A stringent teacher proves the most significant hero of all.

This month's hydronics workshop is a departure from the normal discussions of pipes and pumps. It's about a hero of mine. Someone who laid the groundwork years ago that enables me to talk about pipes and pumps most other months.

My oldest son Dale, a senior in high school, is about halfway through his first physics class. Although he's getting good grades, the enthusiasm and excitement he and many of his classmates have for the subject is, well, let's just say "reserved."

Perhaps they see physics as a nine-month sequence of book exercises such as: What force is required to accelerate an object with mass of 45 kilograms at a rate of 2.5 meters per second square? Precisely the kind of intellectual stimulation most 17-year-olds eagerly await each day, don't you think?

Dale and many of his classmates seem to be waiting for their physics class to come to an end so they can simply get on with their lives. It's unfortunate that physics to many of these students has become just another hurtle on their track to a diploma, rather than an experience to be savored.

Lucky Me

In 1975 I took my first college physics class from Professor Cornelius Gall at Mohawk Valley Community College, where I now teach.

Professor Gall's reputation preceded him. The second-year engineering students warned us freshman of a man who took no prisoners when he graded tests. A tough, rigorous, academic type, he refused to lower the bar on academic standards to keep the class from shrinking in numbers (a plausibly deniable but increasingly exercised option of the more "enlightened" educators of that time and today). Professor Gall's objective, according to some, was a daily pruning of the ranks of those aspiring engineers who didn't share his views of academic discipline.

Needless to say I was scared about making it through a class with this man. Especially in a subject like physics that had its own reputation for rigor regardless of who was teaching it.

The first day of physics class I and about 50 other freshman piled into a lecture hall. In walked Professor Gall. One of the first things he did was thoroughly erase any stray marks on the chalkboard. He proceeded to lecture while drawing precise diagrams and formulas on the clean chalkboard. He especially took pride in drawing near perfect circles and lines as straight as laser beams. I have never seen anyone so meticulous with a piece of chalk.

Once I remember watching him begin his presentation on one of three chalkboards in the room, proceed across the other two in sequence and end the lecture precisely at the right side of the last board. It didn't just happen that way. It was well planned.

Just like every other student in the room, I made exact copies of what he drew in my notebooks. Never a stray mark, sloppy sketch or inconsistent symbol. What he wrote on the board was so cleanly presented we could have brought Polaroid cameras into class and taken pictures of the board at the end of the lecture. (I still have the notebooks from Professor Gall's classes, while most of my other college scratchings have long since been tossed.)

As the semester progressed, he methodically built a consistent approach to physics from its underpinnings in Newton's laws. Each new concept was derived from these fundamentals, each built on the last.

Instead of plodding day after day through word problems in a textbook, I started seeing the big picture fall into place. The continuity of physics in explaining everyday occurrences: Why a car slides off an icy curve. Why a poorly placed ladder will slide down the wall. What angle to throw a baseball to get the longest flight. I realized the usefulness physics would someday have for me.

Professor Gall would often animate his lectures with human contortions, sound effects and dramatic story telling. He had this uncanny ability to balance himself on one foot while the rest of his body would seemingly float through space.

One day he explained the concept of mass. He said in the metric system, the unit of mass is kilograms, while in the United States mass is measured in "slugs." A slug is the amount of mass that weighs 32.2 pounds at the surface of the earth. Professor Gall concluded his lecture with reference to himself as a "six-slug man." I can only imagine how some of his less motivated students thought of making that name stick!

Many times I remember laughing, sometimes to the point of tears, as this guy performed. The class, including me at times, thought he was nuts. Now I can look back and realize how passionate he was about making his students understand the elegance of physics, the absolute reverence he held for the subject and the discipline he worked so hard to instill in his aspiring engineers.

Ever The Perfectionist

Professor Gall would often disappear behind his closed office door an hour or so before class to rehearse the pending lecture. Other times he would show up in class with a damp sponge and proceed to wash the chalk dust from the board so he could (literally) start his lecture with a clean slate. Even the barely visible smudge lines left by the sponge ran in nearly perfect straight lines across that board.

Why did he do all this? Was this guy a couple of vectors short of a full free-body diagram? Did he receive too many blows to the head sitting under apple trees waiting for Newtonian inspiration?

Over the last 25 years I've thought back to his approach many times as I have stood in front of classes myself. I've concluded that Professor Gall genuinely cared for his students and their understanding of what he was entrusted to teach. More, in fact, than any other teacher I've ever known!

Would he earn teacher-of-the-year status for it? No. Would he be popular with all of his students? Perhaps not. Did his unwillingness to lower academic standards score "brownie points" with the college's administration? Hardly. But do most of those who followed his methodical approach to physics 25 years ago remember how to apply it? Like it was yesterday!

Professor Gall retired last year after teaching almost 39 years, but it was just a little too soon for me. You see I wanted my son to have a chance to experience the same meticulous approach to physics this man provided for me a quarter century ago.

Professor Gall (Neil, as I now call you), if you ever get a chance to read this please know that it was written out of respect and appreciation of all you've taught me. I say this on behalf of the hundreds of engineers who went through your physics classes over the years. I do hope that whoever replaces you will hold the same standards, and have the same gift for teaching as you did.

And by the way, if I've misspelled a word or two in this article I don't expect much partial credit.