Tom Winter likes to tell this story.
The 69-year-old professor is standing in an elevator, skateboard in hand.
A student looks at the professor's wispy white hair and wire-rimmed glasses. Then he looks at the skateboard. He accusingly turns to the professor and asks, “You don’t ride that thing, do you?”
The professor turns to the student and replies, “You’re a freshman, aren’t you?”
Students, faculty and a legion of Internet fans know Winter as the skateboarding professor. Winter has taught classics and religious studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln since 1970, but after this summer session, he’s rolling into retirement.
Surrounded by floor-to-ceiling bookcases in his office, 940 Oldfather Hall, Winter checks his Facebook messages on his MacBook Pro.
The black and purple Tony Hawk skater shoes on his feet are scuffed from pushing and grinding his skateboard across UNL’s campus. His red tie has a gold plane pin. (Flying is another of Winter’s hobbies.)
On this afternoon, his latest Facebook message is from a girl in Germany. She saw him skating on the Internet and wanted to get to know the man behind -- or in this case, on -- the board.
Last April, a student snapped a picture of him skateboarding across campus and posted it to Facebook. The photo found its way to Reddit.com and became the top item on the social news and entertainment website.
Suddenly, everyone knew the skateboarding professor.
“There’s a contradiction here,” Winter said. “You can’t say you’re internationally famous or notorious because if you have to tell people that, you’re not.”
Internationally famous or not, Winter has become somewhat of a celebrity on the UNL campus.
Chancellor Harvey Perlman mentioned Winter in one of his “Perls of Knowledge” videos, a zany web series where the chancellor talks zombies, Love Library and the Harlem Shake.
“And we have a professor who skateboards to class,” Perlman said in the video. “A skateboarding professor!”
Winter giggles when the video is mentioned, then lowers his voice to do his best Perlman imitation: “Your move Northwestern!”
A fun bit of irony. Winter received his master's degree from Northwestern in 1965 and his Ph.D. from Northwestern in 1968.
For those who know him, the professor's most impressive feat is not the skateboarding or his dramatic theater performances or that he played second violin in the Lincoln Civic Orchestra.
Or his plane model building. Or the math club he started with other UNL professors. Or the box of medals he won at the Cornhusker State Games for speed skating. Or any of the other numerous hobbies and interests that have enchanted Winter over the years.
No, this Renaissance man’s most impressive feat has been performed every day in the classroom.
Brian Chaffin first encountered Winter in the fall of 1984 in a Greek class.
“I know he’s the reason I can still give you chunks of Homer in Greek,” Chaffin said. “He drummed it into my head, and it didn’t seem like he was drumming it in my head.”
Kristin Unruh graduated from UNL in December 2011. She took Latin from Winter four days a week.
“He was learning from us in addition to teaching us,” Unruh said. “He showed so much love to everyone. I don’t think I ever saw him angry with anyone.”
Chaffin and Unruh both said the animated and enthusiastic Winter made every class entertaining. Chaffin admired Winter’s unabashed determination to be himself and his belief that every student in his class had something to give.
“The thought that he won’t be there to take a class with is sad and kind of panic inducing," Chaffin said. "I haven’t taken a class with him in 21 years, but just knowing he was there was comforting.”
The feeling is mutual for Winter. He knows what he'll miss most about being a professor: the students.
He tips his head back and closes his eyes, reflecting on his 45 years teaching and all the students he’s seen. He lifts his head back up and opens those eyes, having reached a conclusion about a lifetime spent in education.
“They can all do it,” Winter said. “Some are obviously bright. Some are bright, but introverted. And life complicates things for some of them, but be patient and encouraging with all of them and by golly, they’ll come through.”
Winter has big plans for his retirement.
He has his pilot’s license and has equipped his Cessna 150 with a bicycle that can be folded and stored behind the two side-by-side seats. He plans to fly to various small towns in Nebraska, land on grass strips and do some bicycle tours. He thinks he’ll start with Geneva.
“I believe I will wake up every morning knowing exactly what I’m going to do that day, and I may end up wondering how I ever found time for a full-time job.”