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Fanning a Flame for Physics

June 3, 2002

Before there was Bill Nye the Science Guy, there was Robert G. Packard, "Waco's Mr. Wizard," as one newspaper called him. And for 50 years, he has blazed a unique trail in how thousands of students relate to physics.

Students from Waco to Indonesia to New York never knew what to expect in Dr. Packard's Introduction to Physics class, known for decades simply as Packard Physics. Arms and books were set afire. Eggs were flung. Once, he even drank a sheet of paper in class. Don't ask -- it's a physics thing.

This spring, though, Dr. Packard officially retired, hanging up his lab coat for the last time, forever altering what has been a rite of passage in science education at Baylor.

The Temple, Texas, native joined the Baylor faculty in 1952 after stints in the military -- Combat Engineers, Signal Corps and Intelligence -- and at the University of Texas, where he earned his bachelor's (Phi Beta Kappa), master's and PhD. He spurned numerous governmental and educational employment opportunities before coming to Waco.

"I think the Lord directed me here because I met my wife Joyce (Hornaday) very soon; we were married the second year," he says. "I had my first date with her a week before the tornado (which destroyed much of downtown Waco in 1953). I always said we had a 'whirlwind' romance. Then we didn't get to see each other until fall, and I married her the next spring. I found what I was looking for -- without knowing that I found it here."

And, in the process, Dr. Packard became both an institution and something of an icon. Numerous Baylor urban legends grew up around him. One claimed he had a private phone line to the Oval Office. This one, as with most of them, proved untrue. He did, however, once host a Waco television show called "Atomic Age Physics," and he is one of the few Baylor professors to have a classroom dedicated to him during his tenure -- the Robert G. Packard Lecture Hall in Marrs McLean Science Building, so named
in 1990.

When the government of Indonesia wanted its university physics programs overhauled, they called Dr. Packard. When colleges ranging from Columbia in New York to the University of Idaho in Moscow wanted visiting professors of physics, they called Dr. Packard. And yet, the Packards always graciously declined offers of permanent employment elsewhere.

"What kept us here are two things -- the students, and Joyce was happy," he says. "Baylor students come here service-oriented. I really think it's the deepest thing in a person -- that they need to serve or work. It has been a pleasure to teach them."

Dr. Packard's 300-seat, auditorium-style classes are undergraduate mainstays. Dazzled students leave his class abuzz about what might be the next eye-popping demonstration.

"I try to make the student come to class not knowing what to expect," he says. "I'm a teacher, but I fall in love with the students. I found that if I would teach the students and try to give them the best course I had in me, I'd be happy. I also discovered that a teacher of physics has to help students unlearn as well as learn material. So I did that, as well."

He hasn't limited his interaction with students to the classroom, either. He sponsored student organizations such as Taurus, Circle K and Kappa Omega Tau. He taught Sunday School classes (mostly college) at Columbus Avenue Baptist Church for decades.

"My philosophy is that I grow from contact with students," he says.

Dr. Packard also wrote scholarly books and published several articles, won Baylor and national teaching awards, received a patent, sponsored a televised high school academic challenge program, served on Baylor's Athletic Council for 17 years, taught regularly at Paul Quinn College at the behest of the late Baylor President Abner McCall and, of course, touched the lives of untold thousands of students. All on just a few hours of sleep each night: "Type A personalities don't need much sleep," he explains.

Still, many dedicated and compassionate professors pass through Baylor's halls. Why, then, has this man engendered such affection among his students?

Says Dr. Packard: "I've often quoted this passage: 'But how will you look for something when you don't in the least know what it is? How on earth are you going to set up something you don't know as the object of your search?' (Plato's "Dialogue, to Socrates"). To put it another way, even if you come right up against it, how will you know that what you have found is the thing you didn't know? Well, I do know this: I love students and that love shows."

Indeed. It's a worldview based on the two simplest physics equations of all: "For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction" and, as Dr. Packard himself says, "everything is physics."


Darden, BS '76, is assistant professor of English at Baylor. He received his master's in journalism at North Texas in 1978. He is the author of two dozen books.

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