Mr. P.’s Opus

Fresh out of the wild blue yonder, the WWII combat pilot touched down in the small East Alabama town to continue serving his country, now as a high-school physics teacher. However, his vision of guiding young minds toward careers in science and technology began to lose its luster before year’s end. Mr. P, as he was affectionately known to his students, packed up his slide rule and left B.R.H.S only after this new high school had sent its first graduates to follow their dreams.

Most of my classmates in that 1951 senior class had their own visions to pursue. The Korean War draft claimed many young men, and marriage plans dominated the thoughts of the young women. A handful of the remaining few applied for college.

Six decades after high-school graduation, sipping coffee before the Sunday morning church service, I hear a familiar name in the conversation behind me. I turn and approach the gentleman. “Are you Mr. Ponder, my high-school science teacher?” He chuckles. “I am Norman Ponder, and who are you?” 

So, he is indeed my Mr. P. I scan his face, the crisp features now fleshed out and mellowed by age, the strawberry-blond crew cut now a swirling sea of gray waves. As we talk, the twinkle in his eye confirms that the keen sense of humor, his love of a good story, have not faded, nor has our long-ago connection.

As we migrate from the church parlor to a middle row pew, the organist’s prelude cuts short our initial reunion. Subsequent “reunion” conversations ensue and the half-century long hiatus in our relationship gradually closes. Mr. P. confesses that his dream of a teaching career had ended in disillusionment after that first year at B.R.H.S. His meager salary was insufficient to support a growing family, so he had explored several other careers, finally finding his niche in a public utility’s real estate department.

Lt. Col. Norman Ponder’s service as a C-47 pilot in the WWII Pacific Theatre led him into a hobby of constructing experimental aircraft and military scale models. He built and donated a replica of the battleship USS Alabama, now on display at Battleship Memorial Park in Mobile. He presently serves on the advisory board and as a volunteer at the Southern Museum of Flight in Birmingham, where two of his scale models are on display: the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise and the cruiser USS Birmingham.

Although Mr. P. left the teaching profession almost sixty years ago, his creativity and dedication to documenting authentic history continue to enrich the experiences of the public, especially students who study the displays of his models and listen to his stories.

Norman Ponder typifies the many Alabamians who integrate contributions to the humanities within their work-day lives. Whatever occupation one chooses, there dwells a bit of creativity and a yearning to serve humanity that surges within each soul and demands release. The Alabama Humanities Foundation strives to provide opportunities for citizens to develop and share the fruits of their creativity.

Written by: Bob W.