A great memory for names

One of my dreams as a teacher was to be able to greet students years after they’d moved on, and to be able to address them by their names, not just “Hi, there.”

That lasted through the first week of my 8 a.m. class at Highlands University. As hard as I tried, there’d always be a set of twins with almost identical names and looks, or a Señor Muy Tarde who either failed to show up most of the time or signed his name illegibly or failed to articulate.

In the 30 years that I wore my teacher hat, I didn’t have much luck earning the praise of students who I hoped would marvel at my ability to remember names.

If you’ve taken classes or worked at Highlands, you probably know where this is going. You see, not only was Dr. Robert (Bob) Amai a superior college professor but he also had that kind of memory that could recall names.

Amai died earlier this month, leaving his wife, Pat, and daughter Wendy.

The extremely popular and knowledgeable professor, Amai, was able to identify (almost) all of his chemistry students the first week. Amai taught not only upper-level and graduate classes but also some of the survey courses that tended to fill large lecture halls.

My wife, Bonnie, for example, enrolled in his beginning chemistry class as a freshman. Four years later she graduated, and on the lawn at Ilfeld Auditorium, as we were having a cup of lemonade, we heard someone say, “Hello, Bonnie.”

I was impressed, and Bonnie was flattered that Amai remembered her name. But then a moment later, he said, “And Art.”

Now how did that happen? I’d never taken a class with him; I was only a returning student who’d been on campus one year. How did he know my name?

He was a legend at Highlands, loved by many. I worked part-time at the Las Vegas Daily Optic at that time and was sent to the TEC building one Saturday to photograph a science workshop. Teachers from Des Moines, Farley, Mosquero and a host of other schools from pin-dot communities attended for classroom science teaching tips.

One of the presenters was Amai. During an experiment, he put different liquids into two beakers and tilted the beakers toward each other. Soon we could see smoke, and we all assumed that had the liquids made contact with each other, there’d be fire and flames.

As Amai separated the beakers, things cooled off. One of the visiting teachers apparently never got over that experiment. She spent most of the break telling others she wanted to learn how Amai had “done that trick.” Amai’s job was not to put on a magic show but to teach.

I wonder if that teacher ever found the proper liquids to duplicate that “trick.”

Students and colleagues alike admired Amai. Bob Mishler, a retired anthropology professor, said this about him: “Bob Amai and Pat were a guiding light as my family and I settled and lived in the Las Vegas community. As an NMHU campus colleague Bob, probably unknown to him, became my inspirational mentor of honesty, commitment, respect, optimism and, in particular, a dedication to the transmission of knowledge to students that was rarely surpassed.”

Two other colleagues praised Amai. According to fellow chemistry professor, George Sprenger, “Dr. Robert Amai was a true gentleman. He was very rigorous in his NMHU chemistry teaching. His students honored him as NMHU Teacher of the Year. He could read the initial class roll sheet and know most of his students’ names at the next class meeting.

And John Geffroy said this about his fellow professor:

“At the United World College, Bob was not content with adapting to a heavy teaching schedule. He took on the key role of community service coordinator, applying his knowledge of Las Vegas and his passion for helping others to placing students where they could be truly helpful.”

So dedicated to service was Amai that after retirement — from Highlands, he joined the United World College as a teacher and also Luna Community College — he remained on the Highlands campus and joined the newly formed Highlands University Emeritus Faculty group, serving as its secretary.

• • •

Two people have almost caused me to change my name. Janice Odom, the former public information director at Highlands University was the more recent name changer.

Alnita Baker, who passed away last week, was the other, and the first one.
Here’s what happened:

I worked for the Optic, as a paperboy, back in the days when he used to eat dinosaurs. My boss at the Optic, Milky Maese, asked me to deliver a copy of the newspaper each afternoon. We were a hexa-weekly then, so I made six trips each week to the original Montgomery Ward store, where part of Southwest Capital is now located and where Alnita worked.

I explained that I’d become her delivery boy. She asked my name. “It’s Arthur.”
“Oh, hi, there,” she answered. “Nice to meet you.”

Did Alnita ever catch my name? I got used to answering to “There.” What kind of Christian name is that? Well, that kept on for as long as I delivered newspapers. But eventually I began to respond to “Art.”

Janice Odom, didn’t change what she called me. Once, when I phoned her at work, I said, “Hi, Janice, this is There.”

“Oh, hi, There,” she answered. And once, she slipped and said, “Hi, there, There.”

As they say, “I’ll answer to anything, as long as there’s food there for ‘There.’”

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