OUS professor takes education far beyond classroom

Published 12:00 am Sunday, August 14, 2005

I first "met" Bob Leith in a hotel room in Ashland, Ky., late one night back in 2002.

OK, I didn't actually meet him, but he was on TV. I'd just moved to the area and my temporary "home" was a hotel room.

Late one night as I channel surfed - half bored and half trying to familiarize myself with a new set of channels - I stopped at this tall, white-headed man who was stooped over a lectern talking about the American Revolution.

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Last weekend in another hotel room, and a bus, and a few restaurants and museums I truly met the man from the TV.

The 62-year-old is a fascinating man. Born in Coal Grove, educated at Rio Grande College, his devotion to his students is unparalleled in his nearly 40 years of teaching and is, perhaps, only matched by his amazing knowledge of history and dry sense of humor.

"I was born on the same day as Ben Franklin, Al Capone, Muhammad Ali," Leith said. "It's the good, the bad, the ugly and the slow."

Leith credits part of his choice of education to Ironton High School football program's assistant coach, Mike Burcham.

Leith said he and Burcham both attended Rio Grande, but Burcham had a car; Leith didn't.

So in an effort to always be able to catch a ride home, Leith mimicked Burcham's initial course of study.

"We took everything together. If he'd have been a hair dresser, I probably would have been one, too."

Many people know Leith from having him as a teacher - he's taught dozens and dozens of the teachers who fill Lawrence County classrooms - but many may not realize the great sacrifices Leith makes for his students.

The former basketball player's tall, lanky frame aches a little now. Back problems keep him in pain if he doesn't stretch daily.

Yet, the Ohio University Southern instructor climbs onto a bus in which he doesn't fit well several times a year to take students of history onto the battlefields and into the birthplaces of America's most historic figures.

"Steve (Call, OUS director of Travel and Tourism) and I don't take any salary for these (Education on Location trips)," Leith said matter-of-factly. "By us not taking any pay, we're able to put that toward the diesel and the bus expenses. That keeps the cost down for the students.

"I don't think you should ever take money for things that you like doing and that helps people," he said.

Back in the 1970s, Leith first began traveling to historic places to help his students connect with history.

Both the students and Leith didn't have much money.

"I'd go down and work at Bob Evans' Farm and develop a little pool of money so if any of the students needed it, we'd have it," Leith said.

If a student couldn't afford the cost, maybe the student could be compensated for driving the bus, Leith said.

Regardless of the problem, he always found a way around it, especially if it helped the students learn more - including some creative ways that he seems a little ashamed to share now.

On one trip, Leith realized that they didn't have enough money for everyone to go on the full tour of a site. His solution was simple.

"I bought passes for half of them," he said. "When they'd gone through they came out and gave their passes to the other half so everyone could see it."

And, despite years of study, Leith is constantly seeking more knowledge.

"I had a biology teacher once who said, 'You should never go to bed and close your eyes unless you've learned something new that day,'" Leith said. "Every night I try to read something new so that I can teach my students more.

"You spend your whole life studying history and when you die, you won't know everything you wanted to or are supposed to."

Perhaps, but a couple of generations know a whole lot more about history because of the dedication and heart of Bob Leith. From hotel rooms to classrooms to buses, Leith keeps teaching and giving back.

Kevin Cooper is publisher of The Ironton Tribune. He can be reached at (740) 532-1441 ext. 12 or by e-mail to kevin.cooper@irontontribune.com