Beloved Duke professor James Bonk dies at 82

mcaulder@newsobserver.comMarch 15, 2013 

Duke professor Jim Bonk.

DUKE UNIVERSITY

— Beloved chemistry professor Dr. James Bonk died Friday at the age of 82, ending his 53-year career at Duke University.

Born in Menominee, Mich., on Feb. 6, 1931, Bonk was not married and had no children but considered his students to be his children.

He attended Carroll College in Waukesha, Wis., before earning his doctorate in physical-inorganic chemistry from Ohio State University in 1958. He began teaching at Duke in 1959, and never stopped.

“I will go on till it’s over,” Bonk said in a 2009 interview.

And go on he did.

Though Bonk stepped down from teaching general chemistry in 2001, he went on to lead an environmental chemistry course aimed specifically at non-chemistry majors.

To honor his 43-year legacy of teaching general chemistry, the university retired his course numbers and created the Bonk Endowment, which funds graduate students designing and teaching undergraduate courses in chemistry.

Bonk’s classes were such a staple that Duke introductory chemistry classes became known as “Bonkistry” classes, which approximately 30,000 students attended.

He is nationally known for comical incidents with students, one rumored to have taken place in the 1960s.

The Bonk joke is that the weekend before a final exam, four students decided to visit the University of Virginia for the weekend and let off some steam. They were due back Sunday in time for their exam Monday morning, but were too hung over to travel. When they arrived back at Duke late, they told Bonk that they had a flat tire and he agreed to allow a make-up exam the following day.

The students were placed in separate rooms for the make-up exam. The first question, worth five points, was relatively easy and the students were confident they were going to do well. But when they flipped the page, the next question – worth 95 points – asked simply: “Which tire?”

Bonk also worked with the university’s tennis team and served as the director for undergraduate education in his department.

“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, chair of the Duke chemistry department and 1991 Duke graduate. He described Bonk as thoughtful and always able to put himself in the position of his students to find a way to effectively explain a piece of material.

Bonk won the DuPont Chemical Co. Teaching Award while at OSU for his graduate level teaching, and was awarded one of Duke’s highest honors, the University Medal for Distinguished Meritorious Service.

A memorial service for Bonk will be held at a later date.

Caulder: 829-4758

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