If you asked most college students at most colleges to name their favorite class, chances are the words “freshman chemistry” wouldn’t come up all that often. On the other hand, if the retirement party for Jim Davis, senior lecturer on chemistry and chemical biology, is any indication, at Harvard “freshman chemistry” just might top the list.
Davis, who has been at Harvard since 1986, has taught the classic introductory chemistry course, Chemistry 5, since 1992. In that relatively short time, Davis has made a disproportionately deep impression on the thousands of students, fellow faculty, and teaching fellows he’s come across. And in what was to be his last class at Harvard, they showed their appreciation. On Monday, Dec. 10, current and former students, teaching fellows, faculty, and administrators gathered together for Davis’ last lecture in Chemistry 5. But the retiring professor didn’t deliver the lecture; instead he was feted in high style at a surprise party.
The lecture hall was postered with a pictorial journey through Davis’ teaching career, a display that was complemented by a continually running slide show of the man of the day. In addition to being senior lecturer on chemistry and chemical biology and on molecular and cellular biology, Davis is an associate of Dunster House, head tutor, and coordinator of laboratories in the Department of Chemistry.
The festivities kicked off with a Jim Davis impersonation performed by teaching fellow Roger D. Huffstetler. Huffstetler’s impression drew cheers, laughter, and applause. The rookie impressionist then presented Davis with a framed picture of Harvard Yard signed by current and former teaching fellows.
Next, teaching fellow Logan McCarty gave Davis gifts from students, including a Harvard jacket with the professor’s name and the number 5 (for Chemistry 5) imprinted on the back.
Cakes came next. Two of them. One was decorated with the traditional goodbye party image of the periodic table. The other was graced with the picture of a dashing Davis decked out in a tux. As the cakes were cut, one of Harvard’s premiere a cappella groups, the Din and Tonics, swooped in to sing a few tunes for their favorite chemistry teacher and faculty adviser.
Just as the Dins finished their last song, two more “singers” arrived to serenade Davis. Local celebrities Tom and Ray Magliozzi, better known as Click and Clack, the hosts of NPR’s “Car Talk,” appeared. The pair sang what they claimed was the only song they know. Fortunately for the occasion, “Goodbye My Coney Island Baby” is, as the title suggests, a farewell song. Davis has been a frequent guest on car talk, offering his chemistry expertise to Click and Clack and their listeners.
The grand finale featured Davis himself singing the Tom Lehrer song, “The Elements.” Then Davis, visibly moved, thanked his friends and fans. The packed lecture hall rose in standing ovation, which left no doubt as to how they felt about cherished teacher and mentor Jim Davis.