Mountains, Chemistry, Students...
Mountains, chemistry, students...
Nothing daunts Doc Nak
Originally published in Gonzaga Quarterly, Spring 2007By Dale Goodwin
Whether climbing an 1,800-foot rock face on Washington Pass in the North Cascades, or tackling the inquisition of inspired students in his organiz chemistry class, Kay Nakamaye deals with challenge adeptly, using sound reasoning and a level head.
"Dr. Nakamaye taught us a lot about mountain climbing, as well as about chemistry," said Scott Classen, who graduated in 1993. "He impressed us mightily with his speed, agility, knowledge of the terrain, willingness to teach and his ever-positive attitude. These traits were also quite evident in the classroom."
Nakamaye, after 37 years teaching chemistry and biochemistry classes at Gonzaga, is stepping aside to devote more time to his other passions - mountain climbing, rock climbing, ice climbing, cross-country skiing, bicycling, basketball, racquetball, travel with wife Barbara, visiting their two teacher sons, David at Austin (Texas) Community College and Michael at University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, and their granddaughter Avery, who shares the witty spunk and wisdom of her grandfather.
Photo by Steve Mock
"As often as we can we talk about the pertinence of being a good writer, talking politics intelligently and the importance of being good citizens," Nakamaye said. "I have never wanted chemistry to be daunting to my students."
His wardrobe has changed over those 37 years from coat and tie, when he was fresh out of Berkeley, to T-shirt and jeans, to present-day turtleneck, fleece and mountain pants.
"After I got into mountain climbing, I found those clothes to be the most comfortable," Nakamaye said. "So why not be comfortable in the classroom, too?"
Anyone who has seen him teach would certainly use "comfortable" to describe his demeanor. He starts every class with a riddle or proverb. One day in February he asked students to identify which notable figures said what about beer. Lyndon Baines Johnson, Benjamin Franklin and H.L. Mencken were among those quoted. His ploy worked. All attention was on Doc Nak.
He asks questions to open minds, but seldom gives the answers. Instead, he coaches his students to think through the problems and come up with solutions. He carries a stack of index cards, one for each student, and calls on students, in order, to make sure he includes everyone.
Kay Nakamaye has remained involved in research, mentoring students on senior research projects throughout his tenure.
"My goal is to teach someone, not content, but problem-solving techniques, to analyze things in a logical fashion to come to a reasonable possibility," Nakamaye said.
"He really makes students think, on a test, in the classroom or simply in conversation," said Dr. John Robinson ('76), who had Nakamaye for a professor 30 years ago, and whose two sons, David ('05) and Daniel ('07), also have studied under his mentor.
In more recent years, Nakamaye has had to adapt his method of teaching to accommodate a different student mindset. Today's students require more nurturing. "I think this all changed in the late 1980s when the mood of the country was to build self-esteem," Nakamaye said. "Teachers had to make allowances."
"He is truly one of the most student-oriented professors that I have ever met," said Lindsey Johnstone, a current student. "He has a big heart and a brilliant sense of humor."
Nakamaye says colleagues in the chemistry department have both supported and challenged him. He's particularly grateful to then-department chair Dennis Kelsh for hiring him. Mia Bertagnolli took classes from Nakamaye in the 1980s and began teaching biology here in 1993. "Kay has been a great mentor to me, both as a student and since I've been a faculty member here. He's a very good person to talk to about situations with students or colleagues, not giving me any answers but helping me to see the options."
Bertagnolli tells about Nakamaye's devotion to family. In 1984, Kay and his oldest son David took a 1,600-mile bicycle trip to Jackson Hole, Wyo., back up across Montana's Beartooth Pass and on home. In 1996, Kay and Barbara together took their black belt floor trials for tae kwon do. He still has weekly dinners with his 91-year-old mother.
Nakamaye presents a paradox - touch, strong and rugged, yet kind, caring and thoughtful. At 65 years old, his body is the envy of the 20-year-old students with whom he plays basketball. But it is his love of students that has kept him young.
"I have always found our students to be excellent people," Nakamaye said. "The students we deal with are probably among the best in our society in many ways. And watching our students grow never gets old. How can you help but love them?"
"Most importantly, he loves what he does," said Joseph Eichenseher ('99), soon to graduate from medical school. "He educated us in the world of chemistry while mixing in humor. He sought out changes to talk with us and find out who we were, not just if we knew the SN2 reaction. But what really sealed my admiration for him was seeing him fighting through screens and firing off sharp passes at noon-time basketball in Martin Centre, doing whatever he could do to help his team win."
Some days this meant coming into class at 1 p.m., after a tough game on the court, blood dripping from his face, his glasses bent, but carrying on as if nothing had happened, said department chair Joanna Smieja.
Just another example of handling challenge with grace. That's Kay Nakamaye.
Photo by Steve Mock
Nakamaye is known for his "Nakisms," like "The only cure for anything that scares you is practice."
A distinguished career