Academy professor provides his plebes lessons of a lifetime


ANNAPOLIS -- When Dr. Samuel P. Massie arrived in Annapolis 25 years ago, he was unable to buy a home, at least not in the city's white residential neighborhoods where blacks were unwelcome.

A product of segregated Arkansas and the Great Depression, Dr. Massie had learned to sidestep such barriers. He moved his family to Laurel and commuted the 25 miles to work.

Today, the U.S. Naval Academy's first black professor is as much an institution here as the Herndon Monument, the Tecumseh statue or the chapel's familiar copper dome. Only, as almost any midshipman will tell you, he is a lot more fun to talk to.

"You get hurt, you pause, maybe you cry, but you go on," said Dr. Massie, who has overcome a slew of racial barriers in his 72 years. "Sometimes you have to accept it because the world is like it is."

At a time when other men might contemplate retirement, Dr. Massie's energy is undiminished. He is spending the summer at the National Science Foundation in Washington helping develop programs to encourage young minority students to enter science. This fall he will return for another year of teaching chemistry at the academy.

But what else could you expect from a man who wants to teach students "as much about life as chemistry," who earned his first college degree at the age of 18 and has become a nationally recognized pioneer among black scientists and educators.

This is the same Dr. Massie who can find time to speak to Montgomery County jail inmates on drug abuse and fly to New Orleans weekly to teach class on his day off. He's also the man who spent 21 years as chairman and vice chairman of Maryland's community college board, when he was not busy inspiring a generation of midshipmen with his wit and wisdom.

"Sam Massie is a wise man. If you had to describe him in the shortest way, he is a wise man," said Dr. Robert H. Shapiro, the academy's academic dean and provost. "He's seen more in those eyes than the rest of us will in five lifetimes. For a guy who is 72 years old, he's incredible."

Born in North Little Rock, Ark., Dr. Massie grew up in a household where education was prized. His parents were schoolteachers who saw great potential in a son whose IQ

measured in the genius range.

At age 4, young Sam was accompanying his mother to school each day and following her lessons. By 6, he could read like a third-grader. He finished high school at 13.

He attended junior college in Little Rock, then earned his bachelor's degree at what is now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. He served as acting head of the school's math and physics department in 1940 after earning a master's degree from Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn.

One year later, he was told by the chairman of the Pine Bluff draft board that he "had too much education for a Negro" and should be in the service. Dr. Massey still grimaces at the memory of that day. He left immediately for Iowa State University where he earned his doctorate and, among other things, contributed to atomic bomb research.

He returned to teaching and Fisk in 1946 where he met his future wife, Gloria, to whom he has been married for 44 years.

By the time he came to the Naval Academy in 1966, Dr. Massey already had racked up an impressive string of credentials. They included chairmanships of chemistry departments at Fisk, Langston University in Oklahoma and Howard University. Most recently, he had been president of North Carolina College at Durham.

But after a career working in predominately black colleges, the notion of going to the prestigious Annapolis institution intrigued him. Here was a chance not only to guide fellow blacks but to teach white students who likely had never been taught by a black.

"I thought it was important that white students get a teacher who measures up, that they see a black man can teach them," Dr. Massie recalled. "Most whites never know the experience of having a black superior. Besides, I was not sure I was enough of a bastard to be a great administrator."

Fellow educators say Dr. Massie's genius is that he cares as much about his students as his subject. He wants people to feel good about themselves, and can take a subject as complex as chemistry and explain it in the simplest of terms.

"He's probably the best teacher I've ever had or ever seen, said Dr. William P. Hytche, president of University of Maryland Eastern Shore and a former student of Dr. Massie's.

Dr. Massie starts the first day of class for plebes with the same two jokes: "I won't try to make a fool out of you because God beat me to it." And then he takes a shot at himself to put his students at ease: "My wife calls me her FBI man: Fat, Black and Intelligent."

Any conversation with the veteran professor is likely to be interspersed with philosophy and famous quotations. With the mids, his insights often will feature a reference to water and navigation.

"Ships sail east and ships sail west by the self-same breezes blow," said Dr. Massie, launching into one of his favorites. "It's the set of the sail and not the gale that determines where they go."

As with many of his favorite sayings, the message is one of self-determination. At the beginning of each course, he tells his students that they all start with an "A" and need only work to retain it for the rest of the semester.

"They may not keep the A, but I know every student is capable of it," he said. "People behave the way you treat them. I'll never disparage a child in class."

As a result, Dr. Massie's classes are frequently oversubscribed -- not bad for someone who teaches one of the least popular majors at the academy. For black midshipmen, Dr. Massie has been especially important. He co-founded the academy's black studies program and recognizes his position as a role model, particularly when even now there are only three black civilian professors at the academy.

"He sought us out, " recalled Capt. Anthony J. Watson, deputy commandant of midshipmen, who graduated from the academy in 1970.

"He's the guy you went to when you wanted to understand the broader issues of race relations. He was someone you could go to with your problems. He's a matter-of-fact guy who'll tell you like it is and he'll tell you if you're not working hard."

In what seems like two lifetimes of work, Dr. Massie has won numerous awards for his teaching and research. One of his favorites was an honorary doctorate from the University of Arkansas, which had refused him admission as a young man because of his race.

On his office wall is a photograph of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., but it is displayed no more prominently than the numerous photographs Dr. Massie keeps of his former students.

One of the chemistry professor's few regrets is that he has not found more time to write about his experiences. He is proud to have been a pioneer in his field, but retains a humble outlook on life.

"I guess I was proud to meet the pressure, I thought that was one of the accomplishments I could make," said Dr. Massie. "I was lucky enough -- I say lucky, I mean good -- enough to do it. I was lucky to have had the skills . . . to have been in the right place at the right time."

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