years ago.”
Silverburg said there’s at least one thing he wants all of students to get out of his class. “I hope they have developed a personal philosophy in order to understand themselves and contribute what they’ve learned to whatever community they’re living in,” he said.
But Silverburg says the greatest lessons weren’t taught by him.
“I think I’ve learned a great deal more from them than they’ve learned from me,” he said. “I’ve learned about changes in language, changes in acceptable social behavior.
“I’ve learned how to adjust with new generations, I’ve learned new ways of thinking.”
Back to the start
When Silverburg moved to Rowan County in 1970 he figured he’s stick around a couple of years.
“One year led to another and lo and behold here I am,” he said.
Silverburg, a native of upstate New York, relocated to Salisbury to take a position teaching political science at Catawba College shorly after the research organization he was working for in Washington went belly up.
When Silverburg’s wife, Lenore, landed a job as an exceptional children teacher with the Rowan-Salisbury School System, the couple decided to stay put.
“I felt obligated to allow her to continue on her career path and I was developing my own career,” he said.
After four decades of teaching political science at Catawba, Silverburg said he’s ready for a change.
“I find myself now ready to move onto another plateau,” he said.
Silverburg will retire after his contract expires at the end of July.
“You wake up at 4 a.m. and you know it’s time,” he said. “If you know yourself, you know it’s time.
“Younger people have to have an opportunity to learn from new faces, you owe it to them that they have an opportunity to get a younger and newer perspective.”
After saying goodbye to his last class Monday, Silverburg said he felt conflicted.
“But it’s time,” he said.
But that class wasn’t a final farewell.
“I would say I keep in touch with about 75 percent of my former students,” he said.
He said those students include Davis, Graham, former Charlotte mayor and gubernatorial candidate Pat McCrory, Rowan County District Attorney Brandy Cook, Kevin Leonard, director of government relations for the N.C. Association of County Commissioners and many others.
And Silverburg doesn’t plan to abandon the classroom completely. He is interested in volunteers with Communities in Schools of Rowan County and the Rowan County Literacy Council.
“It’s time move on and help young people with some of the lessons that I’ve learned and some of my experiences,” he said. “Help them enhance their education, which extends beyond the classroom.”
The Silverburgs plan to stay in Salisbury, but travel extensively.
“I don’t travel to see museums or scenery, I liked to visit friends,” he said. “I would travel around the world to say hello to a friend.”
Changes in academia
Silverburg said as trends in higher education have changed, so have students.
“In the past five to 10 years I have seen students continuously poorly prepared, less apt to accept personal responsibility, demanding more personal attention, shorter attention spans and less sensitive to rules and regulations,” he said.
He attributes those changes to greater access to electronic media and a lack of accountability within schools.
“There is a breakdown in the public school system,” he said. “We do not teach basic education skills to the extent and the depth that we once did.”
Not a fan of PowerPoint presentations and online software such as Blackboard, Silverburg said he still prefers to teach the old-fashioned way, without all the technology.
“Education is a cooperative effort between the students and the instructor,” he said. “Now, there is much more attention paid today to the manner in which it is delivered to students,” he said.
Those changes are another reason for Silverburg’s departure.
“It’s been a good life, I’ve enjoyed by career, but academia has changed so much that I’ve become a dinosaur,” he said. “I’ve had difficulty coping and adjusting to the trends in higher education, which I do not see as particularly helpful to young people.”
Silverburg was recently honored by his former students and colleagues during a retirement dinner.
“I thought there were going to be 20 or 30 people there and I walked in to over 100,” he said.
Students from nearly every class year that Silverburg taught showed up to the event.
“It was obvious from all the people in attendance and all the stories from former students that Dr. Silverburg took his own advice — advice that I recall as being one of the most important lessons I learned from my time at Catawba,” Leonard said. “That advice is to make a difference.
“Whether you are working in the area of law or public policy, it is important to make a positive difference in whatever you do.”
Leonard said Silverburg has made a significant difference by sharing his talents with his students.
During the dinner, Silverburg found out that a committee would be establishing the Sanford R. Silverburg First Family Scholarship at Catawba, which will be designated for prospective students who intend to major in politics and pre-law.
“That was a surprise and a real honor because nothing is more important to me than scholarship,” he said.
During the dinner, McCrory remembered walking into Silverburg’s class as an idealistic 17-year-old freshman. “You showed me leadership, how to debate and you allowed me debate. You shaped my opinions and thank God, I changed some of those,” he said.
Earlier this week, McCrory told the Post that Silverburg made a “big difference” in his life. “He gave me some tough love and challenged me to get ready for the future,” he said.
Contact reporter Sarah Campbell at 704-797-7683.
By Sarah Campbell