Listening to someone talk about the history of Pennsylvania isn’t the most exciting thing in the world. Watching someone perform the history of Pennsylvania, however, is another matter. That’s exactly what Dr. Robert Szymczak does each time he lectures about the Keystone State. Instead of telling students what William Penn said, Szymczak gets into character, voicing and bringing life to each historical figure he speaks about.
But it’s not just Pennsylvania that the Penn State Beaver associate professor of history brings to life; it’s every subject he teaches, from the history of Russia to World War II.
Sitting in Szymczak’s class is like watching a one-man historical theater being performed. But for every remarkable story he tells and acts out, the story of his own life is equally remarkable.
From an early age, Szymczak was surrounded by people with fascinating stories of the past. He was born in 1946 in East Vandergrift, Pa., a town with a booming steel mill in Westmoreland County. East Vandergrift was divided into three neighborhoods based on ethnicity: a Slovak section, a Lithuanian section, and a Polish section.
Szymczak grew up in the Polish neighborhood, where his father, Bernard, and many others spoke fluent Polish and English.
The town’s division along ethnic lines didn’t escape the young Szymczak. “We realized we were kind of living in an ethnic cocoon,” he said.
Szymczak’s love of history was born in East Vandergrift’s Polish church, which was steeped in Polish tradition. “It made me curious to know the history of these peoples and their lands of origin,” he said.
To add even more ingredients to this concoction of curiosity, East Vandergrift was also home to a multitude of World War II veterans, and Szymczak said he enjoyed talking with them. But it was his father who had the biggest influence on him.
“My father and I had long, long conversations about many topics of interest, ranging from Shakespeare to ancient history, to the history of Eastern Europe, World War II, and even the history of baseball. The older I get, the more remarkable I realize he was.”
With his love of history and interest in learning affirmed, Szymczak had a good idea of what he wanted to do for a living.
“I liked the idea of teaching history,” he said.
Szymczak had a general love of school that extended beyond teaching. He also liked being a student. Szymczak holds a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from West Virginia University, a second master’s degree from Duquesne University, a doctorate from Carnegie Mellon University, and a second doctorate from Lancaster University in England.
But for all of his experience learning in the classroom, it’s his time teaching in it that has endeared him to so many Penn State Beaver alumni.
After teaching political science classes at Penn State New Kensington from 1976-1982, Szymczak moved to Penn State Mont Alto, where he taught for a year. In the fall of 1983, when a position opened up closer to home at the Beaver campus, Szymczak transferred. But it wasn’t an altogether familiar setting for him.
“I had never set foot in Beaver County in my life,” Szymczak said.
Despite that, he adapted quickly, and so did his students. Amy Gartley ’90 Com, who is now Beaver’s associate director of student affairs, had Szymczak in class her freshman year in 1986. She said her former professor was very engaging and passionate about his work, adding that the level of detail in his lectures really stood out.
“I sensed the immensity of what he was teaching,” she said, and recalled that taking notes became secondary to listening.
Gartley isn’t the only student with fond memories of Szymczak. John Grace ’90 Eng graduate, said he remembers Szymczak as being incredibly fascinating. Grace, who works in Detroit as a manufacturing engineer manager for Ford, said Szymczak gave the complete picture when teaching his subject matter.
Szymczak’s ability to captivate his students isn’t just because of his intimate knowledge of history, but because of the way he tells it. He said that he became a good storyteller by listening to other people speak and using his natural knack for speaking.
“First of all, you must really, really, really be immersed in the subject. You must have the knowledge to teach that subject, and then you should do it with passion,” Szymczak said.
And even after teaching for so long, he still enjoys his job.
“I love what I do. I still haven’t lost the passion for it.”
Yet for all the passion he teaches with and all of the fond memories his students have of him, there’s still one thing most of his students — and people in general — can’t do: pronounce his name. The proper pronunciation is Shim-chuk.
Regardless of whether people can pronounce his name correctly or not, few students will ever forget him.
“I would like to be remembered as somebody who taught his classes with all the knowledge that I could muster about the subject, and all the passion that it took to teach it well,” he said.
And as for his view of life outside the classroom, Szymczak has a true historian’s perspective.
“Everybody has a story. It’s just too bad that some of them don’t know what that story is.”
Original story by Matt Jones '10 Com, published in Penn State Beaver's Nittany News, Fall 2011