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Portrait of an Influential Fan: Trekkie Professor John Tenuto

Photo courtesy of Bob Booker, College of Lake County

As part of this week's series on fandom, Vulture will profile a number of passionate, influential fans.

NAME: John Tenuto, 43, sociology professor at College of Lake County in Grayslake, Illinois.

ORIGIN STORY: When Tenuto was a child in 1975, his mother bought him a Star Trek bridge play set. Little did she know it would become the centerpiece of a giant memorabilia collection and a lifelong obsession. "Star Trek is a great example of human imagination," says Tenuto. "It's fun. It gives you characters to care about and things to think about. It's intelligently written and presumes that the audience is intelligent, too." As a kid, Tenuto saw a role model in fearless adventurer Captain Kirk. But as he entered his teens, he noticed he was not only drawn to the characters — he loved the show's social messages about technology, war, and religion. It wasn't until Tenuto was in college, with a budding interest in sociology, that he realized Star Trek dovetailed with his academic interests. "I went to my very first convention when I was 19 — I took my dad for Father's Day — and as we were walking through the parking lot, I noticed that there were all different kinds of cars," he recalls. "There were cars that looked like they were ready to be junked, and there were cars that looked like they cost $100,000."

Star Trek, it seemed, didn't just present an optimistic vision of social equality onscreen; it was inspiring the same thing in its diverse fan base. Tenuto went on to become a professor and to explore different facets of the show with an academic eye, ultimately teaching courses like "Connections: Star Trek and World War II" and "The Sociology of Star Trek." In 2006, he and his wife, Maria, also a sociology professor, undertook an enormous study of Star Trek, Star Wars, and Superman fans, examining the lives of 8,000 fans in 54 countries. The results made the Tenutos into Trekkie heroes. "The only stereotype that really held true was that Star Trek fans are better-educated than the general population," he explains, "but they’re more likely to be married than the general population; they own their own homes, they don't live in their parents' basement." Convention organizers and official Star Trek organizations were soon knocking on John's door, seeking his unique perspective on the phenomenon. "I think what they really like is that my fanaticism for Star Trek is tempered by an academic nature," says John. "And when you say, 'I have this great information, and it costs you nothing because I just want to share it with my fellow fans,' they’re pretty open to that."

ÜBER-FAN DUTIES:  Ten hours a week on fan activities, including watching the show, writing a column for the official Star Trek website, speaking at conventions, and collecting; twenty hours a week on academic Star Trek research and instruction. "The nice thing is that my wife and my son like it as much as I do, so it’s not like something I have to do in secret; it is really a family thing. So when we go to conventions, we go as a family; we watch Star Trek as a family; when we collect, we collect as a family."

PROOF OF DEVOTION: It's a good thing that John's family shares his love of Star Trek, because his memorabilia collection occupies an entire floor of their home. "You know, it's 40 years of collecting. If had to count every individual piece, it's probably 7,000 or 8,000 pieces." The collection includes action figures, autographs, various media used to play Star Trek, and some extremely rare collectibles (like a "marshmallow dispenser" modeled after Spock's campfire prop in Star Trek V). The Tenutos's personal museum has elicited some entertaining reactions from visitors. "I remember the guy who installed our house alarm; he was from the Ukraine and had a thick accent, and we went down there to run wires," says Tenuto. But rather than being weirded out,"he came right upstairs and said, 'I love Star Trek!' And he was a guy who had been in the country for ten years, but he watched it as a boy, and it meant a lot to him." He also uses the collection as a teaching tool for a jaded younger generation. "I show pictures of it to my students because I want them to know it's okay to like something, to have a passion for it," he says. "I'm always disappointed when I ask a student to write about what they're passionate about, and they don't have anything. So I want them to know it's okay to be into something, whatever it may be. You shouldn't apologize for what you like."

MEETING THE CREW:  Over the past few years, Tenuto has interviewed and collaborated with cast members from every Star Trek series. But the original crew members still hold a special place in his heart. "Shatner's great," Tenuto effuses. "He congratulated us when our child was born; we have a little video of him wishing us good luck on our wedding anniversary." But his all-time favorite cast interaction wasn't even face-to-face. "When I was giving a talk once about scripted Star Trek moments that were never filmed, I could hear Nichelle Nichols backstage, because she was on after I was. And I could hear her laughing and going,'That's right! You tell 'em!'"

LONG-TERM PLAN: Tenuto is currently studying and lecturing on the archives of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry and writer/director Nicholas Meyer, who worked on three of the original Star Trek films. Through his research, he has discovered a collection of obscure, behind-the-scenes photos, along with early drafts of film scripts that even dedicated Trekkies have never seen. "I look at the different drafts of the scripts, the what-could-have-beens. Like, the original villain in Star Trek 6 wasn’t Kim Cattrall’s character Valeris; it was Kirstie Alley's character Saavik from Star Trek 2," he reveals. "It’s a chance for fans to see an alternative universe of what could have been and why it wasn’t."

A FRIGHTENING PARALLEL UNIVERSE: For Tenuto, envisioning life without Star Trek is impossible. "I may not have become a teacher if it wasn't for Star Trek, and if I wasn't a teacher, I wouldn't have my wife," he says. "My whole life would be different if it wasn't for Star Trek. It is certainly more than a television show because it's a point of devotion to something that's worthwhile, that's about imagination and respecting each other. And like anything in life, if you put time and energy into it, it pays you back some way. I mean, I got invited to the science center in St. Louis. Buzz Aldrin talked at the science center, so what am I doing there, you know? But I'm not up there because of me. I'm up there because of Star Trek.