DURING HIS 56 YEARS as the longest-serving professor at the U.S. Naval Academy, Theodore J. Benac revealed the secrets of mathematics to some 10,000 midshipmen. As years went by, classes would graduate, younger colleagues would retire, but Dr. Benac went on instructing and grilling students five days a week in Annapolis.
He was such an institution at the training school for Navy and Marine Corps officers that when he died last week at age 85 of prostrate cancer, a long-time friend mused, "I was really shocked when I heard about it. I thought Ted would never die."
Recent decades have seen an increase in the life expectancy of average Americans. Far more people continue full-time work past retirement age. Even so, a career as long as Dr. Benac's is extraordinary. "I think of myself, as much as anything, as a salesman. I have a product to sell," Dr. Benac once opined of his Naval Academy faculty career, which began in the summer of 1941, soon after he received a doctorate in mathematics from Yale University.
When he and his wife, Virginia, arrived at the Naval Academy, a stately campus perched at the point where the Severn River enters the Chesapeake Bay, they knew they had come to stay.
"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." Those included writing three textbooks and translating five textbooks from German to English, writing scholarly articles and serving on the Naval Academy's admissions board and curriculum committees.
Dr. Benac also developed the pioneering "calculus with computers" program that began in 1969. In 1990, at the age of 79, he was named Maryland State Professor of the Year by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education.
An uncompromising but understanding task master, Dr. Benac gave inspiration to generations of Naval Academy undergraduates and motivated a wide range of academic colleagues.
He will be remembered as a teacher's teacher, who got his satisfaction from "watching these kids bloom and come to understand" mathematics, as he put it.
Pub Date: 11/17/97