After more than half a century of unraveling the mysteries of algebra and calculus for midshipmen at the Naval Academy, Professor Theodore J. Benac sees no reason to quit now.
"I guess I just love talking to a captive audience," said the 83-year-old teacher, the oldest faculty member at the academy.
While most people in his generation are winding down, Dr. Benac is still going strong. He rises every morning at 7 o'clock and walks the mile and a half from his Annapolis home to work.
"Why should I retire?" he asks. "So I can mow the lawn twice a week, rather than once?"
He loves math, loves to talk about math and often describes a complex computation as "beautiful." His enthusiasm for his subject is obvious to students in his computer calculus classes on the second floor of Chauvenet Hall.
Dressed in a brown tweed jacket and striped tie, he grins and faces his students. A midshipman orders her classmates to their feet: "Attention on deck!"
"Anyone have any questions from last time?" he asks in a booming voice.
The 22 midshipmen, who have sat down, are silent.
"No one wants to see the [computer] program again?" he asks. The hands of several midshipmen go up, and Dr. Benac paces while he explains the complexities of finding delta and epsilon. More hands go up, and the white-haired teacher fills the chalkboard with diagrams and calculations.
"See this is why I love this computation. This is beautiful," he says, his voice rising. "It enables you to end up with exactly what you hope it will. There is nothing at this elementary stage that is so neat."
"So that would be epsilon," said one freshman midshipman, pointing to a spot on the chalkboard diagram.
"Yes, and it can be anything less," the professor says, seemingly satisfied that his student understood the concept.
Essence of his talent
And that is Dr. Benac's talent, his students and colleagues say. He inspires them to grasp a difficult subject.
"He really gets our class going," said freshman Midshipman Cory A. Durant. "He not only gives you a test, but he watches you take it. He is not one of those teachers who passes out the test and then leaves the room. He is motivated and very energetic."
His colleagues say that talent is the "secret of teaching."
"If we knew exactly how he did it, we'd be in business," said Dr. Michael Chamberlain, chairman of the math department.
And if teaching isn't enough, Dr. Benac also works on the academy's 150th anniversary committee and is the math department's liaison with the Naval Academy Prep School in Rhode Island.
But why does he bother with all this work when he could be dabbling in his garden or sailing on the Chesapeake Bay?
"I love the atmosphere and the controlled environment at the academy," he says, sitting in his office lined almost from floor to ceiling with math textbooks.
Each day he faces a class of young men and women in identical, neatly pressed Navy blue uniforms, who sit in desks that are arranged in neat rows. They are alert. They are polite. They ask questions.
He estimates he has taught about 10,000 midshipmen during his 54-year career.
Some nod off
"I know every day when I go to class, all of my students are going to be there," he says. "If only half showed up, that would make it hard to teach and make a difference."
Occasionally, one or two plebes will nod off. He sympathizes with them. After all, his class is right after lunch.
"I can see their shoulders droop when then sit down in here," he says. "Those two I had to wake up. We only had three minutes left and the rest of the class would have gotten up and left them behind."
Before the academy, he earned his doctorate at Yale and taught there for three years before he came to the academy. He said he fell in love with Annapolis the moment he and his wife, Virginia, arrived in the summer of 1941.
"When we got off the train, we saw all the beautiful historic buildings," he recalled. "Annapolis was a sleepy little Southern town. It was the perfect pace for my academic pursuits."
And while his family roots run deep in New England, he never thought of returning.
"I love it here. I love Annapolis," he says. "This is joy, watching these kids bloom and come to understand this. This is what I
love to do."