Professor Spotlight: James Aton

He has walked the sidewalks of Southern Utah University’s campus and the trails of the desert for the past forty years. Using his love for nature and the American culture he has written seven books, numerous articles and even helped produce two films — all while teaching full time.

Originally from Kentucky, Dr. James M. Aton received a B.A. in English from Spring Hill College in 1971, an M.A in English from the University of Kentucky in 1977 and a Ph.D in American Literature from Ohio University in 1981.

Dr. Aton began teaching at SUU in 1980 and after forty years will be retiring at the end of the Spring 2020 semester.

Originally Dr. Aton came to Cedar City because of an adventure gone awry. He first ventured to southern Utah in the fall of ‘79 to hike the Great Wall Canyon of Zion National Park. Unfortunately, he was hiking alone and had a bad fall. He fractured his pelvis and shoulder and could not move. Thankfully, he was found by sunset and was rushed to St. George for treatment.

While laid up in the hospital, Dr. Aton became friends with a man named Mark Meinert who was the head of the rescue team. Meinert was friends with Michael Cohen, a professor at SUU looking for a one-year replacement.

“It was an amazing coincidence that I came here to visit and found out there was a job opening,” Dr. Aton said. “I finished my doctorate and I had two job offers and this is the one I really wanted. I was so lucky. This is the place I wanted to be.”

David Lee, the chairman of the English department at the time, hired Dr. Aton full time after completing one year of teaching.

If Dr. Aton had to dedicate his time teaching at SUU to one person, he says it would be David Lee.

“He retired in 2003, but he is the reason I came here. He saw something when I came out to interview and hired me when he could have hired anybody. It changed my life.”

Over the past 40 years, Dr. Aton has used every opportunity to learn both in the classroom and abroad. He was twice the recipient of the Visiting Fulbright Scholar grant in American Studies. This state department program allowed him to teach at Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta, Indonesia from 1989-1990 and Sichuan University in Chengdu, the People’s Republic of China from 1997-98.

“I have loved teaching the students at SUU but when I went [to Indonesia and China] I felt like, ‘Ah, this is what I was meant to do,’ to talk about American culture to people who are not a part of American culture.”

In between classes and teaching abroad, Dr. Aton has always had a side project to work on or a paper to write. One of his favorite scholarly projects is the book he wrote about his deceased artist and friend, Jimmie Jones. 

Dr. Aton first met Jones in 1980 when he first moved to southern Utah and they were friends until his death in 2009. “I’m a researcher and I can write biographies and I love art, but it really pushed me to learn a lot outside the normal things I do. And then the fact that Jimmie was a good friend made it a labor of love learning about his life from his family and friends and getting to know them and these great stories.”

The rest of Dr. Aton’s scholarly research focuses on the history and landscape of the Colorado Plateau, so writing the story of Jimmie Jones was a unique project for Aton and one dear to his heart.

At the moment Dr. Aton is not working on a project, which is a rare occurrence that hasn’t happened in the past 20 years. Instead, he is focused on living in the moment as a professor for SUU.

“I have a stack of papers here and I’m getting ready for classes tomorrow. I feel underwater all the time and I’m trying to keep on top of it. Mostly that is where my mental energy is. I think it will hit me once I retire and I don’t have to wake up at 5:40 in the morning to get ready for everything.”

Reflecting on the students, faculty and colleagues he has interacted with for decades, Dr. Aton looks back on the adventure that got him here and the adventures he has had over the past forty years with gratitude. 

“I’m amazingly grateful that I had the opportunity to be at the institution to interact with students and live in this amazing place. I’m the luckiest guy around.”


Story by: Cassidy Harmon
Photos Courtesy of James Aton