Doctor D’s career adds up to half a century

Categories: Around the Diocese

Infinite love of math and teaching multiplied joy for SJU professor and thousands of students

May 23, 2014, edition
By Sue Schulzetenberg-Gully

After some 50 years of teaching mathematics for St. John’s University in Collegeville, Robert Dumonceaux ended his last class May 9 with a prayer.

“I give you thanks almighty God for all thy blessings which we have received from thy bounty through Christ our Lord. Amen,” said the professor students call Doctor D. “I thank you for all the blessings I have received. I hope each one of you will enjoy preparing for the final, and I love you all.”

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Robert Dumonceaux

Dumonceaux, a member of St. John the Baptist Parish in Collegeville, began teaching math in 1960 during his senior year at St. John’s University. In the fall of 1961-62, he taught physics at the school. He received a master’s degree at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Wis., in 1963. He received a doctorate from the University of Missouri in 1969.

Except when away at graduate schools, he taught for St. John’s and the College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph, intertwining his love for teaching, math and God.

He taught every type of math class at St. John’s except geometry. He did not have a favorite course, but especially liked instilling a glimmer of understanding and seeing a smile in students who have “mathophobia.”

“He is interesting every class period,” said Maggie Eli, a first-year College of St. Benedict student from Immaculate Conception Parish in St. Anna. “It amazes me how excited he is about math all the time. He never gets bored.”

Joy in sharing knowledge

Dumonceaux never needed to think about being enthusiastic; he just was and thanks God for it. When he learns something or sees a neat pattern, he enjoys sharing it with others.

His eyes light up when he speaks of his numerical palindrome research. (A numerical palindrome is a number that reads the same backwards and forwards.)

A project involving palindromes, for example, might look at how many times a person needs to reverse and add the numbers before they become a palindrome.

He enjoys explaining numerical palindromes to students who are not strong in math because they understand it and realize they can figure out math problems.

“I’ve never seen any other teacher get so excited about palindromes and math patterns,” said Claudia Eisenhuth, also in her first year at the St. Ben’s. “He will bring out creative problems and get us involved. His class is never boring.”

Dumonceaux did not consciously think he needed to stay at St. John’s and finds it ironic that he taught at the school for so many years. He was torn when it was time to go to college. He wanted to farm.

“I loved the farm,” he said. “I really wanted to farm but St. John’s was an attraction, and my parents insisted that I go to college. They promised me that if I wanted to come back after I had been in college, they would give me the farm.”

Looking back, Dumonceaux is grateful for his parents’ insistence.

“I would have missed all this opportunity to teach, to learn, to interact with people,” he said. “It’s been so wonderful. I’ve been so fortunate.”

Best of both worlds

Dumonceaux never took over the family farm, but he did have a hobby farm with cows, chickens, pigs and vegetables. He incorporated statistics from the animals into math problems for the students to solve.

“I can’t think of anything better: living on the hobby farm, teaching at St. John’s, the best of both worlds,” he said.

Faith seeped into his classroom and on the farm. He talked about his faith during classes. He told his students about attending daily Mass, his grandchildren’s first Communion Masses and Gospel stories.

“That’s one way I can show it’s important to me. It’s part of the package,” Dumonceaux said.

Faith was instilled in him by his parents. Prayer was very important to them. They prayed the rosary often and the Stations of the Cross in Lent. At St. John’s, daily Mass helped him combat his homesickness. Also helpful was football, which he played in his first year, and professor Michael O’Fallon, who taught math and was the wrestling coach, combining two of Dumonceaux’s favorite pastimes.

“I missed the farm and the animals so terribly much,” he said. “Then I was blessed enough that I got the degree and taught what I love to do.”

Deep Johnnie roots

Faith was further encouraged by his wife, Evie, who, on the first date, said they should say the rosary together. They will celebrate their 51st wedding anniversary in June.

Their seven children attended St. John’s Preparatory School. Several of them attended St. John’s University or the College of St. Benedict. “Our roots are so deep here at St. John’s,” he said.

He absorbed Benedictine values through his years at St. John’s and became good friends with several monks.

“I must have taken a vow of stability,” Dumonceaux joked.

In his retirement, Dumonceaux plans to attend daily Mass and stay for the coffee and conversation. He plans to spend more time with his grandchildren and continue his research on palindromes.

Though he will not have a classroom of students in the fall, he does not plan to set teaching aside completely. He plans to teach his grandchildren about palindromes. And he might teach palindromes to his Bible study group.

“I just love it,” he said.