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December 5, 2007
Alexander Lang is 22 years old and only beginning his life's journey.
Don Pfaff's association with the Department of Mathematics and Statistics nearly pre-dates the time that John F. Kennedy was elected president. He began his career as an associate professor at the University in 1961.
Yet together, the rookie and the veteran, the college-graduate-to-be and the math professor of so many decades, showed why the days leading up to the Winter Commencement Ceremony each year on Nevada's campus are a special time.
The occasion was the College of Science's Westfall Senior Scholar Luncheon on Wednesday in the William Raggio Building.
And Lang and Pfaff – as well as the three other pairs of students and faculty mentors who were being honored by the college – showed why, as much as anything else, one's time in college often boils down to the special bond between a pupil and a teacher.
"Dr. Pfaff doesn't get caught up in the details of what he does," said Lang, of Reno, who will be the highest academic performer in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics' graduating class during Saturday's Winter Commencement ceremony at Lawlor Events Center. "What he does so well is he teaches you how he thinks about mathematics. Facts and random bits of knowledge are things that you might forget, but when you teach someone how to think, that's something you will never forget."
Lang transferred to Nevada from Truckee Meadows Community College and said he found Pfaff to be helpful from the very beginning of his time at Nevada.
"His class was full, and he didn't know me from the man on the moon, but he found a way to let me into his class," said Lang, who will continue his studies at Nevada by pursuing his master's degree in mathematics. "That shows you how nice of a person Dr. Pfaff is."
For his part, Pfaff said he always has been impressed with Lang, who has taken three classes from the legendary professor.
"He's one of my all-time favorite students because he's so good in math ... and he's also so nice," Pfaff said, as always, wearing one of his trademark Hawaiian shirts for Wednesday's event.
Pfaff recalled a day in class, when a discussion on positive integers was met with some slight disinterest among a couple of students in the front row. Lang, who always sat in the back of the classroom, noticed that the students in the front didn't seem to be trying hard enough to grasp the information the knowledgeable and personable Pfaff was imparting.
"I ran across Alexander (after class), and I'll always remember what he said," Pfaff said. "He said, ‘What's wrong with those girls – they aren't paying attention when they could be learning something very important.'"
Then Pfaff smiled.
"And I thought, 'A man after my own heart,'" he said.
For Tamara Johnston, a Westfall Scholar from the Department of Geography, her time at Nevada has been a period of great academic as well as personal growth. Johnston, who is married and has three children, gave birth to two of her children while an undergraduate.
"And I had my children either during the summer or winter break," she said, only half-jokingly, as her academic record, as recounted Wednesday, has been one characterized by extraordinary achievement ... as well as extraordinary time management and organization.
In addition to her two mentors from the Department of Geography, Paul Starrs and Gary Hausladen, a third Geography professor, Scott Bassett, was also in attendance, as was William Eubank of the Department of Political Science. In addition to excelling in the classroom, Johnston has earned several research grants, and is hoping, after completing graduate school, to one day enter state government in Nevada as a water planner, with a particular interest for Native American water rights.
Hausladen noted that Johnston at one point was carrying a 24-credit academic load, in addition to her family duties and research projects.
"Every so often a department has someone who comes to us and is such a gift," the always eloquent Starrs said. "And you sort of sit there and think, 'My life as a professor is different because this student has become a geography major.' ... She's kept all of her instructors on their toes."
Then, Starrs added, to great laughter from the audience, which included former College of Science Dean David Westfall, for whom the awards are named: "She takes better notes than what we have to lecture from."
Although Starrs' comment was met with great merriment, perhaps the best story of the day belonged to Teresa Olson, the Westfall Scholar from the Department of Biology, whose faculty mentor is Mary Peacock.
The diminutive, energetic Peacock said Olson was always an exceptional student, always prepared and always ready to talk about course material in engaging and thought-provoking ways. Peacock was so impressed and yet so worried that such rare talent might move into a different field that at one point, "I hauled Teresa to the side and asked, 'Are you going to go to graduate school?' And she said, 'Well, yes.' ... This woman is going to go far in her life."
Olson remembered Peacock as, "One of the happiest and encouraging teachers I've ever had."
Then she told her story.
"Normally my experience on campus is if you see a professor on campus, they might not say anything, or they might just nod in your direction," she said. "Well, one day I was about to cross the street in the crosswalk and I hear this honking. I thought, 'What, I'm not doing anything wrong.' And I looked, and who was it honking and waving at me? It was Mary. It really touched me."
Jim Carr, faculty mentor from the Department of Geological Sciences and Engineering for Erin Doerr, noted that Doerr, like so many students, has led a busy life over the past semester, busily finishing courses and preparing for Commencement.
But that hasn't been all. Carr said that Doerr will be married on Jan. 19. And that's not all. She and her fiance have already bought a home in Elko, where she will soon start a job with Newmont Mining Corporation.
"I can't tell you how much I admire Erin for handling all of that ... and at the same time not having a nervous breakdown," Carr said, smiling.
"I've had such great time here and have been given so many opportunities that we sometimes take it for granted," Doerr added, thanking Carr, as well as Gina Tempel, the department chairman, as well as Elizabeth Ball, the student coordinator for the Mackay School of Earth Sciences and Engineering.