After only the first day of classes, even when teaching in the R. Benjamin Wiley Arts & Sciences Center, room 117 — one of Edinboro University’s few large lecture halls — one professor can point to any student in the room and say that student’s name. Even after summer vacation, he can tell you exactly where a previous student sat during one of his spring 2015 classes.
When students enter one of 49-year-old Dr. Joseph Laythe’s classes, they are asked to write their names and something about themselves on a note card. They are then asked to bring the note card to the front of the classroom and hand it to their professor. Once everyone has done so, Laythe proceeds to recite the name of each student in the room. “How can I teach a class if I don’t know who I’m teaching?” he asked.
Laythe has been a professor at Edinboro University for nearly 20 years. He traveled to Pennsylvania from his Northwestern United States home for his first full-time teaching position after earning his PhD. at the University of Oregon. Originally from Boise, Idaho, Laythe decided to attend Carroll College, a small, Catholic college located in Montana, upon his graduation from Borah High School. He furthered his education at Portland State University, but his loyalty lies as a “loyal, fighting duck” with Oregon.
Laythe is happy when he is in a classroom. So, although being miles from his home, Laythe enjoys teaching at Edinboro. “I take my work in the classroom seriously,” he said. “I love what I do. I have the greatest job in the world.” Laythe loves being in the classroom so much so that from March 2013, when he was first diagnosed with cancer, until today, when he continues to battle cancer, he has been on Edinboro’s campus whenever possible, only taking off short periods of time for surgeries and occasional days for other medical reasons.
“So long as I wasn’t in the hospital, I was in the classroom, and for me to not be in the classroom, would have been the kiss of death,” Laythe said. “I like being in the classroom. I feel good when I’m in the classroom. I forget what’s happening to me outside of the classroom when I’m in the classroom.”
He had been enjoying a cocktail with his wife, Chris Laythe, on a Friday night, when he noticed a pea-size bump on his leg. His initial thought was that he had bumped it, but it seemed strange that the bump didn’t hurt. A week later, the bump hadn’t disappeared. It was another Friday night and he was having another cocktail with his wife at that time, but resolved to visit a doctor on Monday.
“They did scans and they couldn’t figure out what it was,” he said. “Then, ultimately, they did a biopsy and discovered that it was cancer.” The tumor grew quickly, so quickly that within six weeks “what was the size of a pea grew to the size of a football.”
It surrounded his femur. In May 2013, it had to be entirely removed and replaced with a metal rod. Two years after surgery, his leg remains swollen. Nevertheless, Laythe’s battle with cancer wasn’t over yet. In December 2013, doctors discovered ping-pong-ball-sized tumors in both his lungs. After six months of chemotherapy, those tumors were surgically removed. That’s not the end.
“Unfortunately, the tumors are back, and they continue to grow and are growing rapidly, and I can’t get any more chemo; they can’t do the radiation,” Laythe said. “Basically, I’m trying to hold out on my own… so it doesn’t look good, but I’ve led a blessed life; I’m lucky to have lived this life I love.”
Laythe is organized. He has a filing cabinet of note cards in his office, and at home, the clothes in his closet are colorcoordinated. He plans each day with an outline. “Roman Numeral Number one is ‘Introduction.’ [That means] get up, get ready, drink my vegetable juice prepared for me by my wife,” he said. The other Roman Numerals include his classes, his office hours and other obligations throughout the day. He says it’s his organization that allows him to be productive.
“If you outline your life, you can start checking things off,” he said, “so it’s a checklist, but in outline form, and it keeps me on track as to what I want to accomplish.”
In spare time, Laythe enjoys spending time with his family. His wife, Chris, is a therapist, and his two daughters both attend college in the northwestern United States. The oldest, a senior, attends the University of Oregon, and the youngest is a freshman at Seattle University. When together, Laythe enjoys playing “nerdy board games” with them; Five Tribes is his favorite. He also enjoys reading and writing.
Laythe has three published books, “Invisible City: Erie, Pennsylvania, 1930s-1960s,” “Engendered Death: Pennsylvania Women Who Kill” and “Crime and Punishment in Oregon, 1875-1915: A Study of Four Communities.” He received Edinboro University’s 2004 Educator of the Year Award and its 2012 Scholar of the Year Award.
“Don’t go to college to find a career, go to college to find a life,” Laythe said. “Study and do what you have a passion for, not what you think is going to make you money, because if you love what you do, you’ll do it well, and if you do it well, you’ll be compensated.”
“So, don’t go into education because you think there’s a job at the end of the line or don’t go into criminal justice because you think there’s a job at the end of the line. You study what you want to study because it makes you a better person, it enriches your life.”
And his students notice this general passion.
“I’ve only had him for a week so far, and I can already tell that he’s such a great professor,” student, Aly Boyd said in a Facebook post. “I’ve never seen someone teach with so much passion before.”
Tracy Geibel is the campus life editor for The Spectator. She can be reached at email@example.com