The NCSSM family gathered on January 23rd to virtually celebrate the life of Dr. John Kolena, a revered physics faculty emeritus and NCSSM legend who passed away in late 2020.
Before retiring in 2013, Kolena spent 32 years in the NCSSM astronomy and physics classrooms in the service of students from all corners of the state. The beloved teacher, colleague and mentor was also a well-travelled art lover and a devoted citizen committed to power by, and for, the people as evidenced by his years of service as a poll worker during local, state and federal elections. He was 73.
Kolena had a profound impact on the multitude of students who had the good fortune to sit in his classroom. Well before his retirement, he had achieved legendary status for his unyielding, yet completely engaging, presence and his deep devotion to friendship once those students had moved on to other challenges.
Among a host of uniquely Kolena quotes that began the virtual remembrance (“Excellent wrong answer!” “True … but irrelevant!”) was a photograph of Kolena early in his career wearing a tongue-in-cheek T-shirt: “We’ll get along fine,” the shirt read, “as soon as you realize I’m God.”
Though not a god, Kolena was demanding. It was the leading edge of his persona and as much a part of his unique charm as his dramatic eyerolls, his biting, sly humor, and his enduring comb-over that swept across his dome like a weather system in defiance, it seemed, of the principles of the physics that framed his career.
“He pushed very hard,” said Charlie Stone ’03. “If you didn’t come to class prepared, he threw you out. If a class was having a particularly bad day [even] after he tried pacing and sarcasm and exhortation, he’d storm out and get a Diet Coke to calm down.”
During one of his classes, Stone recalled, Kolena even threatened to install a trap door in the graduation stage so that any student who incorrectly answered a particular question he had just posed to them would fall through it and fail to receive their diploma.
“John probably had little idea of how intellectually intimidating he could be,” said Adam Falk ’83, who arrived at NCSSM as a junior in 1981, the same year Kolena began teaching. Though initially frightened, Falk and his friends “came to understand that John’s intensity was directed at one thing: that we should be as good at physics, and frankly as good at life, as we possibly could be.”
Before they had even met him yet, most of Kolena’s students already knew about him. Like news of a wildfire, Kolena’s reputation was on the lips of those who had experienced him, and the minds of those yet to be initiated.
As an overly confident first-trimester junior, Akhil Jariwala ’10 recalled sharing his course schedule with his Residence Life Advisor, hoping for some insight into what to expect. The RLA scanned down the list, quickly ticking off the names of classes and instructors.
At Kolena’s name he paused, then turned to Jariwala. “Oh, my,” he said.
Despite that moment of dread, Jariwala in time came to appreciate the high bar that Kolena set for all of his students. “He was,” Jariwala said, “more demanding than my parents were of me.”
That kind of reputation might ordinarily earn a student’s scorn. But Kolena was no ordinary teacher. Once they were under his tutelage, Kolena won over his students simply by being himself. Each class was punctuated with snark, wit, and a biting sarcasm intended to humor and challenge. “If you miss this question in college,” Stone recalled hearing Kolena often say, “don’t tell anyone there that I taught you. I am not responsible for this ignorance. I tried.”
NCSSM Chancellor Todd Roberts, who served as Kolena’s chancellor at NCSSM briefly before Kolena’s retirement, appreciated the memorable way Kolena presented himself. “With John, there was that half-serious, half-joking way he would sometimes say things,” Roberts said, “leaving you to wonder which is more likely to be the case.” It was another way Kolena had of forcing you to think critically, and he took great pleasure in seeing the wheels of one’s mind turning.
As demanding as he was of his students, Kolena was equally compassionate. Candis Watts Smith ’02 enrolled in only one of Kolena’s classes 20 years ago. Though she lost touch with him in the years since, the impact Kolena had on her life still resounds. As a political science professor (inspired to pursue that path in part by Kolena’s commitment to serving as a poll worker), she continues to feel Kolena’s presence. “There are things that he said that blended into my successes, my own way of thinking, my own epiphanies,” she said.
Most lasting of all, however, is the compassion Kolena had for his students. Smith readily admitted to having failed — the first time around — every test Kolena administered. But he always allowed her, and others who similarly struggled on exams, a second chance.
That such grace was given when it wasn’t required revealed the true heart of Kolena. He was there not to punish or intimidate. He was there to help, teach, and uplift.
“You can learn a lot from failure,” Smith said, “when people give you the room to. [Kolena’s] words, his demeanor, his style, his second chances, they still touch me. I may have failed his tests, but he made sure we did not fail at life.”
Motivated by his passion for physics, a number of Kolena’s students went on to careers in the field. Falk became a physicist. So, too, did Meg Shea ’04, who entered Kolena’s class with plans to be a classicist or a historian. Her experience in his class changed the trajectory of her life. The way Kolena handled information fascinated her. The way he encouraged her to wrap her mind around a problem inspired her. “I am,” she said, “a physicist because of John.”
Zo Webster ’88 made her way into physics as well, eventually teaching alongside her former teacher at NCSSM for a number of years before moving on to the university classroom.
Whether through good fortune or misfortune, Webster had perhaps one of the most unusual Kolena experiences. While participating with him in a two-week workshop in a small Georgia town, she found herself clothes shopping alongside him at a mall.
While clothes shopping with a colleague isn’t all that remarkable, when that colleague is John Kolena, it becomes a life experience. “Imagine going to the mall with John,” Webster said. “It’s just like you’d think. It’s awkward and weird.”
But Webster remembers most the example Kolena set for those choosing to follow in his own footsteps. “For me,” she said, “he was that role model as an educator.”
Kolena influenced other colleagues as well. As a young teacher in her first years at NCSSM, retired biology and chemistry teacher Noreen Naiman took Kolena’s physics class to brush up on her knowledge before taking the National Board Certification test.
“I was mesmerized by how he taught,” she recalled. “He was such a master teacher.” Though in his class to prep for certification, Naiman carried over much of what she saw into her own classroom where she continued to use it for the rest of her career.
As a longtime co-sponsor with Kolena of NCSSM’s science olympiad team, Naiman has her own amusing stories of Kolena. Not long after arriving at a venue with the team by plane, Kolena approached Naiman, exasperated, to tell her that he would not be at dinner with the team that night. One of the students on the flight, he explained, had packed sodas into checked luggage. And they burst. And now he had to take that student to the laundromat to wash his clothes. “Apparently,” Naiman recalls Kolena saying with an eyeroll, “your chemistry colleagues did not explain the relationship between pressure and volume to this student.”
For those with the courage to weather the snark and the intimidating intellect, they saw in John Kolena’s eyes a certain glint that drew you closer, even though he was in his personal life intensely private. So, too, was there something in his quick but mysterious smile that made one want in some way to be a part of whatever idea he had formulating in his mind. It was as though he were in on a joke that no one else understood, but you wanted to be in on it, too. So you stayed close.
Kolena stayed close as well. He kept a file, his brother David revealed, stuffed full with all the notes and letters and cards and emails he received from students through the years. Many expressed thanks for his efforts in the classroom. Others praised him as the icon he had become. A few criticized him for his tough-love approach.
Regardless of the sentiment expressed, “he must have cherished them deeply,” David said, because his brother had kept them all.
John Kolena touched lives. As a teacher he maintained a deep respect for, and admiration of, his students’ ability to rise to nearly any challenge placed before them. And when his students were no longer his students, he became their friend, keeping up with his former pupils as they grew into adulthood and embarked on lives independent of NCSSM. Kolena was there for every NCSSM class reunion, nearly mobbed by former students wanting once again to stand in his aura. He travelled across the country — even out of it — to visit former students, as he did when Charlie Stone moved to London. With Billy Pizer ’86 he shared, until just before his passing, an unfinished manuscript of the work he was doing in retirement on climate science. Reading it, Pizer said, was like being back in his class. And Falk, one of Kolena’s earliest students at NCSSM, will always remember how, years ago, Kolena drove from Durham to Washington, D.C., in the middle of the night to spare him a much less comfortable bus ride home. “It was,” Falk said, “an act of kindness that springs from knowing … that it’s good to be helpful to each other.”
Since its inception, NCSSM has been blessed with outstanding faculty and staff. The school has, and continues to be, home to some of the best educators in the state. But there will never be another John Kolena, and he will be deeply missed by all those who had the good fortune to share space and time with him.
Speaking on behalf of the Kolena family, his brother, David, expressed in the most heartfelt terms what the entire NCSSM community — Kolena’s second family — would like to express.
“Thank you, my brother,” he said, “for teaching our family that self-awareness, knowledge, and responsibility to oneself and one’s community are some of the cornerstones of life.”