Three Greats: Fr. Spohn, Warren White & Fr. Becker

Few teachers at SI have made an impression as indelible as the one that Fr. Richard Spohn, SJ ’31, made on the 5,000 students he taught between 1947 and 1979. An exacting teacher, he knew what he would be teaching on any given day during the year, and he had a cabinet filled with home-made demonstrations to make concrete the abstract notions of physics. He set off rockets, shot a miniature cannon and recreated famous experiments, inspiring many students to choose careers in science.

Bob Hunter ’48, who was a student for Spohn’s second year at SI, noted that “it was tough enough taking both Latin and Greek, so no one wanted to take physics. But he was a great, great teacher who not only knew his physics well, but could teach it well. After we found out how good he was, we filled each of his classes.” Hunter also marveled at how Spohn “managed to acquire enough thermodynamic, mechanical and electric equipment to make physics real for us.”

Bing Quock ’72, head of the Morrison Planetarium, noted that “as far as his demonstrations were concerned, he was the equivalent of Mr. Wizard. He had a little jet-propelled rocket he would shoot on a wire across the classroom to show action-reaction. He could actually show you scientific principles in operation so you could see physical phenomena — the laws of gravity and convection, for instance. You didn’t have to learn about them through a book only. You could see them right before your eyes.”

Quock remembered Fr. Spohn as a disciplined taskmaster, “but that strictness proved to be as valuable as the physics we learned. He even made sure we put our lab chairs back under the table a certain way. That helped me to be a critical thinker, to approach my work on a meticulous level almost to the point of fussiness. But that’s necessary in science.”

Laurence Yep ’66 wrote about Fr. Spohn in his memoir The Lost Garden. “I took physics from a priest who over the years had refined his science demonstrations down to the smallest detail; and they were presented with all the flair and precision of a Broadway show. His example of air pressure was especially memorable because he would place a marshmallow into a bell jar. Slowly he would pump out the air, and the marshmallow, with less and less air pressing at its sides to help it hold its shape, would slowly begin to swell and expand. By the time most of the air had been taken out from the bell jar, the marshmallow looked as large as a rat. Then he would let in some air; and even that slight amount of air pressure was enough to make the marshmallow collapse into a gooey mess…. However like the good showman he was, he always saved the best for the climax, ending the final class with a bang. During the last day of instruction, he would set off a miniature replica of the atom bomb. There would be a bang and a flash of light and then a pillar of white dust would shoot up toward the ceiling where it spread out into the familiar mushroom shape.”

Fr. Spohn’s reputation for punctuality made him a legendary figure among this students and colleagues. Fr. Raymond Allender, SJ ’62, recalled that “on the last day of school in the 1970s, for instance, the dean of men would call Dick’s classroom a few seconds before the final bell rang, just as he was finishing the last sentence of his last lecture. He’d ask, “Dick, have you completed your material?’ and Dick would answer, ‘Yes, Brother, you may now ring the bell.’” He would then shut his notebook and proclaim, “And gentlemen, that is physics.” In 1976, his venerable schedule was thrown off for the first time when Fr. McCurdy made a surprise announcement declaring that the last day of class would be a holiday.

Tom Kennedy ’63 recalled that Fr. Spohn “knew that he was going to be absent for a particular class, so he put that day’s lecture on a tape recorder so the class would not miss a thing. The class was intently listening and taking notes, and about 20 minutes into this taped lecture, Fr. Spohn’s voice boomed out, “Shut up, Brandi!” As you might have guessed, Tom Brandi was talking at this exact moment. Needless to say, both he and the class remained quiet for the rest of the period.”

“Dick gave such credibility to the science department and the profession of teaching because he was such a thorough professional,” added Fr. Allender. “No doubt about it. He was a dominating figure. He was Jesuit education.”

Fr. Spohn made school history by having his class go coed nearly 20 years before the rest of the school. When SI moved to its Sunset District campus, it offered morning physics classes to girls from the city’s Catholic high schools. “He loved teaching the girls,” said Fr. Allender. “They brought out his gentle side. To him, they were his girls.” Fr. Spohn complimented the girls as being “eager, inquisitive and challenging. The worst thing you could do would be to underestimate them.”

He retired in 1979 when his diabetes worsened, but he continued to live at SI and helped out in classes while he trained to become a spiritual director. “That was typical of him to start a whole new field once he retired,” said Fr. Allender. “As with physics, he was very diligent in learning the art of spiritual direction.”

Eventually, he moved to the Jesuit retirement center in Los Gatos, though he kept in touch with former students and sent newspaper clippings to teachers at SI offering ideas for their classes. He died in January 1989, and his memorial Mass was celebrated in Orradre Chapel on the SI campus, presided over by his nephew William Spohn ’62.