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A chem teacher with sense of humor

Aug 1, 2014 - By Steven R. Peck

That was Bob Mower, a classroom legend in his own time

Bob Mower's obituary flipped on my memory switch, and the light made me smile.

Mr. Mower was my junior-year chemistry teacher at Riverton High School in the spring of 1978.

When report-card time came, he gave me the only B I ever got in high school (I deserved it). That's not the recollection that makes me smile, but almost all the others do.

The man was an anomaly at the time -- a science teacher with a sense of humor he was willing to show to the students. "Doc" Mower wasn't really a joke teller or wise-cracker, at least not in class, but he did some very funny things with a very straight face.

Betsy Kendall-Browne, another teaching icon from that time, liked to treat her English students to a relaxed class period on the last day before Christmas vacation. That year, she decorated the room lovingly. She invited us to bring pillows to class to make seating more comfortable. She served cookies and mulled cider. After lowering the lights, she said "Now let's all enjoy Alistair Sims in 'A Christmas Carol.'"

Mrs. Kendall-Brown pushed the "play" button on the Betamax (look it up, youngsters), and we settled in for a happy hour of holiday entertainment.

The screen flickered, and suddenly a deep voice blared "German Panzer divisions storm across Belgium!"

We were seeing World War II newsreels on tape, not Tiny Tim and Uncle Scrooge.

Whoever had switched out the tape also had remembered to turn the volume up to its maximum strength as well.

Shocked, Mrs. K-B rushed to the machine, ejected the tape, and looked at the label.

Her eyes narrowed, and she turned toward the door.

"Mower," she growled, and hurried from the room.

Sitting in our desks, hearing our teacher's heels clacking down the hall, we were taken aback. Mower? Did she mean Doc Mower, the chemistry teacher? We knew he was a World War II buff, but had we just witnessed a practical joke? Did that mean grown-ups actually did this kind of stuff?

It was a revelation.

One afternoon in chemistry class, Mr. Mower invited us to pour a small bit of powder into a spoon, followed by a few drops of liquid (the names of both escape me). After about five seconds the merged substances started fizzing and smoking.

"Chemical reaction," said Mr. Mower.

Then he led us outside to the parking lot (this was the original RHS on High School Hill).

"Where's Coach Englewright's car?"

There were three football players in class, Keith, Brad and Robbie. Keith pointed to the coach's sedan.

Mr. Mower instructed him to shimmy under the car. Brad handed him two small vials of the powder and the liquid.

Then Mr. Mower gave Robbie half of a pop can he'd cut in half.

"Fill this up with dirt and gravel, and hand it under to Keith."

He bent down and spoke to the prone football player.

"As soon as you mix the chemicals, jam the can down on top of them," he said. "You guys grab him by his feet and pull him out," he directed Brad and Robbie.

The resulting explosion sent dirt and gravel (mostly dirt) shooting off in every direction from under the coach's car. I'm sure it seemed more spectacular at the time than it actually was, but again I found myself watching this entirely unexpected spectacle with hilarious disbelief.

All eyes were on Mr. Mower.

"Chemical reaction," he deadpanned.

He was full of this stuff. Once, when the North Central Evaluation accreditation team was visiting RHS, he invited an evaluator to peer into stainless steel bowl a split second before whatever tincture he had mixed showered the man's face with water -- at least I hope it was water. I guess RHS got recertified in spite of it.

Mr. Mower's daughter, Darce, was a year behind me in school. Half a lifetime later she spent a decade working for The Ranger in our advertising department. I'm thinking of her, and her dad, today with fondness.

Mr. Mower's teaching has stuck with me in odd ways. I don't claim to know much chemistry any more, but I do remember chunks of knowledge he imparted: The mountains near Hell's Half Acre are called the Rattlesnake Hills; a standard aspirin tablet produces a tablespoon of blood in the stomach; the fastest way to get to Laramie at that time was to drive to Casper and head south across Shirley Basin, "but you have to speed;" if he ever discovered a new element that could be added to the periodic table, he wanted it to be called Wolverinium, for the RHS mascot; the secret to good hand lotion and good peanut butter is the same thing -- emulsification.

I was glad to learn it all, and I remember it today because of Bob Mower (along with, of course, the joys of the chemical reaction).

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