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Commentary: My chemistry 'coach' was great teacher

FARGO — As high school graduation season winds down, I am thinking back (way back) to my graduation in June of 1964, and the teachers who made a difference. I didn't get it at the time, but with the passing years I've come to appreciate their work in the classroom and their influence on me, and what that meant for my later academic achievements and success in my chosen profession. I was fortunate to learn from excellent teachers at Pulaski High School in New Britain, Conn. One stands out.

Chemistry teacher Robert Rittner was exceptional in that his patience with chemistry-challenged students like me was never condescending or dismissive. Brilliant in his discipline, he employed teaching psychology that helped me dispel the notion that "I can't do this stuff." Once that barrier was shattered, Mr. Rittner and I developed an unspoken learning partnership in which I could solve the formerly impossible problems of advanced chemistry for college-bound students. Chemistry was never easy for me. The math and formulae were especially challenging. But with Mr. Rittner's coaching, I earned a B+ for the year. I was ready for chemistry courses I would face in a pre-med curriculum at the University of Connecticut.

I say "Mr. Rittner's coaching" deliberately. He was no fan of sports. He often would open class with a harangue directed at the jocks: No breaks on homework, lab time or anything else required in his classes simply because the student was an athlete. We could mark our calendars for Mr. Rittner's sermons: the start of football season in fall; basketball season in early winter; baseball and track seasons in spring. He was relentless. We started calling him "coach." He loved it.

I made the track team in my junior year. Track and field was a major sport — cheerleaders, fan buses to out-of-town meets, punishing tryouts to get on the team. By my senior year, I was among the school's leading runners. I was competitive in the 440-yard run (now the 400-meter dash) and ran the second leg of the mile relay. We were among the best in Connecticut.

Mr. Rittner was not impressed — or so he said. When he gave his anti-sports oration in class, he would, one by one, glare at the athletes through his Coke-bottle-bottom glasses, his bow tie twitching at this throat, and a hint of a smile taking edge off the whole thing, as if it were part of his lesson plan.

When I began to excel at my races — I would earn a varsity letter and sweater — Mr. Rittner called me aside after chemistry class and complimented me on my running prowess. "But don't let it get in the way of your chemistry," he said, wagging a finger. "Yessir. Thanks, coach," I said, and he smiled. "Don't call me coach," he said, the smile broader.

He was a great teacher, a good man. He made a difference for me and countless others who passed through his classroom. He retired years ago and has long since died. A real regret: I never got a chance to thank him.

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