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Millikin should stand behind Professor St. James

James Wolcott Sept. 9 1967  |   American-Statesman file photo

James Wolcott on Sept. 9, 1967 | American-Statesman file photo

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Updated: September 6, 2013 6:08AM

If you believe that a person can recover from mental illness — an outcome we all hope for — then it makes utterly no sense to call for the resignation of Millikin University professor James St. James, though horrifically he killed his family when he was 15 years old.

That’s not how the mayor sees it in Downstate Decatur, where Millikin is situated. Mayor Mike McElroy told the Sun-Times “the right thing” would be for St. James, an associate professor of psychology, to step down for the good of the university now that James’ past has become known.

A Texas newspaper recently reported that St. James is the same Jim Wolcott who sniffed glue and then killed his parents and sister 46 years ago in a small Texas town. It was a national story at the time.

But after the triple murder with a .22-caliber rifle, an all-male jury in a small Texas town found St. James, who was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, not guilty by reason of insanity. We’re guessing that small Texas towns in the 1960s were not hotbeds of bleeding-heart liberalism, so it’s safe to assume the evidence was strong that St. James really did have a mental illness. He was institutionalized at a psychiatric hospital until 1974, when he was judged sane, and then he was freed.

Every sign indicates that St. James, 61, has turned his life around since then. He attended college, eventually earning his Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Urbana in 1988, and landed his job at Millikin 27 years ago. By all accounts, he is a model teacher who is popular with students. He won the Teaching Excellence and Leadership Award at Millikin in 1987 and is chairman of Millikin’s Department of Behavior Sciences.

So far, the university is standing by him, and it should continue to do so. A statement by the university said, in part, “Given the traumatic experiences of his childhood, Dr. St. James’ efforts to rebuild his life and obtain a successful professional career have been remarkable. The University expects Dr. St. James to teach at Millikin this fall.”

Robin McGinnis, who has worked with sex offenders and now runs a Chicago criminal justice consulting firm, says that all too often people are leery of welcoming victims of mental illness back into society, even after they have overcome their illnesses.

“We need to give people an opportunity to pull their lives together and live normal, healthy lives,” McGinnis said.

St. James’ past might have been relevant when he first went to work after his release from the hospital and hadn’t yet established a track record as a productive adult. But while he changed his name — his legal right — there’s no indication he misrepresented himself while applying for jobs.

Reaction to the story on the Sun-Times website has been mixed. Many readers said St. James should resign or be shown the door, but others said he’s proved to be a responsible member of society and a good teacher and should keep his job.

If St. James isn’t qualified to keep his job at Millikin, what kind of professional job could he hold without fear of public criticism? Can a person who suffered mental illness in his youth and committed a horrible crime never put that past behind him?

Helping people who have mental illness or commit serious crimes turn their lives around is one of society’s most essential responsibilities. We should celebrate when someone does just that.

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