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Convocation Address 2011
Thomas Pekarek headshot

Thomas M. Pekarek

Distinguished Professor

Professor Physics

College of Arts & Sciences

Thank you Dr. Fenner.

And thank you all for giving me this opportunity to address you today.

Every year since I came to UNF, I have enjoyed coming to the Fall Convocation. I looked forward to finding out what that year’s Distinguished Professor would have to say. In particular, I enjoyed hearing the stories of their families and what happened in their lives that influenced their career path. So that is where I will begin today.

In the 1880’s, my Great-Grandfather came to America from Bohemia when he was only 14 years old. He was one of the first in his family to make the trip across the Atlantic. He saw America as a land of opportunity and a better place to raise a family. With a lot of hard work and sacrificing the prime years of his life, he sent money back to bring over more family members to America. Eventually he married and they began a family of their own.

My Grandpa was born in 1917 and completed the 8th grade school curriculum in only 6 years. This was his last year in school before beginning his full-time career in farming at the age of about 12. A quick check of the math brings us up to the great stock market crash of 1929 and the start of the great depression. My Grandma also left school after completing the 8th grade curriculum in 7 years to help around the home and with the farm. They worked several years through the great depression, got married, and began their family during World War II. My Dad was the second oldest of 6 children.

My Grandpa’s and Grandma’s life on the farm during the great depression and during World War II included work that was very physically demanding. With cows to milk twice a day, other livestock to tend to, crops to grow to feed the animals, a large garden for the family, and constant repairs of everything, their work routine did not stop on weekends. Vacations were all but nonexistent for their entire careers.

Perhaps I should point out here that their farm is in Minnesota where the winters will sometimes have high temperatures for the day of 22 °F below zero. The snow storms can be blinding and a foot or two of snow to walk through is not uncommon. It is important to keep this in mind when I tell you that, when my Dad was young, the house was heated by the kitchen stove and one other wood burning stove. There was no electricity or running water in the house. And if you needed it, the outhouse was across the farmyard near the barn.

I think it is important to step back from time to time and dream a little. When I was a very little boy I wanted to follow in my Dad’s footsteps…literally. In the deep snow in the Rockies, a little boy just couldn’t go very far without Dad in front leaving a path to follow. When I was a little bigger, I wanted to follow in his footsteps in other ways.

I remember having big dreams that took years to achieve. Dad had a Ph.D. in Geology. So naturally even before I knew what a Ph.D. was, I thought I would get a Ph.D. also. But by the time I was in High School, I knew I did not want to go into Geology. I had spent too much time talking with Dad about advanced Geology topics. I did not want to spoil my love of the interesting advanced topics by sitting through the boring introductory courses.

I also wanted to blaze my own trail. I am the third oldest of six children. My brothers and sisters were typically in competition with each other, but rarely directly. There was a drive to succeed, but in our own direction that was not in direct competition with the others. Paul went into Geography and the Air Force. Annette went into music performance and technology on the piano and then into actuarial studies. I went into Physics. Jim focused on teaching History. Mike went into music but with the French horn in an Air Force Band. Susan went into Psychology, earning her bachelor’s degree from UNF in May 2002. Perhaps some of you remember Susan in one of your classes.

In Boy Scouts I saw my Dad teach in a classroom setting for the first time. He was a natural. He was well prepared, had good material to present, and he had clearly taken the time to think about how he planned to present it to be more effective. I did the best I could to learn what he had to teach. But I also remember studying him and trying to learn how he taught. I studied the tone and inflections in his voice. I studied the tempo that he presented the new material. I studied the intervals between when he presented new material and paused for discussion. I watched how the other boys responded as he varied his style of teaching over the course of about one and a half hours. I watched. I studied. I learned. I was only 11 years old at the time.

Another long term goal that I had was to become an Eagle Scout. I am one of four brothers. We are all Eagle Scouts. Central to Scouting is your duty to God, to your Country, and to other people. You learn from a host of adults and senior boys that volunteer their time and talents covering a wide range of topics. You master the new skills yourself. You then pass them on to others. In a direct way this parallels the path of University Professors that first learn from their major professor and others, master their discipline, and then pass what they have learned on to our students.

At this point I have lost track of the number of younger boys that I helped teach new skills, the number of nights that I have camped, or the number of miles that I have hiked, canoed, and biked. There is a specific smell, sound, and beauty in the Rocky Mountain forests that was a big part of my childhood. In part that is something that would later draw me to accepting the job at UNF. On my campus interview, walking the nature trails at UNF and the beach several times took me down memory lane to my days in the Rockies. But I have drifted too far in the story.

As an undergraduate student in Wyoming, I was broke. My family was going through a mini-great depression and there was simply no money there to help me with college. I had seen this coming and had worked hard to get 30 AP credits in Physics, Chemistry, Biology, & Calculus before I graduated from high school.

I remember my first semester in college seeing all of my friends go off to party, ski, and otherwise pursue the “college experience.” I remember one weekend night in particular looking out my dorm window in the second tallest building in Wyoming. I thought about the homework and studying for exams that I had scheduled for myself that evening. It was not that different from what I had planned for most evenings. I had worked hard up to that point to get an academic scholarship to cover tuition and some books. I knew that somewhere in my future I would meet my wife and together we would start our own family with some unknown number of children one day. I knew that if I did not keep up with my studies, that I would not do well enough to continue on to graduate school. And that would keep me from getting some future job that I would need to help support my future wife and children whose faces I could not yet see.

When I met my wife, Becky, in Wyoming, she was also broke. Basically, we started our married life similar to my Grandparents and Great-Grandparents. We had nothing but each other and we had a dream. With a little hard work and discipline of our own, we have built a home together and are raising our 5 children: Nicole, Matthew, Hannah, Teresa, and Elizabeth. Becky and I celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary just 3 weeks ago and look forward to many more through the years.

As a graduate student at Purdue, I was a TA for 2 years before joining a research group. Even though I had an RA position for research, I continued with a quarter time overload in the classroom every semester except two. Most of the other graduate students were happy to be out of the classroom and into research full time, but not me. I had caught the desire to do research, but also to teach.

I enjoyed helping my students learn. I tried to refine my technique to help them learn faster and in more detail. Many of the changes in my teaching style came from countless discussions with Becky. I encouraged my students to study more. I tried to keep their spirits up when they struggled. And some combination of what I tried seemed to work. My students first grumbled that I was too hard, but then they found out their grades overall were about a half to a whole letter grade higher than their friends in other recitation sections. So we kept working harder and my students kept enjoying their success. We had fun.

Today, I considered playing one of my favorite piano pieces for you that I know by heart. I thought I might even wheel out the piano from backstage in dramatic fashion. I would sit on the piano bench. I would begin to play. And when I was done, I would hear the applause and that would be a mistake.

You see, if I was in a choir on stage, it would be worth the applause. Most people here don’t know that I was in many auditioned choirs beginning when I was very young back in elementary school when I sang 1st soprano. I remember fondly those years singing soprano, but those days are long ago now. I continued as a 2nd tenor through my high school and undergraduate years. I toured with the Meistersingers from St. John the Divine Cathedral in New York to the Sydney Opera house. We had joint concerts with Polynesian tribes of New Zealand and impromptu concerts on sidewalks, in restaurants, and on planes. We even sang from a small tour boat dwarfed by the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier Midway in a foreign port. The sailors lining the deck were our audience.

But on the piano, my son Matthew and daughter Hannah, after a year’s worth of piano lessons,
are much better than me.

Still, I am quite confident, after I was done on the piano making truly meaningless noise, I would have heard applause and it would be a mistake.

As a culture, we applaud meaningless noise in many aspects of life. Why would we do this? We applaud meaningless noise in aspects of personal behavior. We applaud meaningless noise in aspects of cultural trends. We applaud meaningless noise in academic life.

Now if Gary Smart played the piano (I’ll pick on Gary Smart because I’ve heard him play and because my in-laws went to many of his concerts back in Laramie and I think they would get a kick out of me mentioning his name). Now if Gary Smart played the piano, it would be beautiful music. And when he was done there would be a few seconds of silence. It would only last a few seconds. But in the stillness of that moment, it would seem very much longer. …and then the applause…

Quoting Christopher West: “Would we rather make beautiful music or make meaningless noise? But behind this beautiful music, years and years of sacrifice, discipline, training … and, I’m telling ya it’s worth it.”

On this stage today, in a particular way, we recognize many individuals that are examples of sacrifice, examples of discipline, and examples of training.

I am certain the sacrifices of Jeff Michelman will also bring him to this podium.

But there are many others that we can name from our own past, that without their sacrifice, discipline, and training we would not be who we are today.

This is true of the sacrifice, discipline, and training of our academic mentors. If they had not mastered their own academic discipline, where would we be today? I know that I would not be standing before you today.

This is also true of the sacrifice, discipline, and training of our families. What if my Great-Grandfather had not sacrificed his youth to bring others over to America? Would my Great-Grandmother have considered him worth marrying? What if my Grandma and Grandpa had not sacrificed and maintained their self-discipline to get through the hard years of the great depression and pass on their drive to succeed to my Dad? What if my wife had not sacrificed to bring our children, and Hannah in particular, into this world?

As professors at a university, we place ourselves around literally thousands of students over the years that we can share our gifts with. But how do we teach our students to sacrifice? How do we teach our students to develop self-discipline? How do we teach our students to sharpen their training into the nuances of their chosen discipline? How do we teach our students to really excel?

Isn’t this the essence of what we are trying to do?

Thank you.