LASTING LESSONS • Winter 2000
Washington University's superb teachers have changed the lives of the students who have learned from them. Here, three alumni describe faculty whose lessons will last a lifetime.

Gustav Mesmer (1905-1981), Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of Applied Mechanics

Robert Yeager: "Professor Mesmer always emphasized integrity.

"I remember taking a long exam. About one hour into it, there was a loud explosion. Professor Mesmer had picked up a book and slammed it. Looking at two boys who were cheating, he said: 'The exam is over, send your papers to the front. There are some things more important than examinations.' Then came the most eloquent lecture on integrity I have ever heard: 'When everything else is stripped away, you have nothing left.'

"I have never before or since met anyone with his energy. His mantra was that you don't withhold—you have to push yourself.

"He was always fair. As a scholarship student, I had to do well. And I got straight A's until one exam I bombed. As he came bounding into the amphitheater, he said, 'I have a hunch that many of you did not do as well as you hoped. Like life, sometimes you have tests and you're up to them, sometimes you're not. But if you really know the material, come to my office and answer three questions. Answer them right, and you'll get your "A."'

"Knees shaking, I went to him and said I'd like to take him up on his offer. Handing me a piece of chalk, he asked me to go to the chalkboard. I don't remember the problems, but I got them right. 'Herr Yeager,' he said, 'you get your "A."'"

Robert N. Yeager, B.S. '64, has had five careers (engineer, corporate manager, baking instructor, writer, and consultant) and is now "retired," working as a free-lance writer and personal fitness trainer.

 


 

Marilyn Krukowski, Professor of Biology

Allen Saxon: "Comparative anatomy was never a course required for medical school admission. However, if you were a pre-med student at WU in 1970, you considered Marilyn Krukowski's Comparative Anatomy and Embryology course to be essential.

"Professor Krukowski, along with Judy Medoff [research instructor], offered a course that integrated anatomy, embryology, evolutionary theory, and introductory physiology in an exciting format. She demonstrated that the field of biology is not composed of disparate disciplines but rather should be viewed from a unified, broad perspective. That perspective has served me well in approaching my past (and continuing) medical education.

"The value of her teaching was emphasized to me a year later when I was in the first year of medical school at Tulane. The workload of the second semester included two tests a week. It was a challenge just to finish the reading assignments, let alone to fully digest the material.

"The night before a test in renal physiology we had 450 pages of reading, which I hadn't completed. Making it worse, the class lectures had been disjointed and hard to follow. Exasperated, I called a friend in the junior class who was also a WU alum.

"When I explained my dilemma, he said, 'You took comparative anatomy, didn't you?' I then reviewed Krukowski's presentation on renal physiology. Those two or three lectures substituted for the 450 pages of physiology reading.

"I aced the test!"

Allen Saxon, A.B. '71, is a general surgeon in the Chicago suburbs.

 


 

Sondra Stang (1928-1990), Adjunct Professor of English

Laural Diane Parker: "'Diane, this is wonderful writing!' Having Sondra Stang write those words on one of my papers meant more to me than all the nice comments from my other teachers combined. Stang was generous with her time and encouragement, but she bestowed praise only when she felt it was truly deserved.

"She forced me to think about each punctuation mark, each word, every sentence construction I used. 'What do you really mean?' she asked over and over. Her tone was always gentle, caring, but she didn't cut me any slack. I can now see that the greatest compliment she paid me—and all her students—wasn't anything she said or did. It was her attitude. She took us seriously—as struggling writers, as human beings.

"More than anyone, she inspired me to become a teacher. An exacting one—like her. In an age when people all too frequently toss around the phrase 'self-esteem,' as if it's some kind of inalienable right, it takes courage to insist that students earn their writing grades. It's so tempting to lower standards. Besides, marking papers—evaluating them and writing comments—is time consuming. So is conferencing. But it's still the best way to teach writing: one on one.

"I'm glad I saw Professor Stang again before her death and that I had the chance to tell her I was becoming a teacher. Many times since, I've wished I could say to her, 'Thank you, Sondra, most sincerely, for being such a wonderful, caring teacher.'"

Laural Diane Parker, A.B. '83, M.A.T. '89, teaches seventh-grade English and social studies in the Parkway School District, in St. Louis County, Missouri.