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Tierney Time at Brandywine 

Photo of Professor Tierney Rowing

It’s not every day that a person can show strong life resiliency when dealt a bad deck of cards. One of three Brandywine chemistry teachers, John Tierney has been able to overcome unfortunate circumstances that has turned into remarkable success thus far at the age of 64.

Tierney is very well known around the Brandywine campus, as he is in the midst of his thirty-first year as one of Brandywine’s family members. Born in London to Irish parents, Tierney moved to the United States in 1974 after teaching two years in the UK, with the hopes of advancing his teaching career.

“I wanted to teach at Temple because I knew Philadelphia was a place where I could study chemistry and grow,” Tierney said.

While living in London as a child, Tierney attended a secondary school which consisted of a school made up of students ages 11-18. As an 11-year old, Tierney began to take chemistry classes, which would later become the gateway to pursuing a career as a chemistry teacher.

“I started doing chemistry from age 11,” said Tierney. “I had good teachers. They made it enjoyable.”

Tierney first became a Brandywine faculty member in 1983. However, from 1999-2001, Tierney took a break from teaching and worked for a pharmaceutical company. He later realized that he preferred the teaching environment over working in pharmaceutics.

“There are worse politics in that industry than here (teaching),” he said. “It’s always been a pleasant experience with the students (at Brandywine).”

In choosing Brandywine, Tierney said he “fell into” a teaching position at Brandywine. Tierney was sitting in the chem department at Temple at the time when the University received a call from Ed Tomesko who was searching for an employee for a part-time job at Brandywine.

It’s been smooth-sailing for Tierney ever since – up until 2008 when Tierney had his first traumatic experience.

Something was suddenly wrong with the feeling in Tierney’s ears while sitting at home on the computer, so with the feeling of worry, he and his wife immediately headed to the hospital to figure out the problem. It was discovered that while sitting at home with the feeling that his ear was being filled with large amounts of water, he experienced sudden sensorineural hearing loss, or SSHL. SSHL happens when a person loses hearing very quickly, in which it can happen instantly or over a span of several days. In Tierney’s case, the impact was immediate.

“I realized one second I could hear and I was typing on the computer, and another second I couldn’t hear and it was like my ear was filling up with water.”

Tierney has been living partially deaf for the last 6 years, not being able to hear out of his left ear. However, the experience has made him humble and more sensitive to others who have disabilities.

“I’m much more empathetic with people with any sort of disability now, not that I wasn’t empathetic before. It has just sort of hit home.”

Being partially deaf has had no effect on the measure of success he has had over the course of his adult life. He recently started coaching rowing at Unionville High School, the school in which his youngest daughters is currently enrolled. Since he was a teenager, Tierney has been passionate about rowing, as this year marks his fiftieth year attached to the sport.

Perhaps what’s even more impressive than that is what Tierney has done in that remarkable span of 50 years as a rower. Tierney rowed at an elite level in international competitions. He has been involved in the U.S. Olympic rowing team as a team leader and team coach. Assuming the role as a team leader gives him the power to speak for the team. Tierney has participated in the Pan Am games in 1991 and the Barcelona Olympics 1992, respectively. However, one of Tierney’s most gratifying moments came when he helped someone else make it big in the Olympics.

“One of the biggest thrills was coaching a 42-year old woman (from 1990-1991) who went on to win a silver medal,” said Tierney. She competed in a two-person boat in a women’s lightweight event, won trials, and made the Pan Ams team in 1991.

As a teacher, though, Tierney wishes to educate his students that the concept of chemistry impacts how we live our lives.

“I’m hoping they show an appreciation of how much the world around them is impacted by chemistry. That’s the major thing…I’m trying to challenge students to think critically – and hopefully by the end of the semester, the students will be the ones asking me the questions.”

To Tierney, the most important thing is to see his students live in each moment, seize the day, and follow what they are most passionate about.

“I think students should follow their passion,” he said. “The thing is, I often see that students in programs because their parents want them to be in them and they are doing it to please their parents. You’ll end up being miserable in life if you’re not doing what you’re passionate about.”

And for Tierney, sticking to his passions has lead him pretty far in life – that and refusing to let any obstacle get the best of him.

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