It was a dull and lifeless classroom. Cinderblock walls were painted pale yellow, the floor was faded linoleum. There was a small wooden lectern in the front of the room, and a large blackboard with a shelf for chalk and erasers. Wooden seats with metal legs and attached desks were arranged in neat rows with an aisle down the middle. All seats faced the blackboard. Cold, bluish fluorescent lights illuminated everything. The classroom was in a small, one story building that originally was an airplane hangar, later converted to teaching and research space. Clearly the re-purposing budget was slim.
I walked into the classroom and sat down in my usual spot. Funny how, even when seats are not assigned, we still sit in the same one every time. The room could barely hold the 72 members of my class. There was a murmur of quiet conversation between early arriving students, and some of them kept nervously looking back to the room’s entrance to see if the professor was coming. “Who is today’s scout?” I asked Jim my classmate sitting next to me. “Don”, he said. “He’s standing in the hall by the classroom door now.” Don was today’s “sentry”, who would watch for the professor walking down the hall toward the classroom to begin the session. If he appeared to be holding a stack of papers, Don’s job was to run into the room and sound the alarm “He has a quiz!”
I pulled my spiral notebook and pen out of my backpack in preparation for the possible quiz and then the frenetic notetaking that would occupy the next 50 minutes. No handouts were supplied in this class. One was to obey the old-school preferences of the professor: attend the class and experience his lecture in person where he taught with all he needed: a stick of chalk, and a blackboard.
This was Veterinary Physiology 101. Part of the so-called Core Curriculum, it was a required course offered in the second year of veterinary school. The professor was Dr. Homer E. Dale. An imposing man, he was tall, slim, middle-aged, and had closely cropped gray hair. He wore an impeccably clean, wrinkle-free, white lab coat with his full name embroidered over the top pocket. His posture was erect, his head held high. His appearance and demeanor were almost military in nature. He spoke clearly, deliberately. There was an air of confidence about him. When asked a difficult question, he would respond: “Nobody knows the answer, even I don’t know.”
Dr. Dale was the most organized lecturer I had ever seen. He delivered his facts from memory, without notes. The principles of physiology flowed from him to the chalk, then to the blackboard, and then to our notebooks by hastily scribbled notes. Every statement was important. He was teaching us how the body works.
In most college courses, one’s grade is determined by the time-honored tradition of two tests, a midterm exam, and a final exam. Your scores on the two tests are combined to determine your final grade. Dr. Dale did not conform to this standard evaluation protocol. He had a unique system that he liked, but we hated.
The grade in Professor Dale’s class was determined entirely by surprise quizzes – no midterm or final exam, just numerous short unannounced tests administered during the first 10 minutes of class. We didn’t know until he walked into the classroom if there was a quiz, so we had to be ready for an exam every day. Each quiz was comprehensive, it covered all material that had been taught up to that day. At first glance, this appeared to be a cruel and unusual punishment for students, but it was pure genius. It forced us to come to class every day and study our notes every night. As a result, his class had priority over all our other courses. I was one of the few who didn’t despise him for these methods. In fact, I liked it. After all, we are in training to be doctors, and knowledge of physiology was essential.
Dr. Dale’s system also guaranteed that we came to class early, to be sure we started the dreaded quizzes on time. After he quickly handed out the 1-page tests at the beginning of class, we had precisely 10 minutes to answer the questions. If anyone took too long, there were repercussions. When he said, “Times up!” everyone had to drop their pencil and immediately pass their test down the row to be collected by the person sitting adjacent to the aisle. If anyone continued writing past the deadline, the entire row of students failed the test.
If you think Dr. Dale’s methods were unfair, well, it gets worse. The physiology class consisted of two semesters, the first in Spring and the second in the Fall with summer break between the two. Remember that each quiz covered all the material that came before it. On the first day of the Fall semester, Dr. Dale gave us a quiz on the information from the entire Spring Semester. Many of us were not surprised by this perverse action.
Despite his authoritarian style and unorthodox methods, I admired Dr. Dale. He was passionate about teaching and understood how important it was for us to learn the material. Yes, he was intimidating and strict, but he was brilliant, articulate, and methodical. He recognized how draconian his policies were but had no intention of changing them. After years of experience, he knew what worked.
The class met three times a week, and we all quickly became accustomed to Dr. Dale’s lecturing style and mannerisms. He spoke slowly, emphasizing key points and explaining the relevance of the subject matter. He had a habit of swiping one side of his face with his index figure in between sentences, and he would clear his throat in an odd way. It was more of a forced expiration than a cough, and he did it a lot. He also had a characteristic body posture while talking; hands on hips, head cocked to one side, sweeping motions with his arms, and animated facial expressions.
I started to imitate him, the arm motions, the throat sounds, and his voice inflections, first to myself and then to my classmates while we were chatting between classes. They loved watching me pretend to be Dr. Dale and kept encouraging me to do it more. I also learned how to write on the blackboard like him, to shape the letters exactly the way he did. It’s easy to learn the idiosyncrasies of someone you want to emulate.
As the second semester of the course ended, several members of the class wanted to organize an event to celebrate our “survival” of Dr. Dale’s physiology course. After some discussion, we decided to do a skit that depicted a typical class session. I was chosen to play the role of the esteemed Professor. It was a chance to display my admiration of this amazing man through imitation of his teaching style. But I didn’t know how he would feel about it. We approached him about the idea, and he liked it. He even asked if he could bring his teenage daughter to the event. I breathed a sign of relief. Now I could focus on how to capture his essence in an entertaining but respectful manner.
We reserved a room on campus and scheduled it as an evening session. The room was arranged just like his classroom, rows of seats for the students facing front at a blackboard, with an aisle in the center. We placed 2 seats and a small table in the front of the room, to one side, for Dr. Dale and his daughter to sit and watch the proceedings. The scene was set, and it was perfect.
I wore a clean, white, long lab coat just like his, and wrote his name on the front. I dusted my hair with baby powder to make it look gray and donned black horned rimmed glasses like the ones he used. Once everyone was settled in the room, I made my entrance from the back of the room as he would, and . . . I had a quiz.
I passed out the quizes to the students and gave one to Dr. Dale and his daughter. I don’t remember what questions I asked but they were intended to be like his, only funny. As I handed Dr. Dale the quiz he facetiously picked up his grade book and shook it in my face to warn me that my behavior this evening could affect my grade. He was being a good sport which helped me relax and enjoy the moment. I couldn’t wait to start the lecture.
I stood by the blackboard, picked up the chalk, and launched my best Homer Dale impersonation. As I started one of my classmates in the front row whispered, “This is excellent!” I did the voice, the mannerisms, the hands on the hips, and even the frequent swipe of the cheek and throat clearing cough. In the corner of my eye, I could see him and his daughter smiling.
A few of my classmates assisted with some other elements of the skit that depicted typical class activities, and then the festivities drew to a close. The audience, and the professor and his daughter, enjoyed the show. I was so grateful that Dr. Dale allowed us to have a little fun at his expense. I think he understood that underneath all the jokes and imitations, we had tremendous respect for him and his commitment to our education. The best part of the evening for me was to see the professor reveal a little of what lies beneath that crusty exterior. We saw a tiny bit of his soul, and it was beautiful.
The following summer I worked for Dr. Dale as an assistant in his research laboratory and helped reorganize some of his teaching materials. I felt honored to work for him. During my breaks from work, I would sometimes sit in his office and just chat with him about vet school and other subjects. We shared a love of the outdoors and exchanged stories about some of our canoeing and camping exploits. I got to know him as a person, and my admiration of him grew. One day I mustered enough courage to tell him he was the best teacher I’d ever had. His usual stern face softened, he looked at me with kind eyes and said a simple thank you, and we went back to work. It was a moment of intimacy that I will never forget.
Homer Dale passed away several years ago. He was 95 years old. I regret that I didn’t keep in touch with him after graduation from veterinary school. I would have told him how much he influenced me, how much I valued his advice, mentorship, and friendship. I would have told him that he had a profound effect on my career, and that I still think about him 50 years after taking his class in that old airplane hangar. I would have told him that I still have my notes from his class, and when I read them I can hear his voice delivering each sentence.