Recollections with Richard Bleil
Sometimes, writing one post will bring up ideas for the next. This is one of those posts. Yesterday, I wrote about the picric acid incident, and that brought to mind another bomb-related incident.
As a chemistry professor, explosives have been kind of a norm for me. Explosions as demonstrations are always popular. I’ve done hydrogen explosions and thermite, and even put sodium metal inside of a remote-controlled car and drove it into a children’s wading pool as a demonstration. It was very fun watching the body of the car fly out of the pool in flames. But these are all controlled reactions, with safety protocols to ensure that nobody was in any danger.
Teaching in that South Dakota institution, I’ve seen my share of really bad professors. There were a lot of superb professors as well. We had one professor in mathematics who alone had more publications than all of the professors at the state’s research university while I was there. But some of our new and temporary professors were just plain bad. One year they hired a second chemistry professor, who was only there for one year. He was just not good. An organic professor by training, he actually would lecture through lab time. The students not only struggled to stay focused for four straight hours of lecture, but also were denied lab experience.
One of our new hires was a math professor. He seemed like a nice enough guy but was a very bad professor. Legitimate student complaints began pouring in almost immediately. The dean at the time was a good friend of mine, and he and I chatted about how to handle the complaints. He had decided to begin proceedings that always began with requiring the struggling professor to develop an “improvement plan” that incorporated ways to improve on the areas of the complaints. He wrote such a plan, but never implemented it. This led, of course, to his dismissal at the end of his first semester.
As odd as it seems, after he had been let go, he was seen around campus. One day, he was in the science building’s computer lab with a strange looking container. When he was let go, it was not congenial, and his presence, especially with the container, made people uncomfortable and uneasy as to what his intentions might be. It was after normal hours, so there were not many people in the building. The dean and I were both there, working late as usual. There were also a few evening classes in session. The dean quietly went to these classes and asked the professor to quickly and quietly release the students and have them exit the building, reassuring them that it was merely out of an overabundance of precaution.
I was unaware of what was happening. As I recall, I was busy grading lab reports, which often was the cause for my long hours since, as quick as the university was to dock faculty pay for teaching necessary courses with fewer than ten students, somehow, they never felt obligated to reward faculty like me who routinely taught nearly a hundred students. Eventually, the dean came into my office to inform me what was happening. But he didn’t suggest I leave. Instead, he asked me to stay.
Apologetically, he asked if I would stay until after this former professor left the building. Once he did, he asked if I would lock up the building, and search it for anything suspicious looking. Yes, my friend asked me to stay behind and look for a bomb. His reasoning being that, since I was single and had no kids, if anything happened it wouldn’t be so bad and he was getting out.
Yeah, let the single guy die.
Fine, happy to do it. I’ve never been one to worry about death, and often would put myself in harm’s way to protect others (like the picric acid incident). So, I went back to grading as he went to his wife and grandchildren. Eventually, I meandered down the hall, but he was still there. So, back to work for me. A few minutes later, I heard the building door close. I grabbed the hex-wrench we used to lock the building and went to check. Sure enough, he was gone. I locked the doors to the building and did a thorough search. Nothing was there.
Eventually, the police arrived (I think the local police called in help from a nearby larger and more experienced city). They found him in the student union center playing pool. Yes, the odd container was his stick. He was informed that as he was no longer affiliated with the institution, he was no longer welcome on the grounds and was politely asked to leave. As far as I know, there was no further action taken.
Somehow, this incident never did make it to my annual review that year.