Life is a dash.

This was the takeaway from the final class of the semester in Serji’s Civil Engineering Materials class (CE 351 or the previous number before the course numbers changed).  This was his famous “Life” lecture that he did every semester.  Our gravestone will list our year of birth and year of death separated by a dash (e.g., 1924-2020).  The dash is the important stuff.  The dash is who you were, what you did, who you impacted—your mark on the world.  I frequently think about this, but today it hit me hard.  While in a meeting this morning I received an email just before 10:00 with news that Prof. Bob Nowack, “PB” as he was affectionately known, had passed away yesterday at the age of 96 years.

PB is a legend in the Clemson Family.  He taught engineering mechanics courses such as statics and dynamics to Clemson engineering students for 63 years—thousands of Clemson engineering students.  At the time of his retirement, I believe he had taught four generations of students!  I remember students saying that they took PB’s section of statics or dynamics because their father or grandfather told them they had to take PB’s class because they did.  He was a tough teacher, but he was fair and he cared about his students.  Everyone had a nickname—mine was “Yankee Boy” and sometimes “Long-legged Yankee Boy.”  He had an uncanny ability to remember the names of former students decades after graduation!  He also remembered where they sat in his class.

I had PB for statics my sophomore year (Fall 1995).  Not having prior connections to Clemson, I didn’t know the legend of PB going into the semester.  Like many sophomores, I was confident that I would cruise through this course and wouldn’t need to seek out help.  Like so many, I was in for a rude awakening.  I struggled with vectors and, really just proactively staying ahead in the course—I’m still a procrastinator.  This was an issue in PB’s class, because of his infamous pop quizzes.  If you didn’t keep up with the course, you dreaded the day that he walked in with the green folder (I think it was green) that he kept his pop quizzes in.  Other days, he just had a regular manila folder (phew!).  I was keeping up enough to make a C in the course, but wasn’t satisfied with my performance, so I withdrew from the course just before midnight on the last possible day.  Looking back on it, I was sitting in what he called the “C” row (the third row).  I took the course the following semester with another instructor and earned an A—I had clearly learned more in PB’s course than I thought.  I was even able to lead study and homework sessions with some of my classmates throughout the semester.

Like many, I did not fully appreciate the teacher that PB was at the time.  That came in the years that followed when I became more engaged with the department as a student member of ASCE and the Clemson Concrete Canoe Team (3CT).  The department was like a family and PB was the patriarch—like a grandfather to some.  Even after jumping ship on his course, PB didn’t treat me any different.  He was jovial and caring and would tell you what he thought (politically correct or not) even when you didn’t ask for advice or opinion.  Again, this didn’t seem like a big deal at the time.  One memory of the grandfather-like role that he played came when my own grandfather died during my senior year.  I don’t recall telling PB about it, but I do remember getting a big hug from him.  Maybe Janeen or Serji told him.  That hug meant a lot then and means even more as I write this today.

PB also had a great sense of humor.  You always wondered what was up when you heard his laugh from down the hall.  His laugh was loud and distinct—I can hear it as I write this.

As someone who taught college students for more than six decades and seeing where they ended up, I’m convinced that PB somehow developed an ability to predict your future.  It may be silly, but not long after Janeen and I started dating, he told us, “I ain’t going to no Yankee wedding.”  Slightly terrified at the time, we laughed it off.  Three and half years later, Janeen and I were married.  This was also one of Janeen’s memories she brought up over dinner.

As I transitioned in the role of teacher myself as a faculty member, I found myself using PB-isms with my classes and other audiences.

  • When I’m leading a seminar or conference presentation with other engineers, especially in South Carolina, I will often jokingly remind attendees which row they are sitting in—“The A row, B row, C row, D row, you get the idea. Does anyone want to change seats before we begin?”  This always gets a laugh from the audience and breaks the ice, especially if they were in one of PB’s classes.
  • Every once in a while when someone asks me a question, I find myself responding with “Do you want a one word answer or a two word answer?” The one word answer is “no” and the two word answer is “Hell No,” but PB never had to explain.
  • “Prayer session.” You don’t want to have this conversation, but you probably need to hear it.
  • My favorite and one of the most frequent bits of advice I share with students is just four letters—RTDP or Read The Damn Problem. This is simple, but applies in so many situations.

I am still relatively early in my teaching/mentoring career, parenthood, and I would even say “adulthood,” but I have learned that people (students, colleagues, friends, family, and ourselves) need caring people who will be real with them.  However, this is a two-way street.  Once we have these people in our lives, we have be willing to listen and not be hypersensitive to the feedback we receive.  I have reflected a lot today and I am thankful for everyone who has been a caring, yet real voice and helped me learn how to give, accept, and process feedback.  PB was one of these people.

Throughout my time as an undergraduate student, graduate student, and faculty member, PB was a constant.  What changed was the degree to which he became a part of my life.  Our relationship started as a teacher and student in statics, then evolved to something much more.  Without realizing it, I learned a lot about a lot of things from PB, and I’m sure there is more to come that I don’t even realize yet.  I wish I had made the effort to spend time with him after his retirement.

Circling back to today.  Today was a tough day.  I never imagined that this news would hit me as hard as it did today.  Seconds after I saw the email, I was struck with a rush of emotion.  Then, about ten minutes later it hit me that I would be teaching class in 201 Lowry Hall—the only room that PB taught in for as long as I had known him.  I about lost it.  When I walked into the classroom about two hours later, I just went to the back of the room and sat there for a minute (there were students sitting in the spot where I sat in PB’s statics class in the Fall of 1995—the “C” row third from the windows—and it would have been weird to kick them out or sit really, really close to them).  Throughout our class meeting, I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of impact I might have on these students and others.  I made it through class and it was fun to step back and watch the students actively engage in a brainstorming session with my colleagues co-teaching the course with me.

It’s healthy to reflect and we should do it often.

This is just my account of how PB has influenced my life.  Imagine how many of the thousands of other former students have similar stories.

That’s one hell of a dash.

Rest in peace PB (1924-2020)

 

This remembrance was adapted from a message that Dr. Putman posted on Facebook following Robert Nowack’s death.