Forty-four years into his Norwich career, Professor Frank Vanecek Hosts a Homecoming Computer Class Reunion

Student walking down stairs

MINOR CORRECTION: Professor Frank Vanecek presents former student Dave Emory ’78 with a transcript and back-dated computer science minor. Emory graduated a year before NU approved the minor. Photograph by Karen Kasmauski

Last year, Frank Vanecek ran into three of his former computer science students at a Homecoming lunch. Maryanne Burke ’86 & P’18, who was one of them, said, “Let’s have class!” The idea rattled around and stuck and then became a thing: Frank Vanecek’s Computer Class Reunion during September’s 2019 Bicen­tennial Homecoming.

Before we get to that, here are some things you need to know about Frank Van­ecek. First, he loves teaching and he loves his students. He can still picture his old classroom in Dewey Hall. And while he now serves as the university’s vice pres­ident of student affairs, Vanecek still tries to teach one course each semester. Some­times his schedule works against him. But when it doesn’t, Vanecek teaches for free. He led his first computer class at Norwich in 1976. Which means the doctorate has worked at the university for 44 years, or nearly a quarter of NU’s entire history.

When people ask Vanecek when he’ll retire, he has a pat answer. “Retire from what?!” You have to have a job to retire, he'll explain. Teaching has never been a job. It’s been a calling, a passion, even a performance. He’ll tell you that students know when a professor’s heart isn’t into their work. But teachers who love what they do, teachers who treat the classroom as a stage and lectures as an event — an opportunity to not just convey what they know, but to captivate and inspire stu­dents — those are the good ones. Vanecek is that kind of teacher.

Here’s another thing to know about Frank Vanecek. He’s a sentimental pack rat. He still has his first gradebook from 1976. (That was the year he joined the Norwich faculty at the ripe old age of 23.) He still has the white T-shirt with “Coach Vanecek” and “The Cavs” (then of Cleve­land NBA infamy), drawn in permanent marker by one of his classes from the mid- 1980s. “Searching Cindy,” “Program Pam,” and other students signed the shirt. He still chops wood in a sweatshirt given to him by a student from another class, an elderly lady who took his course late in life and didn’t understand most of the material. What she did understand, she sewed on the sweatshirt. When Dewey Hall was recently gutted for renovation, Vanecek asked a construction worker to save him a piece of wood. The guy gave him an eight-foot two-by-six. Vanecek cut it up into business-envelope-size pieces resembling IBM punch cards, so that he could pass them out to his former students at Homecoming this year. He thought they’d appreciate them. (They did.)

Prof. Frank Vanecek exchanges a warm greeting with former student Maryanne Burke
PAYING IT FORWARD: Prof. Frank Vanecek exchanges a warm greeting with former student Maryanne Burke ’86 & P’18—the spark behind his computer class reunion—in Mack Hall. Vanecek says his students are his legacy. Photograph by Karen Kasmauski

Here’s another thing to know about Frank Vanecek. He cares about people, especially his students. Cares about them in a way that perhaps only someone who grew up without strong mentors of their own can. The list of students that Vanecek has taken under his wing, often with the help of his wife, Diane, is long. Too long to list here. But here’s an example: the Rapley twins. James ’94 and Nick ’94 grew up in Inglewood, Calif., an inner-city neighborhood in greater Los Angeles.

During high school, James saw the mov­ie “The Final Countdown,” about a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier that travels back in time to WWII’s Pearl Harbor. The movie in­spired him to join the Navy. So along with his brother, he applied for Navy ROTC and to Norwich. Vanecek and his wife took the two young men under their wing and treated them practically as if they were family. James later went to Harvard Medical School and is now a Navy psy­chiatrist. Nick, meanwhile, has charted his own meteoric success. He's a Navy captain in charge of the Naval Supply Corps School at the Naval Station in New­port. The Vaneceks were there for his change of command ceremony.

Here’s one last thing to know about Frank Vanecek. He loves to tell stories. Here’s one he likes to share about gradu­ate school. After he earned his bachelor’s degree in computer science from the Uni­versity of Dayton, Vanecek applied to master’s programs around the country, thinking he was pretty hot stuff. Worces­ter Polytechnic Institute accepted him and offered him a teaching assistantship. At WPI, he wrote a paper with a professor and was encouraged to present their work at a conference in Florida. There, Vanecek ran into one Prof. Jeann, an “old geezer” from the computer science program at Dayton. Vanecek had never taken a class from Jeann. But he was stunned when he learned that Jeann—despite never having Vanecek as a student himself—had called a friend at WPI, who was the chair of the computer science department, and told him to offer Vanecek a slot in their mas­ter’s program and a position as a teaching assistant. The moral of the story is what matters to Vanecek. It’s why he likes to tell it in the first place. And, as Vanecek will tell you, the moral is, “In your life … other people are helping you and you don’t even realize it.”

Frank Vanecek is one of those people.

So when alumni of four decades of computer science classes learned that their mentor was hosting “Frank Van­ecek’s Computer Class Reunion” during Homecoming and that a study area in Mack Hall would be named in his honor, they came. Vanecek stood on a proper stage, for once. Class began, and the pro­fessor gave his students one last quiz.

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