Dr. Michael Cass known for his wisdom, wit and mentorship | Mercer Legends

Dr. Mike Cass sitting in the grass on campus with a book.
Dr. Mike Cass in 1977. Mercer archives photos

As a Mercer University professor, Dr. Michael Cass was a mentor to students and faculty alike, as well as a champion of liberal arts education and freedom of thought. Here’s how he became a Mercer Legend.

Dr. Michael Cass

Mercer connection: Mercer professor

Years at Mercer: Faculty, 1969-2008; emeritus professor, 2008-present

What he did: Dr. Cass holds a bachelor’s degree in English from University of the South and a Ph.D. in American studies from Emory University. He joined the faculty at Mercer in 1969 as an English professor, bringing with him expertise in American literature with emphasis on Southern literature and 20th century poetry.

He was involved in the University’s Freshman Seminar Program, for which he was director, instructor and curriculum planner. He also served as a faculty supervisor for The Cluster student newspaper for many years. He was chosen by the student body as the 1989-90 Student Government Association Outstanding Faculty Member and awarded the University’s Pinckney Daniel Pollock Professorship of English and Interdisciplinary Studies in the early 2000s. 

Dr. Cass and other Mercer legends like Dr. Ted Nordenhaug, Dr. Joseph “Papa Joe” Hendricks, Tom Trimble and Dr. Peter Brown developed the University’s successful Great Books program, which took three years of planning and debuted in spring 1984. Students in the program, which is one of two tracks through which liberal arts and sciences undergraduates can complete general education course requirements, learn how to express their beliefs and provide evidence for their thoughts as they study foundational literature in the Western tradition.

Dr. Mike Cass reading a paper in an office.
Dr. Mike Cass in 1975.

Why he is a legend: As a Mercer faculty member, Dr. Cass was “known for his wisdom and wit, his perceptive interpretation of literature and his dogged determination to see tasks that win his support through to completion,” according to his recognition as the Spencer B. King Distinguished Professor in the 1987 commencement program.

Dr. Cass was a steadfast proponent of the importance of liberal arts education and was fully devoted to liberal arts study and teaching. He challenged his students in the classroom, took a great interest in their academic and personal development, and amply provided his support and encouragement.

Dr. Mike Cass in 1996.

He was a champion of freedom of thought, which was evident in his teaching as well as in his role with Great Books. Dr. Cass helped lay the foundation for a university program that has become one of the most established and reputable of its kind. He was a “magical teacher” who effortlessly brought traditional texts to life and made sure his students realized the worth and value of their thoughts, said Mercer Professor Dr. Charlotte Thomas, who was a student and then colleague of Dr. Cass.

Eric O’Dell, associate professor of art, put it another way.

“He hollers, grunts, twists, speaks in tongues, trembles, shakes, rattles, rocks and rolls — and will offer you a bribe to go to a poetry reading. He fights dirty, the only way to teach,” O’Dell said in a 2008 Cluster story about Dr. Cass’ retirement.

Dr. Cass was also known for his musical talent. Along with other Interdisciplinary Studies Department faculty, he sang and played guitar frequently for University events, including every Great Books senior banquet and Freshman Seminar Program Wilderness Weekend. Dr. Cass often performed what became known as “the canon,” a set of popular songs that the professors had rewritten to relate to Mercer.

Deeply committed to Mercer’s religious heritage, he could be found in Newton Chapel at 10 a.m. almost every Wednesday for Mercer worship. He also spoke regularly during the services. 

Quotable: “When I joined the Mercer faculty, no one was more supportive of me than Mike. He was careful to treat me like a colleague and not a student from the beginning, even though I had been in his classroom only a few years before. He made time to help me find my way at Mercer. He wrote dozens of letters, championed my successes, and was always there to help me convert my failures into valuable lessons. No one could ask for a better mentor.” — Dr. Charlotte Thomas, Mercer professor of philosophy and director of the Great Books Program

Dr. Mike Cass in 1971.

Mercer Legends is a series that highlights iconic figures who left a lasting impact on the University and its faculty, staff and students, as well as the community.


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