Today is World Teachers’ Day, an occasion to celebrate all of those who shape the minds of future generations. To be honest, I had never even heard of this day before last week, but I think it is a grand idea and would like to spend the rest of my days honoring at least one of my teachers on this date. So this will be my first installment in what I hope to be many.
In 1961, Mr. Robert Chvilicek first came to Big Sandy, Montana to teach science in junior and senior high school, which consisted of grades 7-12, and each class had about 40 students in those days. The class size has dwindled over the years here in Big Sandy to less than half of that today. But I was in the eighth grade that year and a few weeks before school started, my horse had slipped and fallen on the highway as I tried to turn the mare while galloping across the slick asphalt road. The mistake was mine and my left leg was slammed onto the road under the horse. As a result, my kneecap was broken and I was therefore in a cast on the first day of school.
There is only one school lunchroom in Big Sandy and that’s in the grade school building about three-quarters of a mile away. Some things haven’t changed since I was a boy and as you might imagine, a broken kneecap makes it difficult to walk across town. But it was this circumstance that led me to meet Mr. Chvilicek on that first day of school, even before I’d had him as my science teacher. He also ate at the lunchroom and offered me a ride back and forth every day until my cast was removed and my knee had healed enough for me to walk.
We quickly became friends and when I told him of my interest in science, that friendship grew stronger. He became more than a teacher to me, he became a mentor who spurred my interest and devotion to science. He encouraged me to participate in the district science fair that spring. It was my first attempt at a real, full-scale science project and I built a model of a solar seawater desalinization plant that I had seen in a science magazine. It was not really an experiment so much as a heat lamp mimicking the sun to demonstrate how it could work. I was awarded one of the two blue ribbons from our school at the district science fair and to my astonishment, Mr C. (as our class begun to call him), insisted that he take the two of us to the state science fair in Missoula. I had never imagined such a thing. Our school rarely participated and I did not even know I could go as an 8th grader. But he made sure it happened and that the tradition continued every year thereafter. Usually there were more than two of us attending through our high school years but it was Mr. C who was the driver who made sure we made it to the state fairs after helping us to qualify at the district level in the first place. These experiences opened up a new vista for me and increased my interest in science dramatically.
I went on to participate in the summer science institutes which were initiated in the early 1960’s in response to a national focus on science and training to encourage more scientists. After sputnik was launched October 4, 1957, America was suddenly behind in the “space race” and many felt we were falling behind in science and math. The effort to change that started with providing opportunities for high school students to attend these 6 to 8 week courses on college campuses to stimulate interest in science and mathematics. I would certainly not have known about these summer science institutes, nor would I have thought to apply for such an institute, without the encouragement and help from Mr. C. In the end, I attended two. First during the summer between my sophomore and junior year of high school, which took place at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. And the second I attended between my junior and senior year, which took place at Virginia Polytechnic Institute in Blacksburg. And it was there I studied plant physiology which propelled me into botany and plant pathology at Montana State University in Bozeman, Montana and then continuing on into plant biochemistry at the University of California.
I will always be thankful for the extra time Mr. Chvilicek took to help, inspire and encourage my interest in science, which has been a vocational love of mine for a lifetime and has opened many doors of understanding and opportunity for me. So, in celebration on this World Teachers’ Day, I remember and honor the work and devotion of Mr. C and the difference he made in my life.