John Kolena taught physics at NCSSM for 30 years.


NCSSM-Durham names first recipient of John Kolena Chair of Physics

When NCSSM faculty member emeritus John Kolena passed away in November of 2020, there was a tremendous outpouring of tributes from alumni whose hearts he had touched. Kolena was such a presence in the lives of students during his 30 years of teaching physics at NCSSM that alumni soon began to coalesce around the idea of formally honoring their beloved former teacher. What emerged from the discussion was perhaps the most fitting tribute an educator such as Kolena could ever hope for: an endowed, named faculty chair – NCSSM’s first – in his name in the department he so loved.

Over the next two and a half years, nearly 200 donors came together to raise more than $1 million to establish the John Kolena Chair of Physics. On Oct. 14 of this year, during an event held on NCSSM-Durham’s campus on alumni weekend, another beloved physics instructor, Jonathan Bennett, was honored as its first recipient.

“Jon’s accomplishments at NCSSM are stunning,” said Amy Sheck, NCSSM’s dean of science, as she introduced Bennett before ticking off a list of them, including Bennett’s selection by the University of North Carolina System for its Board of Governors Award for Excellence in Teaching, the highest recognition offered for teaching by the UNC System of which NCSSM is a part. 

Amy Sheck, NCSSM’s dean of science, speaks to donors, alumni, faculty and staff gathered for the introduction of NCSSM-Durham physics instructor Jonathan Bennett as the first John Kolena Chair of Physics.

“In short, Jon has made NCSSM physics a hub of teaching,  learning and opportunity,” Sheck continued. “It’s not just his accomplishments that make Jon remarkable; I must speak to his character, because there is no one more honest, more collaborative, and true to the mission of the school.”

In turn, Bennett thanked the donors, faculty, and staff who worked together to create the endowment and noted the many ways that donor support of the science department  had allowed the physics program to grow in both size and service to students. He then shifted focus to celebrate Kolena and acknowledged the role Kolena played in his own development as a teacher.

“When I came to NCSSM in 1997, John was midway through his career here,” Bennett said. “He and the other senior physics faculty were always generous with their time when I had questions, tactful with their advice to me, and open to trying new ideas that I suggested. The energy, intensity and creativity that John brought to his work were an inspiration to me; he was a whirlwind of ideas, his enthusiasm was contagious, and the level of intellectual engagement and fun that happened every day in his classes was amazing.”

Jonathan Bennett (far right) stands with Tom and Patti Kolena, John Kolena’s brother and sister-in-law, in front of a meteorite collection donated to NCSSM-Durham by John Kolena’s estate.

Also presented during the event was an extensive meteorite collection that Kolena had assembled over decades, which was donated to the school by his estate. Bennett led efforts to catalog the meteorites and provide additional context on the specimens. The collection now resides in a permanent display on NCSSM-Durham’s physics floor. 

Among the alumni gathered for Bennett’s installation as the first recipient of the endowed chair was Charlie Stone ’03, one of many former students Kolena regularly stayed in touch with. Kolena traveled extensively and often saw Stone and other alums on those trips.

After Kolena’s passing, Stone helped lead the creation of the endowed chair.

In a reflective essay Stone wrote to honor Kolena, he recalled his former teacher and longtime friend as an intense and sharply funny person whose passions in and out of the classroom ran deep.

“Few of us who had his physics classes at the North Carolina School of Science and Math will ever forget him,” Stone wrote. “He was perhaps the most demanding teacher I ever had, and one of the most intimidating, intense, hilarious, and influential people in my life.

“During one of our visits a couple of years ago I told John how the disciplined work habits and intellectual independence he taught me have been foundational to my professional life. I still have the notebooks from his class – their back covers filled with his funny quotations, their insides stuffed with equations – but more importantly I have the intellectual tools he gave me, and for that I am truly thankful.”

For Bennett, the legacy left by Kolena is both a roadmap and an inspiration. “John became a mentor to me when I got to NCSSM, and I learned so much from him,” Bennett said after the event had ended. “More than that, however, he became a friend who was very much interested in seeing me succeed. I’d like to think he would have felt some measure of pride in how our physics group has continued the tradition of excellence that he and the other founding faculty started.”