By: Katie Chappell
Professor Zucker making remarks at his retirement celebration
Professor Rich Zucker retired from Irvine Valley College in December after thiry-nine years at IVC and a total of
forty-three years of teaching.
His long teaching career belies the fact that he didn’t see himself as a professor when he was in school. Following a bachelor’s degree in math at Harvey Mudd College, and a master’s degree in math at Brandeis University, a friend suggested he consider the teaching profession and he thought, “why not?”
“I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life,” he said. “I had been a student teacher in my master’s degree, but didn’t really see it as a career option.”
The then-new graduate, who had gotten a little experience as a teaching assistant, decided to try it out, sending his resume out to every community college in California, as well as a few four-year schools. He eventually landed a teaching role at College of the Canyons in 1975.
“I thought, ‘I’ll never do one thing for my whole life,’” he said. “But within two years, I knew that this was going to be a long career. Although I hadn’t known I wanted to teach, it was the perfect fit for me.”
Rich Zucker first stepped on to IVC’s campus in the fall of 1979, one semester after the college opened. He came to Orange County to teach math at a tiny, brand-new college in Irvine, then called Saddleback College North Campus. With just over a dozen full-time faculty members, he joined a growing math department of three.
“The campus at that time was just four buildings - the A Quad,” he said. “All of the instructors for all disciplines shared the same room for an office. It was fun and a close-knit group.”
He came to love the rhythm of teaching – interacting with a new group of students each semester and hoping to inspire in them a love of math. And he was successful at it, receiving IVC's Teacher of the Year award three times during his tenure - in 1993, 1998 and 2007.
Professor Zucker being awarded IVC Teacher of the Year
Zucker’s favorite course to teach in nearly forty years? Math for liberal arts.
“It was a really rich course,” he said. “It’s just so gratifying when students that had hated math tell me at the end of the semester they are now looking forward to their next math course. And it surprises me sometimes. Because some of the best students, who were top of my class, confessed to me after the fact that they could never do math before.”
For Zucker, magic has always played an important role. He brought his hobby with him into his work and his students comment that it’s one of the most memorable things about his classes. He believes that card and rope tricks really inspire critical thinking in his students.
“I recently got a nice card from one of my classes,” he said. “The students talked about making the class fun, which I really strive to do - the singing and dancing I sometimes do to drive a point home. But especially, my students talk about the magic. Because I have a reputation for doing mathematical magic.”
He has been an amateur magician from childhood, and brought his passion for sleight of hand into the classroom. He has approximately 20 card and rope tricks that he has recycled for the last 40 years. Each semester he tries them out on a fresh group of students.
“I like to do magic that delivers a concept we’re studying or drives a point home, or is just for fun, but it always has to do with math,” Zucker shared. “One of the things that’s big in education is critical thinking. How do you bring critical thinking into a math class? I did it with magic.”
After thirty-nine and half years at IVC, Zucker is hanging up his teacher hat, but he is not ready to slow down in retirement. His hobby list is long and diverse and includes art, magic, puzzles, nature, and inventing. He’s designed elaborate scavenger hunts and is programming a complex rat trap to protect his bird feeders.
In the earliest days of Apple computers, he became a hobby programmer.
“I loved programming the Apple on an assembly language level,” he shared. “And I’m looking forward to going back to programming computers. It’s a very creative endeavor.”
That hobby led him to try a short stint working in a tech firm early in his teaching career, but he ultimately decided that computer development did not hold interest for him and he returned to the classroom.
A penchant for puzzles led him into a hobby of entering nationally sponsored deciphering contests with big rewards. Calling in monthly for a new clue, he was one of just a handful of winners who solved Decipher, the $100,000 puzzle in the 1980s. He used his $3,250 portion of the large reward to take his family on a trip to the Dominican Republic.
One of his biggest plans in retirement is, inspired by a Greek artist names Petros Vrellis, to write an algorithm that will help him create portraits using string art.
While he will be keeping busy in retirement pursuing many passions, he will miss his creative students and bright colleagues.
“I will miss my colleagues. I've been a part of a college with outstanding teachers,” he said. "I will miss the feeling of making a difference.But I won’t miss the grading!”