Who was Wally Cordes?

Wally Cordes
Dr. Wally Cordes

 Dr. Cordes is  one of three founding members of the Teaching and Faculty Support Center. Cordes joined the chemistry department in 1959 and served the University of Arkansas for more than 40 years. The University Professor emeritus was best known for innovative teaching strategies and his power to connect with and motivate students in large classrooms. "He developed a reputation as one of the most outstanding teachers ever that called the U of A his home," said his colleague and friend, chemistry professor Bill Durham . "His enthusiasm for teaching was infectious."

Cordes had a knack for developing innovative ways to help students understand difficult concepts. For example, he led an effort to build a giant periodic table with switches that shined lights behind different elements as he discussed lessons. Provost Bob Smith said, "Dr. Wally Cordes has amazed, interested and excited literally thousands of students and has influenced colleagues in every college and school. Simply put, the U of A is a better institution because of Dr. Wally Cordes."

His classroom antics are the stuff of legend. He had a physical plant shirt with his name put on it. On the first day of class, he pretended to be the janitor. As students sat waiting for their teacher to show up, Dr. Cordes began discussing the potential attributes of the instructor who was obviously late.  Finally, Cordes got up from the seat and said, "Anyone can teach chemistry" and proceeded to write chemistry formulas on the board. Other students remember him passing out bags of popcorn in class and distributing holiday treats.  Dr. Molly Rapport, former student of his and current UA faculty, recalls that  Cordes told his students that they would  only have pop quizzes if Santa Clause crawled through the window. Students were quite shocked when Cordes, dressed like Santa, crawled through the window later that week. 

He would take pictures of his students the first week of class and go home and study their names and faces. Cordes would then greet them by name when they came to class the next week. This was no small feat given that he had over 100 students.  Cordes wanted to get to know his students so he required student to come to his office and sit in his rocking chair for five minutes. He would ask them about their lives and their passions. One faculty said, "Students were required to sit in the chair for five minutes and Dr. Cordes told them that rocking was optional."  Today, the Teaching and Faculty Support Center has a rocking chair in honor of Dr.  Wally Cordes .  Six teachers a year are given the honor of housing the chair in their office. In addition, chosen teachers are offered a chance to share teaching insights with others. These teachers are chosen because they are known to be teaching centered  in a way that honors the spirit of Dr. Cordes. 

In 2002, the Teaching and Faculty Support Center decided to add the Wally Cordes to its name. He worked hard to help get the center started and believed strongly that "teaching" would be first in the name and first in the mission of the center.  Founding Co-Directors said that Cordes thought there should always be food at events. In fact, Cordes insisted on giving everyone Cheetos. “You can tell a lot about someone by what they do with the Cheetos dust on their fingers,” he would say.  In the early days,  prizes weren’t quite as nice as they are now. When tasked with finding a nice door prize, Cordes brought in an old door. Dr. Di Brezzo recalls, "Not only did he bring in a door, but it was the door to his Jeep!"  Stories abound about the joyful eccentric professor who would be seen driving around campus in his Jeep.  Stories are told of how his Jeep would be topless even in the rain and snow.  He would be seen driving around campus with  an umbrella in  one hand and the steering wheel with another. Founding Co-Directors Ro DiBrezzo and Paul Cronan tell the story of the time they sent  Cordes to go to the airport to pick up their guest speaker. Right before the event, the speaker was no where to be found.  When they went looking for her,  they found her in the bathroom drying off.  Cordes had picked her up in the rain in his topless Jeep.  At least, he let her hold the umbrella.

Cordes, who earned his doctorate from the University of Illinois in 1960, specialized in crystallography and published more than 200 articles. He served as the chemistry department chair and the head of the Faculty Senate. He was a charter member and past president of the U of A Teaching Academy, co-founder and two-time co-director of TFSC, and a long-time member and leader of the American Crystallography Association. Over the years, Cordes earned many awards: the Arkansas Alumni Association Faculty Award for Teaching and Research, the Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences Master Teacher Award, the Burlington Award for Teaching, the C.A.S.E. Arkansas Professor of the Year, the Carnegie Foundation Arkansas Professor of the Year, and the Innovative Excellence in Teaching Award from the International Conference on Teaching and Learning.

His memory is honored as current faculty and instructors pursue teaching excellence through programs and services offered by the Wally Cordes Teaching and Faculty Support Center.