Compensated via students' success stories

I don’t know how many times back then I heard the tired phrase, “Teaching is its own reward.” This phrase is most often uttered by those who are underpaying teachers. Or if the aforementioned skinflints wanted to rationalize why teachers are so poorly paid, they might pull out this ancient George Bernard Shaw slight: “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.”

Now while none of the thousands of us in Las Vegas who spent years in front of a classroom did so to accrue a flush bank account, and we knew going into the profession that we were looking at a future of zip-locked lunches of bologna sandwiches rather than waiters inquiring whether we wanted balsamic vinaigrette on our salad, there had to be something less tangible that drew us to the profession.

That something is the knowledge that we might in some way have moved a life forward, or opened a window of curiosity, or shone a light on a career path for a student that he or she found rewarding.

Recently, by sheer coincidence, I have been in touch with three former students from my years of teaching writing and literature at UNLV, and their stories provide all the compensation I require to rationalize that self-inflicted stint of semi-poverty.

David Roger, just then out of Bishop Gorman High School, took my freshman writing class in 1979. Quiet and unassuming, he sat up front, paid close attention and earned an A in the class, although he’d probably tell you he was a B student. All these years later, he is general counsel for the Las Vegas police officers union, having served 10 years as Clark County district attorney. David told me he doubts that anyone would remember him from Bishop Gorman. That’s because he worked his way through high school in the cart barns at two local golf courses and didn’t have time to socialize. His father was a showroom waiter and his mother a bank teller, so David helped with his tuition.

Among the nationally profiled cases David prosecuted was the Ted Binion murder trial in the late 1990s, for which he won a conviction (later overturned on a technicality), and the O.J. Simpson hotel robbery case. After years in which Simpson was able to enjoy golf on sun-baked Florida fairways, it was David’s diligence that at last sent the former gridiron star to prison, a fate he had shockingly dodged in what seemed an open-and-shut double-murder case against him years before in Los Angeles.

I would hope that David learned a smidgen of verbal and writing skills in that class years ago.

If so, that was my payment.

Julie Murray heads up the Moonridge Group, which brings together philanthropists and elected officials to create strong coalitions that tackle a wide range of pressing social issues, such as alleviating hunger, overcoming poverty through access to education, securing low-cost housing and supporting the Las Vegas senior population. Before that, Julie was the founding president and CEO of Three Square, the area’s food bank and distribution hub.

Her fundraising efforts at Three Square expanded the group’s annual budget to $55 million and connected it to the Feeding America network of food banks. Today, Three Square distributes 16 million meals annually through 600 program partners throughout Southern Nevada. Knowing Julie as I do, I can report that she never undertook these causes simply to further her own career and business profile. She did it all because she cares deeply about helping those less fortunate.

Julie says she got her first boost of inspiration in grade school by selling the most raffle tickets to aid a senior center. “I learned there’s no better feeling than helping uplift another person’s life,” she says. She adds that a leadership class she took at UNLV gave her the confidence to create her own philanthropic project.

Did Julie learn a single thing from my writing class that helped her achieve these terrific accomplishments? Maybe, maybe not. All I know is that years later, she is a wonderful communicator with a gift for language, and she now teaches a graduate-level class at UNLV. She is the embodiment of someone who can do a whole lot of noble things, and yet she still teaches.

That is my payment.

Jesse Ferrell, another of my students from the late 1970s, is a business coach, a published author and a talented public speaker. While Jesse has the kind of ebullient personality and spirit that no teacher could ever forget, when my son and I bumped into him recently at a Jethro Tull concert, I was surprised to learn just how far he’d taken those attributes.

Among Jesse’s dozens of clients are Apple and Caesars Entertainment, many professional athletes, politicians and business leaders, and even his alma mater, UNLV. He has received a five-star rating as a business coach from all of them.

Jesse is most proud of the fact that after 27 years in the gaming and hospitality industry, he had the courage to break away and find his true calling in coaching people to make wise decisions in their personal lives and in their businesses. As we spoke recently, Jesse said he vividly remembers a teacher telling him that he should take so much pride in his writing that whenever he was writing anything — be it a report, business correspondence or even a letter to a friend — he should write it as if he never wanted the recipient to ever throw it away.

I told him I thought that was a great bit of advice and asked him who gave it to him.

Jesse just smiled.

That was my payment.

Longtime Las Vegas resident and author Jack Sheehan’s column appears monthly. He says he loves the city, with all its wonder and weirdness, and thinks it offers the richest menu of writing material on the planet. Email him at