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Words from Wiser: Remembering Jim Wenslow

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The general topic planned for last week was put aside thanks to my sentimental sidetrack to honor my anniversary. In offering it now, I have changed the tenor of the topic a little and may in fact expand it into two parts. I am motivated at this writing to pay homage to an iconic “Math Teacher” who passed away recently.

The obituary of James Wenslow, Wellsville, NY, at 86 years of age, rekindled fond memories of my affiliation with “Jim” over the years, first as a student and then as a teaching colleague.

First, some of the personal background leading to my association with Jim. My Industrial career, and opportunities, opened the gates to my educational career. After 16 years at the company then known as “The Air Preheater Company” (APCo for short), I was unceremoniously deposited into the job market. I held no grudge at the time, and will be eternally grateful to APCo for providing the path to my formal post high school education. APCo had an employee educational program that was the envy of those offered by most other companies. It paid my full tuition, books and materials costs, and occasionally afforded time away from the job to attend classes.

Starting in 1971 when some workmates talked me into joining them in going to night school with the caveat of stopping by at Gentleman Jim’s in Alfred after class for a “cold one”. I responded to the prodding and started on my post High School education. For four years I attended classes two nights a week to earn an AAS degree in “Product and Machine Design”. Thanks to the competitive push from my workmate/student colleagues I fared very well “grade wise”. I never knew that I could learn so much, so well. Immediately following graduation from that program, APCo, Alfred State College and Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) embarked on a joint venture offering a Bachelor’s Degree path in Mechanical Engineering Technology. This program allowed for classes at Alfred, or in APCO’s facilities in Wellsville. Again, two nights a week for another four years and another degree earned, this time at the Bachelor (BT) level. Pretty much the same crew of both classmates and teaching faculty. All but one Math sequence of our courses were taught by Alfred Faculty. The Math, Calculus I, II and III was taught very well by a “Truck Driver”. I kid you not! Learning and performance was again motivated or enhanced by a healthy competitiveness among working colleagues. I did well.

While I did not see any monetary or positional rewards from these degrees while at APCo (for whatever reason) my reward came when searching for a job in 1983 after departing APCO. My 8 years of “Night School”, basically with the same Alfred State professors over and over, put my name and success in their minds, so that when they had an unexpected retirement, needed to fill a faculty position on short notice, and, knowing I was available they reached out to me. A future second part of topic will pick up and continue from here.

Now to the main topic and focus of this writing. My association with Professor Jim Wenslow began with me being a student in some of his Mathematics classes. Jim, did not see us, nor treat us “old farts”, as traditional college students. He recognized us as working adults with special educational needs and challenges. He knew that we worked all day before coming to class. He knew that we had family obligations and distractions. He was not forgiving on his expectations of the work we were to perform, but was a little more understanding of our situation, and perhaps would let a due date slide a time or two. He also knew that our coursework needed to be a little more “application oriented” than just a generic Mathematics class taught to a general spectrum of students. His teaching was centered on our needs.

After my career change to a faculty member at Alfred State College, in addition to my traditional teaching duties at both the 2 year and 4 year level, I got involved with the teaching of training programs and classes at many local companies, covering “work specific” topics and specialties.

This was an additional work commitment, but one near and dear to my heart, having gone down that road as a student myself. I will also expand on these experiences in a follow up article, as that was my initial topical focus.

During this phase of my academic responsibilities, I had the opportunity to make recommendations on who I would suggest as a teacher to cover the mathematics aspects of the specialized training. You can’t teach a Computer Numerical Control machining class wherein students are programming “tool paths” without a basic understanding of the “Trigonometry” aspect of mathematics. If you want to program a machine tool movement from point “A” to point “B” at a certain angle, you need to tell the tool how to “get there, from here”.

Having been a student of Jim’s, I knew how he related to “adult students” and how he interacted with them. I would forward his name to the organizers, and they would contract with him to do that phase of our training programs. Jim was the consummate “teacher” for this situation. He was perfect for their needs and his understanding of them, as with me previously, helped them to be successful. I would often get comments from students about how they hated math in high school, but now can handle it, and like it, because “the teacher is covering what I need to know to do my job, and in a way that I can understand”.

Can you imagine having a problem doing your math homework and calling your teacher/professor at home for help? I can, because we could.

RIP Jim. Thank you for being there for me and for the other hundreds of students, many of which were just like me. You served us well, and we will always be indebted.

I would also like to give a shout out to another of those unique individuals who excels in the daunting job of teaching math to “non-traditional” students. Just like “Math” in high school, it isn’t their favorite subject, and not all participants are crazy about being there. Paul Gaeta, owner of Crown-Y Recycling, was another math teacher with whom I shared teaching experiences.

Again, these were adult students, often in the position of needing additional education or training through which they could obtain or improve their employability status. Anecdotal comments from students here too, spoke very highly of “their teacher”. Paul, as did Jim, knew the difficulties of his clientele but gave them the best opportunity to gain the needed proficiency for employment or advancement.

My hat is off to those two individuals.

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