This is a profile story on my history professor, a controversial figure in the university for his outspoken manner and political stance. This piece is a reporting class project and isn’t published online.

Professor, cancer survivor, leads life as an adventurer

Xiani Zhong

When the sun sank below the horizon, John Sharpless was sitting on a mountaintop with a bottle of whiskey in hand;

When daylight faded in the Canadian Arctic, Sharpless fixed himself a quick meal and crawled into his tent;

On an interstate highway, Sharpless was beating the wind on a BMW R1150GS motorcycle.

Sharpless is not a guy featured in National Geographic, although perhaps he ought to be. He is a history professor at UW-Madison, a man who grew up on a Midwest farm. The close-to-nature upbringing made him an adventurer by heart, and adventures are what he takes when he’s not in class.

He flew to the Canadian Arctic after reading narratives from the 19th century by crew members who sailed to the Northwest Passage. Everyday he and his fellow travellers would walk about 20 miles in the frozen land. When the sun was out, he put on ski shoes and enjoyed the magnificent view of snow-capped mountains. When blizzards came, he hid inside his tent for a few days.

“It sounds dangerous, but once you get the routine down, it’s really very methodical,” Sharpless said. “There are a set of things to do that solves a specific problem. It’s kind of the opposite of being a teacher or a scholar, where it’s very open-ended.”

For a man in his 70s, Sharpless leads a bohemian lifestyle that provides him freedom and self-sufficiency. A single parent of two children, both of whom in their 30s now, he has the liberty to enjoy quality time alone. When he is not exploring the edge of the world, he rides his beloved motorcycle in the nature. It’s not always pleasant and relaxing – when he rode in Patagonia, it was so cold he needed to stop and warm his hands every half hour. He also rode through extreme weathers frequently. But for Sharpless, the price is worth paying to pursue the freedom he longs for.

“I think particularly for people who are middle-aged or older, a motorcycle gives an opportunity to simply get out on the open road, be free of the restraints of your life,” Sharpless said.

It’s hard to imagine a soul so outdoors oriented can settle down and do history research for over 30 years; nonetheless, teaching history is what Professor Sharpless does best. He has been a full professor in UW since 1994; the courses he teaches range from 100 level to 900 level.

“He’s known as the guy in the department who will teach classes that others don’t want to teach, like the freshman seminars,” said Dan Hummel, teaching assistant for his American history class.

Sharpless’ hard work made him “Professor of the Year” in the 1995 Badger Yearbook, and he remains “best professor ever” in many students’ hearts, according to Rate My Professors. The humorous and knowledge-rich lecture style combined with a down-to-earth personality, Hummel said, made Sharpless popular among students.

Even when he suffered from tonsil cancer in 2004, Sharpless prioritized his responsibility as a teacher. Before he received aggressive radiation and chemotherapy, losing 40 pounds in two months, he only missed one lecture, according Scott Burkhardt, history advisor, his friend and former TA.

“He was weaker than he normally would be. His throat would get dry a lot, so when he was lecturing, he had to take liquids; he changed his voice a little bit,” Burkhardt said. “It was scary to see him struggling with health problems like that.”

Sharpless compares his struggle with cancer to his expeditions. By focusing on the step ahead instead of the whole picture, he was able to deal with pains and uncertainties on his way to recovery.

“I thought of my treatment as climbing a mountain. It’s just everyday, one step at a time, I will get through this,” Sharpless said. “Don’t think about the ultimate goal, because that’s too far away. Think about the next step, and the next step, and the next step.”

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