Academy professor provides his plebes lessons of a lifetime

July 14, 1991|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Anne Arundel County Bureau of The Sun

ANNAPOLIS -- When Dr. Samuel P. Massie arrived in Annapolis 25 years ago, he was unable to buy a home, at least not in the city's white residential neighborhoods where blacks were unwelcome.

A product of segregated Arkansas and the Great Depression, Dr. Massie had learned to sidestep such barriers. He moved his family to Laurel and commuted the 25 miles to work.

Today, the U.S. Naval Academy's first black professor is as much an institution here as the Herndon Monument, the Tecumseh statue or the chapel's familiar copper dome. Only, as almost any midshipman will tell you, he is a lot more fun to talk to.

"You get hurt, you pause, maybe you cry, but you go on," said Dr. Massie, who has overcome a slew of racial barriers in his 72 years. "Sometimes you have to accept it because the world is like it is."

At a time when other men might contemplate retirement, Dr. Massie's energy is undiminished. He is spending the summer at the National Science Foundation in Washington helping develop programs to encourage young minority students to enter science. This fall he will return for another year of teaching chemistry at the academy.

But what else could you expect from a man who wants to teach students "as much about life as chemistry," who earned his first college degree at the age of 18 and has become a nationally recognized pioneer among black scientists and educators.

This is the same Dr. Massie who can find time to speak to Montgomery County jail inmates on drug abuse and fly to New Orleans weekly to teach class on his day off. He's also the man who spent 21 years as chairman and vice chairman of Maryland's community college board, when he was not busy inspiring a generation of midshipmen with his wit and wisdom.

"Sam Massie is a wise man. If you had to describe him in the shortest way, he is a wise man," said Dr. Robert H. Shapiro, the academy's academic dean and provost. "He's seen more in those eyes than the rest of us will in five lifetimes. For a guy who is 72 years old, he's incredible."

Born in North Little Rock, Ark., Dr. Massie grew up in a household where education was prized. His parents were schoolteachers who saw great potential in a son whose IQ

measured in the genius range.

At age 4, young Sam was accompanying his mother to school each day and following her lessons. By 6, he could read like a third-grader. He finished high school at 13.

He attended junior college in Little Rock, then earned his bachelor's degree at what is now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. He served as acting head of the school's math and physics department in 1940 after earning a master's degree from Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn.

One year later, he was told by the chairman of the Pine Bluff draft board that he "had too much education for a Negro" and should be in the service. Dr. Massey still grimaces at the memory of that day. He left immediately for Iowa State University where he earned his doctorate and, among other things, contributed to atomic bomb research.

He returned to teaching and Fisk in 1946 where he met his future wife, Gloria, to whom he has been married for 44 years.

By the time he came to the Naval Academy in 1966, Dr. Massey already had racked up an impressive string of credentials. They included chairmanships of chemistry departments at Fisk, Langston University in Oklahoma and Howard University. Most recently, he had been president of North Carolina College at Durham.

But after a career working in predominately black colleges, the notion of going to the prestigious Annapolis institution intrigued him. Here was a chance not only to guide fellow blacks but to teach white students who likely had never been taught by a black.

"I thought it was important that white students get a teacher who measures up, that they see a black man can teach them," Dr. Massie recalled. "Most whites never know the experience of having a black superior. Besides, I was not sure I was enough of a bastard to be a great administrator."

Fellow educators say Dr. Massie's genius is that he cares as much about his students as his subject. He wants people to feel good about themselves, and can take a subject as complex as chemistry and explain it in the simplest of terms.

"He's probably the best teacher I've ever had or ever seen, said Dr. William P. Hytche, president of University of Maryland Eastern Shore and a former student of Dr. Massie's.

Dr. Massie starts the first day of class for plebes with the same two jokes: "I won't try to make a fool out of you because God beat me to it." And then he takes a shot at himself to put his students at ease: "My wife calls me her FBI man: Fat, Black and Intelligent."

Any conversation with the veteran professor is likely to be interspersed with philosophy and famous quotations. With the mids, his insights often will feature a reference to water and navigation.

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