An Interview With Robert Morris University's Dr. Norbert Pietrzak
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Student Life

An Interview With Robert Morris University's Dr. Norbert Pietrzak

As a teacher, he takes a special interest in his students and believes that “education is a mutual learning experience between the student and teacher”.

An Interview With Robert Morris University's Dr. Norbert Pietrzak
Dr. Norbert Pietrzak

On a cold Wednesday afternoon, I remember rushing into Hale Center for my next class. Suddenly, I bumped into an elderly man as I was about to leave. I held the door open for him and was rewarded by a sweet smile plus a genuine thank you.

During the next couple of weeks, I would see him around Hale Center slowly walking with a cane and carrying his portfolio. I had a feeling he is one of the RMU professors but I didn’t know his name. I started asking around so I can write about him, share his story, and highlight his passion for teaching. After all, the teachers with passion are the ones who motivate, inspire, and guide students!

As luck would have it, Mr. Frank Perry, RMU's University Registrar, identified the "Mystery professor" as Dr. Norbert Pietrzak. He has been honored by RMU with the title of Professor Emeritus.

Many decades ago, Norbert K. Pietrzak was born in the South Side of Pittsburgh. His family had a bar and restaurant called the Mission Bar. He fondly remembers his father would put green beer in the tap during every St. Patrick's Day celebration.

As a child, he was studious and musically inclined. In grade school, Norbert learned how to play the piano accordion. And in high school played with a group and made some pocket money. It was during this time that he found his passion for science. His science teacher needed help, so Norbert would prepare and clean the lab for her. Then, he would intensively study biology and chemistry outside of the classroom.

After high school, Norbert attended Duquesne University for his bachelor's and master's degrees in biology. Then, he did a doctoral fellowship at the University of Pittsburgh. Pitt offered him free tuition, books, and a $100 stipend (that was a lot of money at that time) and he also taught students while studying. Dr. Pietrzak poignantly reminisced, that's how he got started on his teaching career.

In 1965, Robert Morris Junior College hired Dr. Pietrzak as a biology professor. When he started, RMU only had several hundred students and offered degrees in business administration and secretarial work. Dr. Pietrzak personally witnessed RMU's transformation into a world class university offering sixty bachelor's degree programs as well as twenty master’s and doctoral programs. RMU currently enrolls more than 5,000 undergraduate and graduate students.

Dr. Pietrzak was a part of and contributed immensely to this educational institution’s success. He recalled that at the beginning, they didn't have any science programs and he was responsible for spearheading it. Also, when Hale Center was being built, he helped its construction by asking his faculty members for monetary donations, and they all came up with $50 each. Dr. Pietrzak did not stop there; he called, talked, and met his family and friends as well as people in the Pittsburgh community for donations.

He proudly added that he did more than his fair share by doing this and also donating as much as he could from his personal funds. Dr. Pietrzak was like “ the captain of Hale Center” and, in his own words, “influenced RMU's rules governing philanthropy and charitable giving”.

Not only did he teach and raise proceeds for RMU, he was also the head and advisor of the Alpha Chi Rho fraternity since 1970. Because of Dr. Pietrzak, several retired alumnus of RMU still come back to help and give back to the institution. To commemorate his dedication, the fraternity named a scholarship after him – the Norbert K. Pietrzak endowed scholarship which is distributed to RMU full time students with a minimum 3.0 cumulative GPA given preferably to those studying Environmental Science. It is also preferred to be awarded to Western PA students who are members of RMU's Alpha Chi Rho fraternity.

Years later, the school’s former president, Dr. Gregory Dell'Omo, recognized Dr. Pietrzak’s service and dedication to RMU by conferring on him the title professor emeritus. This is an honorary title held by a professor immediately upon retirement. Dr. Pietrzak also joked that because of this title, he is able to eat for free on the campus!

So during commencement ceremonies a few years back, he was honored, and the president gave a speech about him. He retired for a couple of years until the university asked him to come back to teach part-time. This happened during the time RMU started it’s nursing and biology programs.

As a teacher, he takes a special interest in his students and believes that “education is a mutual learning experience between the student and teacher”. Both can learn something from each other." Dr. Pietrzak says you have to learn the best way to teach. For instance, he gives his students a review sheet before a test because it makes it easier for them to learn and retain information. In fact, he still gets in touch with a lot of his former students.

During our interview, he recalled one of his fondest memories with a student. "Two years ago, I was coming out of a grocery store. This one guy got a hold of me and asked 'Are you Dr. Pietrzak?' I said 'Yes, I am'. 'I was one of your students at Robert Morris”. He looked old to me. I asked him 'How old are you?' 'I'm 88.' I said, 'This can't be. I don't know how I could've had you when I started. You must have been in your late forties when you were a student." He told me 'I was 48. I just came out of the Army and came in on the GI Bill.' He was in the first class I started." Indeed, Dr. Pietrzak has touched so many lives.

One of his greatest passions is the bonsai tree. In the 1960s, he became interested when he found a bonsai book at Kaufmann's. The problem was that it was in Japanese, so he sent an $18 check to the supplier for a kit. In 1970, Dr. Norbert visited the him in Japan to learn more. Over the years, he traveled to Japan, Korea, China, and Asia to do bonsai research. Dr. Pietrzak is the former president and co-founder of the Pittsburgh Bonsai Society. His publications have been featured in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, American Bonsai Society, and more. Currently, he teaches bonsai classes at the Phipps Conservatory. It is also interesting to note that he taught a bonsai class at RMU a couple of years ago. He shared his bonsai album with me and requested that we feature some of his prized photographs:

For the record, Dr. Pietrzak also taught a Bonsai class at RMU. Take a look at the following photographs:

You can also check out this link for additional info:

Professor branched out and found bonsai

In addition, his work has been showcased in places like Dallas, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia. He even makes bonsai trees for Kiyoshi, an Asian restaurant 1 minute away from RMU. Dr. Norbert changes these bonsai arrangements every other week. These plants can't stay inside for a long time because they're acclimated to the outdoors.

Aside from teaching and working on bonsais, Dr. Pietrzak is actively involved with The St.. Margaret Mary Parish. He is a Eucharistic Minister and gives communion to the sick on Wednesdays.

It is an honor to interview him. I learned so much about his life, career, education, and more. Dr. Norbert Pietrzak has been teaching for over 50 years. He gives a new meaning to the word “Passion”. I challenge you to find something in your life that you're passionate about and dedicate yourself to it. You never know, you might just change the lives of other people in the process. And he did just that and still does it everyday! Thank you, Dr. Pietrzak for all you have done for RMU!

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.
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