Daily 49er

Chemistry professor teaches a bigger message

Tom Gufrey uses chemistry to spread kindness to his students.

Tom+Gufrey+has+been+teaching+chemistry+and+kindness+at+Cal+State+Long+Beach+for+40+years.+
Tom Gufrey has been teaching chemistry and kindness at Cal State Long Beach for 40 years.

Tom Gufrey has been teaching chemistry and kindness at Cal State Long Beach for 40 years.

Sabrina Flores | Daily 49er

Sabrina Flores | Daily 49er

Tom Gufrey has been teaching chemistry and kindness at Cal State Long Beach for 40 years.

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At the start of every class, a familiar sign greets the students in professor Tom Gufrey’s Chemistry 100 class. The worn-out black background and bold white lettering read only two words: kindness matters.

This is the message Gufrey teaches his students above all else. Whether it’s paying for their textbooks or engaging his class to make lessons more enjoyable, it’s the one theme in the chemistry professor’s classes.

”Of all the things in life – this is number one,” Gufrey said. “We put this sign up everyday just as a way to show kindness to people.”

With over 40 years of teaching at Cal State Long Beach, Gufrey works to teach not just chemistry lessons, but the lesson of kindness.

Sabrina Flores | Daily 49er
The door to Tom Gufrey’s faculty office is adorned with pictures of old students, inspiring quotes and hand-written notes.

The professor can still recall when chemistry first piqued his interest. He recounted one day in 1962 when he decided to do an experiment of his own during lecture his junior year of high school.

“There was a beaker and a bottle of concentrated nitric acid by me and I had an old penny,” said Gufrey. “I thought, ‘You know, I wonder what would happen?’”

Gufrey proceeded to place the penny in the beaker then pour nitric acid on top of it. Gas began rolling off the table onto the floor creating a reaction Gufrey could only describe as beautiful — but was actually toxic nitrogen dioxide. He was transfixed by the gas until his teacher turned around to see what he was doing.

“When Brother Wilfred saw it he rightfully exploded with anger,” Gufrey said. “I was suspended of course. And even then I just thought this is so neat. I have to become a chemist.”

Now, Gufrey continues to base his Chemistry 100 lectures around three main things: engaging demonstrations, his “Johnny Carson” sense of humor and above all else, kindness.

Chelsey Austria, a second year psychology major and student of Gufrey’s, said he once helped her pay for her class workbook after a mix up in the library.

“I basically ended up needing to pay a difference between the used price of [the book] and how much it would cost to buy the workbook new,” Austria said. “Professor Gufrey ended up paying the difference for me just out of the kindness of his heart and from seeing me go through such a struggle.”

Austria expressed what she thought set Gufrey apart from other professors.

Sabrina Flores | Daily 49er
Tom Gufrey admires photos received from former students hanging in his office.

“For starters, he always implements kindness into class,” Austria said. “And he’s very fun to be around. He also applies the material to real life situations, not only in words but literally through the demos we’ve done.”

The demos Austria refers to are the demonstrations Gufrey puts on almost every class meeting, and one of the things he’s known for.

“All the demos he sets up take a lot of time and effort to do,” fellow chemistry professor Dr. Kensaku Nakayama said.

Nakayama has been teaching alongside Gufrey for about 30 years. He said Gufrey’s fun and open personality makes him a breath of fresh air in the work environment, something Nakayama looks forward to everyday.

“He’s putting in a tremendous amount of his own personal resources in order to get these labs and experiments set up every week in the lectures,” Nakayama said. “I don’t think I’ve seen an instructor that goes to that extent. He really cares about the student’s educational growth, and it shows in the way he approaches his teaching.”

Gufrey’s approach to teaching is genuine, making it hard for students not to be pulled in by his good sense of humor, charm and welcoming aura.

“I’ve taken chemistry before but I’ve never had a professor like him,” said Charlene Dethiefsen, fifth year health science major currently enrolled in his class. “It’s like watching a performance when you’re in there. He keeps it lively and he’s comical. Other chemistry classes I’ve been to are pretty dry.”

Dethiefsen compared Gufrey’s demonstrations to her childhood memories of watching “Bill Nye The Science Guy” on television. She said she can’t help but feel reminiscent when watching him teach.

“There’s just something nostalgic and very sweet about his teaching style,” Dethiefsen said. “At times it kind of reminds me of theater. Like you’re watching a performance and trying to interpret it.”

Gufrey’s message has remained the same throughout his 40 years of teaching. Even when the lessons of chemistry fade, his students will remember one thing from his classes: kindness matters.

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