A grateful man: Professor John Wong teaches more than marketing


Lindsey Settle/Iowa State Daily

Teaching at Iowa State for 39 years in the marketing department, John Wong is not yet ready to retire. He still has a few more life lessons to share. 

Lindsey Settle

The Ivy College of Business has cleared out for the night, but the light is still on in the office of John Wong.

He’s sitting at his desk waiting for his students to arrive. A light Bach composition plays in the background while Wong eats his nightly snack of cheese and crackers — both he keeps stocked in his mini fridge that sits under his desk.

At 7:15 p.m., Wong shuffles to the room adjacent to his office, where his first group of students have gathered for the night to discuss their project. With a straight face he tells the students that he can’t meet with them, because their team is missing one member at the meeting. Faces draining of color and jaws dropping, they think he’s serious. Not one to prematurely quit a joke, he reaches for the doorknob. “I’m just kidding,” Wong says as he goes into his office and returns with a box of candy.

The John Wong Approach

Wong grew up in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, a suburb of the capital, Kuala Lumpur, with his sisters and mother. His father died of cancer when Wong was 10 years old, and as the only son in his family, Wong felt a sense of responsibility to care of them.

He found comfort in the First Baptist Church run by American missionaries who came from the Southern Baptist Convention. At Sunday school, he learned how to speak in front of a small crowd, a memory his childhood-friend Mervin Appana said was an early talent.

Wong attended English school in Kuala Lumpur, where he studied Shakespeare, Dickins, Bronte and Austen, but it was when he read Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in his sixth grade English writing class that he fell in love with America. Assigned to write a paper on a world figure, Wong drew Lincoln out of a hat. He proceeded to sign up for his first library card at the library, where the librarian helped edit his paper. He received an “A.” He told his mom one day he would travel to the U.S. and send for her.  

In 1969, 21-year-old Wong made the decision to leave Malaysia for Hong Kong, after racial riots between the Malays and the minority Chinese grew violent following the general election. His family supported his decision, and he left with a sense of responsibility to do right by them. 

He attended Hong Kong Baptist College, now called Hong Kong Baptist University, for three years, and met D. Elton Trueblood, a well-known quaker scholar and philosopher and Wong’s late mentor. A visiting scholar, Trueblood arranged a full tuition, room and board scholarship for Wong at Trueblood’s alma mater, William Penn College in Oskaloosa, Iowa. For Wong, it minimized a financial strain, but hard work was still ahead.

In the fall of 1972, Wong moved to the U.S. To earn some income, Wong started cleaning and taking out the trash in upperclassmen dormitory bathrooms, and said to this day, the smell of ammonia keeps him humble.

When Wong talks about being grateful, he’s looking at the broader picture, reflecting on his humble beginnings, said Wong’s son.

During Wong’s undergraduate years, a large ping-pong tournament was organized that drew a lot of interest. The tournament progressed and a winner was finally announced, but a rumor circulated that an accomplished player had never entered. The winner found out the accomplished player was Wong and challenged him to a match. Wong won with ease. 

Wong received his bachelor’s degree from William Penn College in 1974, a master’s in business administration from Virginia Polytechnic University in 1976 and a doctorate in business administration from the University of Alabama in 1982.

He returned to Iowa and accepted a position as assistant professor in marketing at Iowa State, because of his fond memories of William Penn. After establishing himself in the U.S., he arranged fellowships for his two brothers-in-law, bringing his sisters and his mother to the states. Both of his brothers-in-law retired as marketing professors.

Wanting to make a difference like Trueblood once did for him, Wong said, “I‘m going to invest in a lot of John Wongs. Not just one.”

He honors the man who made his education in the states possible, by modeling his life to reflect the teachings Trueblood passed onto him.

“A man has made at least a start on discovering the meaning of human life when he plants shade trees under which he knows full well he will never sit,”  Trueblood said in his 1951 book, “The Life We Prize.”

In 1986, Wong became adviser to the Ames Student Association for Malaysians. He started working with the president of the student organization, Choy Leow, on what they could do with the organization, and their relationship grew from there.

At the time, Wong was on a journey of discovery, but he fostered his student-adviser relationship with Leow into being as close as family. Wong is the godfather to Leow’s two daughters.  

Almost 40 years later, Leow recognizes himself as a benefactor of the John Wong approach. The two stay in touch by any communication available to them — letters, postcards, text, Facebook messenger, Whatsapp and Facetime. Over the decades, he has watched Wong mature in his role as professor.

“Dr. Wong has long left his teaching as a career,” Leow said. “He has been riding teaching as a very deep sense of calling.”

Fulfilling a Calling

Teaching gives Wong a reason to get up in the morning, and at the start of each class, greets his students with a “fist pump” — and you have to match him with the same enthusiasm, said student Jack Swanson.

Wong says there are four strikes against him when he walks into the classroom on the first day. He’s not white, he’s 71-years-old, his first language is not English and he’s Chinese.

Former student Anthony O’Tool said he first judged Wong on his ethnicity, but quickly realized that Wong was the opposite of the stereotypes he thought of.

The two now exchange weekly texts, as part of what O’Tool calls a life-long friendship. His father heard so much about Wong, that he invited Wong to a football game.

Wong stays in regular contact with about 50 of his former students and another couple hundred somewhat often.

A Class Like No Other

Syllabus day in Marketing 343 is a fork in the road; students must confront the decision to either accept the challenge or leave. If choosing to stay, students have made a commitment to work hard.

With an 18-page syllabus and a 19-page project manual, students are made fully aware of the journey they’re about to partake. Wong said he does not convince them to stay.

Wong’s class warranty? “If you feel you’ve learned nothing at the end of the semester, I’ll write you a personal check.”

Although he carries pre-signed drop slips in his bag, he sees himself as another team player alongside the students.

“Guys, you forget. I’m in the trenches with you,” Wong tells his students. Even though his title is Dean’s Professor of Sales and Marketing, to his students, he plays many roles. As his student Jack Youngblade, senior in marketing, puts it, students are the apprentices and Wong is the master. It just so happens that Youngblade’s father also had Wong as a professor in the 80s.

As the semester comes to an end, Wong’s priority is meeting with his students as they prepare for their final in the only class the professor now teaches after 39 years. Posted outside his door is his schedule that tracks the coaching sessions he keeps, detailing late hours kept. He holds late hours, because he sympathizes with students who work jobs.

“I respect them enough to work around their schedule,” Wong said. “I do it with intentionality, even though I do not articulate it.”

Wong’s class is designed to be collaborative, by assigning a semester-long group project resulting in a sales pitch to a sales representative from Caterpillar, a construction machinery and equipment company based out of Peoria, Illinois.

He builds these groups using Clifton Strengthsfinder to gauge the skills each partner will bring to the group and leverage their strengths. The course is a product of Wong’s consistent analysis of what works and what doesn’t. After his second year teaching the course, Wong decided the traditional way of selling wasn’t going to work.

Reading through the Sunday paper, he found individuals who were excelling in their profession and met with them to find out their secrets to success. He found that the drop-out rate was so high for young professionals after the first year in sales, because people not only couldn’t handle rejection, but they couldn’t handle the fear of rejection. That’s why Wong says the foundation of his class is to prepare students for rejection and build their confidence so they’re able to move past it.  

Each group of students is assigned a Caterpillar product to research. The semester is a build-up to the week before Thanksgiving when students sit down with an employee from Caterpillar in a role-play, complete with fake names, and pitch their product to a potential employee.

The partnership between Wong and Caterpillar started with Kyle Griggs, one of Wong’s former students, who still participates in the role-plays. During his first year of employment at Caterpillar, the Iowa State marketing graduate reached out to Wong with the idea to teach students through live case-studies.

With participation from the Ziegler CAT dealership in Altoona, Iowa, students get to interact with sales representatives and customers who use Caterpillar products.

“It’s really impressed me to see how almost every year the students get better,” Griggs said.

Griggs wondered if it’s the students who are becoming better or Wong after the 11 years since the project was established.

Global aftermarket account manager at Caterpillar, Grant Kuch, has volunteered with the project for more than 12 semesters. During the second week of classes, after students have chosen to stay or leave the class, he introduces the company, but more importantly, stresses the importance of character and what makes a good salesperson.

Through Wong’s example, he stresses life lessons, including the resiliency it takes to overcome rejection.

“Dr. Wong is not teaching marketing, he’s impacting and raising young professionals,” Kuch said.

On average, the packets each group generates are 40 pages, and to Caterpillars professionals like Griggs and Kuch, they showcase the value of the class and the caliber of students that the class is producing.

Attitude is what matters

In the fall of 2017, Wong received a kidney cancer diagnosis in the middle of the semester. Friend and director of undergraduate programs, Diann Burright, remembers Wong calling her multiple times trying to reach her to tell her the news.

Wong said he wanted her to hear it straight from him. Burright says Wong took it in his usual fashion; calm, logical and at peace. But Wong was adamant that his students were not to be told until the end of semester. He delayed his operation to December, despite his diagnosis in November.

Unable to return to the classroom at the start of the spring semester, Wei Zhang, associate professor in marketing, substituted for him while he already had started revising his syllabus during his eight weeks of recovery. To speed up his recovery time, he and Zhang walked inside the North Grand Mall, slowly rebuilding his strength. His will to heal and return to his students powered him through the pain until, against his doctor’s wishes, he returned to the classroom six weeks into the semester.

“He’s not only speaking with words, he’s speaking with action,” Zhang said.

In his last lecture of the semester, Wong finally told his students the news. His friend Mark Minear was sitting in the back, and he clearly remembers the standing ovation Wong received from his students. 

Minear and Wong had discussed, when Minear was in college, what they would do if they knew they had a week to live. Minear recalls Wong said that he would write a list of all the people he could think of that he was grateful for and write them a letter.

“He has a lot of clarity about how to follow his heart,” Minear said.

In a Facebook post addressed to his fall 2017 Marketing 343 students, published on Christmas morning, Wong wrote, “The time to share the news about my health with you was when we completed the project. I decided not to do so earlier, because I did not want my health condition to be a distraction to our common effort nor to be the focus of your concern throughout the semester.”

Leow speculates it was a genuine expression on Wong’s part that life is fragile, and at this time in his life, he felt an urgency to let it all out. Perhaps more than that, it was a gentle, authentic reminder that Wong is only human.

Recently, on Thanksgiving, Wong poured his thoughts out on Facebook once again, taking his time to impart a few more life lessons.

“I want to thank each one of you for the privilege of sharing with me in the journey we call MKT 343 and for the hard work and great effort you have put in thus far,” Wong wrote. “As a cancer survivor, I don’t take anything for granted. As a result, I am particularly cognizant and mindful of the preciousness of life and have come to the realization that it is not the length of years we have that matter but the quality and the manner in which we live those years that truly count.”

39 years of experience later

Wong started teaching at Iowa State in 1980, and on Feb. 27, 2018, he received the Dean’s Professorship in Sales and Marketing, a five-year award, but from students he gets a certain validation that the way he pursues his career is now recognized, said his son.

When Samantha Cross, associate professor in marketing, first joined the marketing department nine years ago, John Wong made himself a mentor to her.

He provided her with teaching resources, let her sit in on his classes and made sure she knew the best place in Ames to view the changing colors of the fall leaves.

While many on staff in the business college go out of their way to help students achieve success, Cross said Wong goes above and beyond. She said she believes Wong understands that students are at a vulnerable stage in their life on cusp of adulthood.

“[Wong’s] not there trying to compete with anyone,” Cross said. “Although, his quiet, humble manner doesn’t give the impression of the wealth of knowledge he has.”

When someone has been somewhere for 39 years, that carries a lot of history with it,” Cross said. 

Wong’s class is in great demand. Cross often encourages her students to take his class. While a few other professors in the Ivy College of Business do live cases and role-plays within the classroom to demonstrate real-world selling and marketing, there is no other live case quite like the class Wong has established. If anyone else is teaching such a class, Cross says it’s by example of Wong.

Returning to his roots

Every few years, Wong makes the journey to Malaysia, a trip that incorporates more connection to Iowa State than one might think. His former students use him as an excuse to reconnect with former “Iowa-Staters,” sometimes gathering as many as 150 people.

During one surprise student reunion, Wong was asked by a former student about his wealth, stemming from discussion on former students who have gone on to become very successful. He took that question and decided to address the whole group.

“In my coin, my life is not in dollars and cents. It’s in relationships,” Wong said.

When students reach out to him, he’s reminded of the business he’s in — touching lives.

While Wong uses his two months stay both for work and vacation, he has a few things to cross off his list. With his host, Mervin Appana, he likes to visit the places of his childhood, and on one recent trip, visited the Eastern and Oriental hotel — a tall, white colonial building a young Wong always dreamed of staying at.

More than marketing

Lining the walls of Wong’s office are book spines giving an insight into his life-long search of knowledge, including, “Life is a Miracle” by Wendell Berry and “Ziglar on Selling” by Zig Ziglar.

Wong likes to mark up his books, highlighting and writing in the margins, scribbling down questions. He doesn’t passively read, but challenges assumptions made by the author, said his son. Marketing 343’s final project is to read a book, “Tuesdays with Morrie” and “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” which Wong says relate more to marketing that one would first assume.

Wong will continue teaching on three conditions: he stays in good health, his passion for teaching continues and whether the students still find the class worthwhile. As for why he hasn’t retired — “I don’t think the work is done, and I don’t think I’ll be happier in retirement than in the classroom,” Wong said.

Wong said some see through his secret. He’s teaching more about life than marketing.