Geology professor wins highest award

Rex Hanger receives 2018-19 Teaching Excellence Award

Olivia Storey, Assistant News Editor

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Every year, the UW-System Board of Regents selects three professors from any UW school to receive the highest award in the system, the Teaching Excellence Award. One of this year’s winners was no other than UW-W’s own Rex Hanger, a geology professor whose love of rocks has stayed with him since he was a child.

“In school, I was a little science kid, and my teachers always pushed me to be a doctor,” Hanger said. “But, early on, I fell into rocks and fossils.”

Growing up as an Army brat, Hanger got to explore the world and the rocks that came with it. From being born in Germany and bouncing around to finally residing in Texas, he got to collect and study every rock that he found.

“To me, they were like free toys,” Hanger said. “I could just go out and collect these cool things. I didn’t have to buy them, like Legos or Hot Wheels.”

Hanger knew from the age of 11 that he wanted to continue playing with his free toys for the rest of his life. It wasn’t until high school when a counselor told him he could major in geology in college that his career path began.

Following college, Hanger taught at George Washington University for a number of years before they shut down their geology department. He went to UW-Madison for a year as a visiting professor, then found a home here at UW-W.

“I haven’t looked back since,” Hanger said.

Hanger has taught in the geology department of UW-W for 19 years and has loved every minute of his job.

“I feel like I’m paid to play,” he said. “The excitement comes first. I tell people there’s a lot of hard work involved, but what keeps you going is that buzz.”

Hanger has won many awards here on campus, including the Teaching Excellence Award for the College of Letters and Sciences, then the Teaching Excellence Award for all of UW-W. It was no surprise that he chose to apply for the highest UW-System award.

“I thought I had little chance, because you’re up against the best teachers in the entire system,” Hanger said. “But, I put my [application] together and sent it in and thought, ‘we’ll see’.”

Hanger got first notice that he had won the Teaching Excellence Award in February.

“I was floored,” he said. “I was sitting in my office and I let out a yelp. But, then they told me I couldn’t tell anyone until April 5.”

Keeping this a secret wasn’t easy for Hanger. He naturally told his wife, but he had to come into work everyday not being able to scream it off the rooftops.

When the press release was sent out in early April, he was finally able to tell people about how all of his hard work paid off.

Taking the trip to Madison to receive the award was an emotional journey for Hanger.

“The award was to be given in Van Hise Hall,” he said. “I was really excited about that. Van Hise was a famous geologist at Madison. From where I parked, I passed Chamberlin Hall, which was named after another famous geologist.”

Being able to see so many buildings named after some of the most famous people in his field gave him a great sense of confidence heading to the ceremony.

“I rode the elevator up to the eighteenth floor, and it looked like I was going to court,” he said. “There were so many people in suits, and they’re used to wearing them and I’m not.”

Hanger recalled the media area inside the conference room as well as the entire Board of Regents meeting before finally accepting his award.

“They introduced me, and said I could speak for about two minutes,” he said. “I stumbled through that, and then I got a standing ovation. It was a surprise. You don’t get those things often in life, in this job, so it was very nice.”

Now that Hanger has won one of the highest awards in Wisconsin, he’s ready to tackle his next project.

“I would like to expand on my high impact practices,” Hanger said. “I got the award largely for my students, doing undergraduate research. I take a lot of students out into the field with me, and they study rocks and fossils. I’m starting to tap into the idea of how great these high impact practices are for people.”

Hanger hopes to incorporate these practices into the classroom, making it accessible to all students.

“I want to give everyone a taste of it,” he said. “Hopefully, it’ll turn on some lights and get people into it.”

Hanger is looking forward to his future years at UW-W and hopes to get more awards throughout his time here.