After 41 years, it's still a good script

John Nolan, center by sign, with a group of military students at Normandy.
Staff Writer

A century ago, they took assignments in rural schools, stayed awhile and then were reassigned.

Today, online classes and schools are transforming education.
Meet John Nolan. He's a combination of the two, a hybrid of old and new.

It's almost as if the 1977 graduate of Oak Hill Academy wrote his own job description and then got to live it out, he travels, he has some of the world's best-known battlefields and art centers classrooms, and serves one of the nation's greatest assets, the military.

Nolan, who is back in Clay County this week for his mother's funeral, started out on the traditional path.

He received his bachelor's degree from Centre College in Kentucky and then earned a master's and PhD from Tulane in New Orleans.
A move to Washington D.C. with his first wife provided a chance to compile research at places like the National Archives and the Library of Congress. He maintained the traditional view that he'd return to some university in the South, get a professorship and live happily ever after.

Then came an assignment to Germany, a change in status, and a new approach to education.

That's when he joined the University of Maryland University College, a hybrid institution founded in 1947 to help older adults obtain or grow their education.

In 1948, it expanded to offer courses and degrees at military bases around the world.
For Nolan, the rest is history, literally and figuratively.
"We take the university to our military personnel.

I think that's important. It's not a typical career, but the university and what it does has been the most rewarding stuff I've ever done," stated Nolan, who teachers history and American government to servicemen and women on military bases.

He's added in art history as well, teaching week-long classes taking the military to art centers like London, Brussels and Florence, Italy.

His home is in London, but he's currently living and teaching on a base in Italy.

Part of his lesson is taking soldiers to battlefields like Normandy where they can see and interpret history for themselves.

Nolan is among about 50 professors UMUC sends to live and teach military personnel on the bases where they are stationed, giving them an opportunity to earn credits toward a degree while serving their country. Another 100 or so part-time professors fill in gaps and the university uses extensive online and live-streaming courses.

In fact, it has been a pioneer in making education and degrees available online, especially for the military.
Living on bases is a rare opportunity.

"It's special being with them. And the program is a chance for them to prepare for life after the military if they don't make it a career. I had a class of soldiers who all were from poor backgrounds in West Virginia and Cleveland, Ohio. They'd all joined the military to try to get out of their circumstances and be better," Nolan explained.

While it's an opportunity to travel and teach his passions face-to-face, it is not without its challenges and even risks.
At a base in Afghanistan near the Pakistan border, he was shot at with rocket grenades.

Just hours before he was to leave Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, it was attacked by insurgents.
"I had shipped by armored vest and helmet and everything back to Europe because I was flying out the next day and thought I wouldn't need them and couldn't take them on the plane," Nolan recalled. "So I shipped them. And the base is attacked by a truck bomb and insurgents at the gate. There I was, lying in my 'secure' sleeping bag."

In Bosnia, he was with a military group and their truck broke down. As they were awaiting repairs, machine gun fire rang out.
"The truck broke down and I thought 'this is bad.' Then the shooting started and I thought, 'This is really bad.' Turned out it was a Muslim wedding down the street and the celebrators were shooting in the air," he described.
"I really feel like we've done some good for our guys. I guess I could have envisioned it when I was there at Oak Hill. If I had written the script, this is what I would have written," said Nolan, who plans to retire next year.

And he hasn't forgotten West Point. He gets back relatively often. His mother, Peggy Nolan, was buried Friday. His father, Arthur Nolan, still lives in West Point.