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Duke Flags Lowered: Longtime Duke Chemistry Professor James Bonk Dies

In his 53-year career at Duke, James Bonk was the recipient of several teaching and meritorious service awards 

Duke professor James Bonk was one of the longest-serving faculty members at Duke. Credit: Duke Photo.

James Bonk, a longtime Duke University chemistry professor, died on Friday. He was 82.

Bonk, born Feb. 6, 1931 in Michigan, began teaching chemistry at the university in 1959, and became so synonymous with the subject matter that his 30,000 or so students over the years called his general chemistry classes "Bonkistry."

"There was a period of time when I had written the lab manual and I had written the text and I had written the problem book and I gave all the lectures, so the only thing they ever saw was me when it was associated with chemistry," Bonk said in a 2010 interview. "I was chemistry to them."

Along with his 53 years of teaching chemistry, Bonk also helped build the university's tennis team and served as the director for undergraduate education in his department. 

But he was perhaps most notorious for the flat tire story, which went something like this: Four of his students, who had performed well on all their tests and quizzes and had solid A's, decided to go to Virginia to party the weekend before the final exam. They made it back Monday just before the exam, but weren’t ready to take it. So they found Bonk, told him they had gotten a flat tire and asked to take the test later. He said okay.

Test day came. He put the students in separate rooms and gave them their exam. The first problem was pretty easy and worth 5 points. The next question -- worth 95 points -- was more challenging. It simply asked, which tire? 

That story is rumored to have happened sometime in the sixties, but no one knows the exact date. But it did add to the legendary status that Bonk accumulated over his years at Duke.

"It's hard to imagine anyone in the history of the university who has interacted with more students and had more impact than Jim Bonk," said Steve Craig, a 1991 Duke graduate and now chair of the chemistry department. "He was thoughtful in every way. He was always able to look at content from a student's point of view and to construct a story or argument that connects to someone learning some aspect of chemistry for the first time."

Bonk came to Duke with a Ph.D. from Ohio State University and a considerable amount of teaching experience under his belt. He had taught summers at Muskingum University in New Concord, Ohio, had become head teaching assistant at Ohio State, earned a Dupont Lecturing Fellowship and then became an instructor. Even as a graduate student, he was teaching lecture sections with 250 students.

He came to Duke solely to teach, having started at a time when "you could become a tenured faculty member because you were a gifted teacher, without a significant research component," said Duke chemistry professor Warren Warren during a 2009 interview. "That era has long since gone at all Research I universities."

In those early years, Bonk used to sit in on classes taught by professors he admired. "If you want to be a Zen master, you have to study with a Zen master. I don't know any other way to get there."

Bonk came to Duke in an era of slide rules and later learned how to post content on the Web and create video demonstrations. In 2001, he won the David and Janet Vaughn Brooks Teaching Award, largely because he was constantly updating his teaching style, watching for the light to go on when a student understood something that was reasonably complicated. 

He argued that passion was the key to being a good teacher. "Passion is contagious and anybody who is teaching needs it," he said.

After stepping down from teaching general chemistry in 2001, Bonk went on to lead an environmental chemistry course he designed specifically for non-chemistry majors. To honor his teaching legacy, the chemistry department established the Bonk Endowment, which graduate students can use to design and teach undergraduate courses in chemistry. 

In 2011, Bonk received the University Medal for Distinguished Meritorious Service, one of the highest honors bestowed at Duke. A year earlier, Trinity College honored him with the Dean's Distinguished Service Award in recognition of 50 years of extraordinary teaching at Duke.

"Jim approached his teaching like a true craftsman, always looking for ways to adjust his approach or to add additional detail that enhanced his courses," Craig said. "Of the many ways that he has inspired me, that mindset that every moment in a class, no matter how brief, is an opportunity to create something of value, and the devotion with which he followed it, will be the most lasting."

When Bonk wasn't sharing his passion for chemistry, he was giving it out on the tennis courts. He first held a racket in grade school, and eventually played on his college team and coached at the high school level. When Duke's tennis coach at the time, Bob Cox, found out about his prowess, he asked Bonk to serve as a volunteer coach, which he agreed to do.

Tennis and jogging kept him fit enough to chase down a student who had tried to "pie" him just after a lecture. "If you've ever been hit with a pie, you find yourself rather upset," Bonk said in 2001. Bonk dodged the pie, which hit his shoulder, and ran after the student, forcing him to jump into a deep creek and ultimately reveal his identity. While he said he was angry at the time, the memory became a fond one that was often recounted in letters to him from old students and colleagues.

Bonk was not married and he considered his students to be his children, which helps explain why he had no plans of retiring. 

"I will go on till it's over," he said in a 2009 interview. 

A memorial service will be held at a later date.