Navy Math Teacher Is State's Professor Of The Year


October 01, 1990|By Elise Armacost | Elise Armacost,Staff writers

In 50 years of teaching at the U.S. Naval Academy, Professor Theodore J.

Benac swears he never has had a bad day.

Never had a day, he says, when he didn't feel like standing in front of a room full of midshipmen and expounding on algebra, calculus or thermodynamics. Never had a morning when he'd rather have stayed in bed, gone for a drive or lingered over an extra cup of coffee, not even when he was sick.

"I never have a bad day," Benac says. "When I go into a classroom, I'm taking on a new experience. I may feel lousy, I may have a head cold, but as soon as I close that door I am communicating with a group of people.

This is what life is all about."

Perhaps even more than his scholarly contributions, which include the development of courses linking computer science and calculus, three textbooks and numerous articles and abstracts, Benac's unflagging enthusiasm for teaching recently has brought him the title of "1990 Maryland Professor of the Year," an honor bestowed by The Council for Advancement and Support of Education.

CASE is a Washington, D.C.-based national education association of 2,900 colleges and universities. The Professor of the Year award, offered statewide since 1986, is one of the few awards in the higher education field to recognize excellence in teaching, as opposed to scholarly research, said Sheila McDaniel, CASE's director of public affairs programs.

A 40-member panel consisting of members of the higher education, business and government communities chose Benac from among 10 professors nominated by seven Maryland institutions.

Up on the third floor of the Naval Academy's mathematics building, in his spacious, airy office overlooking sailboats drifting down the Severn, Benac glows as he talks about being Maryland Professor of the Year. He glows even more when he talks about just being a professor.

"I am basically an old mathematics professor who loves to get in the classroom and give his spiel, and that's about it," Benac says.

Even after 50 years, "Every day is a new day. That's what makes it so interesting and challenging. Every time I go into a classroom, I never repeat what I did before. I may be teaching a course I've taught umpteen times before, but every time I teach it it's different, simply because I'm dealing with different people."

The professor has never met a class he didn't like. Algebra, calculus, mechanics, fluid mechanics, thermodynamics -- Benac has taught and enjoyed them all.

"The only way you can hate a course," he reasons, "is if you hate the students who are out there."

Tanned, fit, and dressed in a natty plaid jacket and navy tie, Benac -- who refuses to disclose his age -- looks like he might be in his late fifties. That is impossible, of course, considering that he has been teaching at the Academy since 1941. He doesn't see any reason why it's important for people to know his age, he says, since he feels the same as he did a half century ago.

"Every day, I go to class and I look at my midshipmen, and I say, 'These people look exactly the same year in and year out. So if they don't change, why should I change?'" A Connecticut native, Benac received a bachelor's degree in chemistry and philosophy from St. Michael's College in Vermont. "By the time I got through, I decided there was something more to life than washing beakers."

So he switched to mathematics, earning a master's from the University of Connecticut and a doctorate from Yale.

The United States was just getting into World War II when Benac got a position at the Naval Academy.

Since then, Benac has seen many changes at the Naval Academy, including the inclusion of women and more minorities, expansion of academic programs and the evolution of a less regimented lifestyle for midshipmen.

He has also seen many things remain the same.

The number of midshipmen, for example, has not increased that drastically -- there were 3,300 in 1941, compared to about 4,500 now. Class sizes have increased only slightly. Standards of behavior for midshipmen have remained constant.

As for their performance in the classroom, "I don't think they're any better (today). I don't think they're any worse. I have just as much trouble teaching them math now as I did then."

And Benac relishes teaching them math as much now as he did 50 years ago.

While many professors either relegate teaching duties to graduate assistants or lecture as though they were human tape recorders, Benac is devoted to classroom teaching. This is his philosophy: "I think of myself, as much as anything, as a salesman. I have a product to sell. . . I have to sell something to a group of people, so I have to have a pitch that will be meaningful to a group of people. I go into the classroom, and I know what I want to talk about. I want to present what I know in a way that these people can understand, and so that they will do something as a result of what I have shown.

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