Longtime Duke chemistry professor James Bonk dies

Mar. 15, 2013 @ 06:03 PM

James Bonk, a longtime Duke University chemistry professor, died 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 As, 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 1960s, but no one knows the exact date. 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 Muskingam College 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 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.

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.