There is a scene in Steven Spielberg's 1977 classic science fiction film, "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," in which lab-coated scientists crammed shoulder-to-shoulder peer intently out as an alien spacecraft lands.
Freeze the frame. Look closely at the tall man entering the picture from the left. He's about 32, wears sunglasses and a white lab coat, and is jockeying for a prime spot from which to observe the first close encounter of extraterrestrial life.
For a nano-second, Dr. Tom Bilbo is immortalized on the big screen. It's a bit part, these "extras" who briefly flirted with fame and the famous like Spielberg and Richard Dreyfus during the summer of 1976 when Hollywood came to film in a couple of aircraft hangars at Mobile's Brookley Field.
Bilbo said he was in several additional scenes, repeatedly climbing up and down ladders to observe the "spacecraft" for take after take. Most of those cinematic moments must have ended up on the cutting room floor, he surmised.
A Special Moment
Carrying the University of Mobile Ceremonial Mace, Dr. Bilbo led the procession
of faculty and students into the Mobile Civic Center for graduation exercises May 2012. It is an honor reserved for a retiring professor who has served the university well, whom colleagues respect and students love.
It was a special moment.
"It was more emotional than I thought it would be," Bilbo said, admitting he was misty-eyed as he walked at the head of the procession then stood at attention on the stage, mace in hand, watching the 2012 graduating class file in.
"I thought back over my 36 years at the university, all the faculty and students I worked with. I thought about colleagues like Dr. Elizabeth French, Dwight Steedley, Billy Hinson, Ted Mashburn, and all the others. I felt like it was an honor to work with them and teach with them," he said.
He thought about the students – 36 years of science majors who are now pathologists, science teachers, doctors – 36 years of students who took a few science courses such as meteorology simply to fill an elective requirement, but learned also about encouragement, passion and caring.
"I was just thinking back over the years. I was 32 when I started here and I had never worked any place more than three years before that. It just felt like home after a while," he said.
As the last notes of the processional faded away, Bilbo's thoughts turned to a more practical matter.
"I was wondering if I was putting the mace in the stand right, and hoping I didn't blow that," he said with a laugh.
A Cherished Honor
Before he arrived at the University of Mobile, then Mobile College, Dr. Bilbo had earned a Bachelor of Science in science education from Mississippi College, a master's in science education from Auburn University, and received a National Science Foundation grant to earn his master's in combined sciences from the University of Mississippi. After obtaining this degree, he took mobile science labs to middle schools in Harrison County, MS, and conducted labs at schools that were damaged by Hurricane Camille and without adequate facilities or scientific equipment. He then earned a doctorate in science education and biology from the University of Southern Mississippi.
He heard from a friend about a job opening at Mobile College, and arrived just in time to participate in the city's fascination with extraterrestrials and Hollywood. When classes began in fall of 1976, Bilbo was a biology instructor in the Division of Natural Science – a department that included only five faculty and encompassed biology, chemistry and mathematics. He taught anatomy and physiology, ecology, general biology and labs.
During his career, Bilbo was honored with several awards from the school, including the Circle K Division Teaching Award in 1978 and the "Uncommon Fox Award" in 1984, given in recognition of uncommon, unusual and unrelenting service by a faculty member.
He received the prestigious William A. Megginson Teaching Award in 1997 for demonstrating excellence in teaching.
But his most cherished honor occured in 1980, when he met Jerre Kannon.
Jerre recalls it like this: "In January 1980, Dr. Eugene Keebler (academic vice president and dean) was speaking at an evangelism conference in Valdosta, GA where my dad was a pastor and in attendance. At the conclusion of his talk, Dr. Keebler put out a request to pray for nursing instructors that he needed to hire.
"At the end of the session, my parents went down to speak to Dr. Keebler and told him that I was in my last semester at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and they were wondering where I was going to get a job. The Lord answered prayer in an amazing fashion! I was hired and began teaching nursing and religion at the University of Mobile in summer 1980," she said.
That summer, Tom met Jerre. They were engaged in September, married by Christmas, and will celebrate their 32nd anniversary this year. Jerre was an instructor in nursing and religion from 1980-85, took a break from the classroom to be a stay-at-home mom, then taught for another stint in the School of Nursing from 2002-2007.
Bilbo reprised his brief cinematic appearance in 2009, appearing in the YouTube classic "University of Mobile 12 Days of Registration" promoting early registration. Wearing a white lab coat, carrying a colorful model of the sun, earth and moon, the professor is seen hurrying across the screen as students sing "On the second day of registration I really meant to go, and get Meteorology with Dr. Bilbo."
The jingle played off the well-known fact that Bilbo's popular meteorology class was one of the first to fill up during registration each year.
Meghan Dove '08
, said students signed up for meteorology thinking it would be an easy class, "but you really had to work at it. It was easier to comprehend compared to biology and chemistry. It's something you can use in everyday life."
A member of the UMobile golf team from Canada, Dove said she took the class because her teammates told her it was the best class to take to educate Canadians on hurricanes and tornadoes vs. snowstorms.
"There was never a dull moment in his class. You were either laughing or intrigued by what he was saying," said Dove, now social community coordinator in the marketing department of The Royal Bank of Canada in Toronto.
John Blackwell '01
said in a post on the University of Mobile Alumni Facebook page that Bilbo was a fun professor. "Humility and accessibility were traits that he exemplified," said the associate pastor and minister of music at Bayou Sara Baptist Church in Saraland, AL. "He was a very kind and caring professor! A tremendous man of character."
Debby Faught '12
, an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer serving in Tuscaloosa, AL as media and public relations coordinator with United Saints Recovery Project, said, "Dr. Bilbo is a very passionate person and you can tell that by the way he teaches. Not everyone can talk about clouds and weather patterns for hours and keep people interested. He prepared countless labs that let us put the text into practice."
Bilbo said he loved teaching meteorology – a course he started teaching around 1985.
"Once I taught it once or twice, I realized it brings all the sciences together," he said.
Then there are the Bilboisms.
In addition to a propensity to talk about the weather in Yuma, AZ, Bilbo was known for his flat delivery of witty sayings, dry sense of humor and puns. If you weren't listening closely, you were likely to miss them, so students paid attention.
Dove recalled Bilbo's approach to asking questions or imparting information.
"He would make a statement kind of like in the form of a question. Then he'd give the answer, and he'd say 'Riiiggghhhht.' If there was no reaction from us, he'd say the other 'Riiiggghhhht.'"
"He's a lot of fun to be around," said Derek Dupuis '08
, 7th grade math teacher at Faith Academy in Mobile.
"He liked to give his 'seal of approval' and make the noise a seal would make – urrrk, urrrk, urrrk – and clap his hands like a seal," Dupuis said.
Bilbo recalled the time he decided to stop with the seal of approval. It was during a dinner at the Grand Hotel celebrating UMobile President Mark Foley's decade anniversary at the school. Bilbo had been the faculty member representative on the presidential search committee that recommended Foley, and he and Jerre were at the celebration dinner.
Bilbo gave Foley his seal of approval.
"He just smiled and acknowledged it," Bilbo recalled, adding he realized as he was giving his seal of approval that it might not be the most appropriate setting.
Smoothing over embarrassing moments – helping students learn despite a wrong answer in class – this is part of the approach Bilbo takes in class and why his trademark 'Riiighhhht, Riiighhhht" is so often lovingly mimicked by students.
"Usually I try to smooth over the wrong answers," Bilbo said. "I'll say, good answer, good answer, but let's go with...and I'll say the right answer. I hate to put anybody down or embarrass them for the wrong answer.
"I want them to respond in class. If you are negative or cut them off and embarrass them, they will never do it again. You want them to talk. You want to encourage them, not discourage them.
"I think it's probably the most important thing I did while I was at the university, both for students and beginning faculty. Everybody is unsure of themselves – and faculty needed encouragement just like students need encouragement. They all knew I had their best interest at heart."
Dr. Larissa Parsley Walker, chair of the Department of Natural Sciences and assistance professor of biology, said Bilbo is "a wonderful blend of both experience and enthusiasm, which earned him respect from his students and friendship with his colleagues.
"If I could describe him in one word, it would be 'encourager.' He encouraged his students to do their best in everything they did, not just in the classroom. He genuinely enjoyed getting to know students, and he would chat with them about football as often as he may give them advice about a personal situation in their lives. They valued his opinion, and this motivated them in a great way."
Walker said Bilbo encouraged his colleagues just as much as he did students.
"Personally, I consider Dr. Bilbo to be my mentor, the seasoned and wise professor who always had time to talk with me about the good days and the bad. Like his students, I knew he believed in me, and that gave me confidence in my first years at UMobile."
Associate Professor of Biology Steve Carey describes Bilbo as "a true Southern gentleman. He always treated his students and co-workers with respect and had a genuine concern for the welfare of his students."
Dupuis said some of the lessons he learned from Bilbo had more to do with how the professor approached teaching – lessons Dupuis uses now in his own classes.
"You have to care about your students, and you have to let them know that you care. When they know you care about them, they are willing to go above and beyond and work harder for you in class. It was always clear that he cared about me as a student," Dupuis said. "I'll always remember that, even years after I had his class, he remembered who I was and was genuine in his concern about how I was doing."
Encountering the Future
Bilbo said he never thought he'd work at one place for so long.
"It's hard to believe. It sneaks up on you," he said.
He prepared for retirement by taking an art class from Phil Counselman, associate professor of art, to revive a long-held interest in painting. He and Jerre have already taken one trip to visit family, and plan more. One trip from years past sticks in his mind, when they stopped by Devil's Tower National Monument in Wyoming, where part of "Close Encounters" was filmed. He gave his movie I.D. badge to the museum there.
He's been back on campus some this fall.
"I don't want to make a nuisance of myself, but I want to be back from time to time. I miss everybody," he said.
Former student Dupuis said he's sorry future UMobile students won't get to experience Bilbo's "hilarity." but he has no doubt that Bilbo's impact will be remembered.
"He's kind of a legend." Dupuis said. "He lives up to his legend."