A Professor With a Passion-For Physics and Theatrics

The sign on the office door reads “’Hollywood.” He claims that his secretary stuck it there as a joke. But there’s no doubt that more than a little Tinsel Town courses through Dr. Richard Olenick’s veins.

For one thing, he often shows up in a red-striped shirt, red suspenders, and red tie with khaki slacks. Hardly typical professorial garb. For another, there’s his involvement with the award-winning fifty-two-part PBS series on physics, “The Mechanical Universe and Beyond.” Olenick. thirty-four, was chosen from among 600 applicants to write the college-level text that accompanies the series. He also reviewed each episode’s script, detecting errors and suggesting ways to add spice to often arcane material. (The entire series will run in 1987 on Channel 13.)

But Olenick’s true capacity for theatrics is seen in the classroom. He’s a showman who’s likely to show up at class time with a handful of toys and wacky transparencies. One depicted the birth of the universe, with designations such as “The Enslavement of Quarks” and “The Amazing Disappearance of Anti-Matter.”’

“He makes dumb jokes,” says John Posey, a junior political science major. “But he’s really prepared. He knows his stuff like the back of his hand.” Ole-nick relies on memory, rarely checking his notes. He simply loves physics and thinks everybody should share that love.

Olenick, who grew up in Chicago, flourished under an imaginative sixth-grade teacher named Sister Joseph Marie. She directed some of his excess energy into legitimate experiments. “You can always trace it back to a teacher,” Olenick says. “That’s what makes being a teacher so frightening. In high school, I ended up disliking physics because of a teacher. I was going to be a math major. Then, in my second year of college, I found a physics teacher who wouldn’t laugh at you if you asked a dumb question.” Inspired, Olenick went on to get a master’s degree and a doctorate in the subject from Purdue.

Olenick came to the University of Dallas because he wanted to teach at a small liberal arts school. Since he arrived in 1979. UD’s enrollment in the physics department has grown by 150 percent. Last spring, Olenick was honored as a 1986 Haggar Fellow, an award for teaching excellence. This fall, he took the reins as department chairman when Father Benedict Mono-stori stepped down. “He’s very imaginative, very dedicated,” says Monostori, who has been at UD since it opened in 1956. “His material is not easy and he doesn’t try to make it easy. But he makes his students want to work, to get involved with it.”

After a hard week in the laboratory, Olenick is likely to be found drinking beer with his students at Club Schmitz. “I can safely say that they don’t revere me,” Olenick says. “I like to have parties. I’m no different from them.” Still, Olenick regrets that he cannot always ignite in his students his own passion for physics. “I want to take them and shake them and say, “You can be truly great,’ ” he says. “I wish they were all like I was, spending time in the labs just from sheer fascination with it.”


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