Cancer can’t hold math professor backBy Leon Stevenson III
When you say his name aloud, it kind of sounds like “M.C. Hammer”, and just like his musical counterpart, Dempsey Hamner, adjunct professor of mathematics at Columbia College- Lake of the Ozarks, is equally as entertaining, according to students and faculty past and present. It must be why students from all over the state of Missouri, even those currently enrolled in other universities, seek out his math courses at the Lake of the Ozark campus – because of a one-of-a-kind man’s love for the subject he was born to teach.
Hamner has been a professor at the Lake of the Ozarks campus of Columbia College for 20 years, and his reputation of being able to teach arguably the most difficult course subject has garnered him lofty praise from student and faculty alike. Dr. John Keeney, director for the Lake of the Ozarks campus, says, “He’s been in education for 47 years; he’s the best math teacher I've ever seen. Students commute from Missouri State University and other colleges to take his class because they hear he’s that good”.
Yet it is a battle outside of the classroom that makes his passion for the art of math and his story that much more appealing.
He and his wife were discussing his diagnosis of cancer while in a parking lot listening to “Jesus take the Wheel” on the car stereo. “For some reason, that song gave me the inspiration to be upfront and want to fight it – I have cancer, cancer doesn’t have me.” Hamner said.
At the beginning of every course session, not only does he introduce himself to the class, he makes his status as a cancer patient known as well. “I tell my students at the start of every course that I have cancer – the only reason I do that is because I promised my wife I would so they would come to class sick.”
It’s not the only reason of course, but it does have an interesting effect on his students.
Rona Prater, a former student in four classes that Hamner has taught, says “He doesn’t let his cancer stop him at all. When he first tells the class about his diagnosis, there’s a sense of shock and awe – then we see how he teaches and it changes their attitude. He gives one hundred and ten percent every time. Everyone loves his classes.”
And making math relevant for even the most troubled students is a personal challenge he enjoys. ““I like to take those 'C' students and make them care about the subject to where they try harder.”
How does he do this? By using real life experiences. “For instance, I‘ve gone to the mall and seen items on sale, and factored all of the sale prices and told the cashier – ‘you know you’re gonna be a math problem in my class, right’? Or I talk about a former student of mine who was a nurse, and could only work a certain number of hours and go from there. If you can relate to what really happens out here in the real world, students can wrap their head around the idea that algebra can be useful.”
Despite his popularity, there had been plenty of difficulties in the past juggling treatments, doctor visits and teaching.
“There were plenty of days where I would have to go to therapy in the morning in Jeff City, drive back to teach a class, then drive back for chemo, teach an evening class and so on and so forth. It got pretty hectic at times, but it had to be done. I was going to fight it, and I have to give it my all.”
Even with this hectic schedule, Keeney says, “He’s been incredibly consistent. He’s only missed one session”
When asked what makes him continue teaching, even after his diagnosis, Hamner simply responds, “Staying active and being in front of a classroom keeps my mind off things… This was my first year attending Relay for Life [a signature fundraising event of the American Cancer Society], and I may do that again. I travel a lot, most recently to Honduras and Maine; and of course, spend time with my wife. But if I had to say what makes me love teaching, it’d be the man that taught me - Dr. George Polya, my math professor at Stanford University. The man taught till he was 90, so I figure I can at least go for 80!”
Then, a few weeks ago, his doctor gave Hamner the best words he could ask for – “…Your body’s fighting it - You’re fighting the cancer.” Hamner’s body is now fighting the cancer itself instead of having to use chemotherapy.
Hamner really is too legit to quit.