For Over 50 Years, Two Alexandria Math Teachers Continue to Educate City Students

A Mathematician Duo Adds Up to Longevity

By Bill Sullivan

ALEXANDRIA,VA-“Transiency in the workplace” just doesn’t figure for a pair of Alexandria teachers who have remained at their respective high schools for over 50 years.

Ron Umbeck started teaching geometry at Bishop Ireton High School in 1967 and Larry Trice began his tenure as an algebra teacher one year later at T.C. Williams High School. Neither has left or plans to do so. Each started when the schools first opened. Since then, the schools have changed. T.C.’s original building was razed and replaced with a parking garage and new school. Bishop Ireton added an auditorium, razed the rectory and is adding another building along its Cambridge Road campus.

Umbeck came to the Alexandria area from San Diego, where he saw a job vacancy advertised for a math teacher’s assistant at Georgetown University. He later earned a master’s degree in math from Catholic University of America. Umbeck’s first full-time teaching post came in the D.C. Public School System (Roosevelt HS) for three years. His next teaching stint would be his last, at Ireton.

Trice is originally from Richlands, VA, near the West Virginia and Kentucky borders. As a boy, his family moved to Winchester and he graduated from Handley High School, and then attended Hampden-Sydney College in central Virginia.

Since the mid-1960s, Northern Virginia has been home to both Umbeck and Trice, and that accounts for all of their adult lives.

“I’m not a risk-taker,” Umbeck told me. “[Bishop Ireton] is like family. I’m comfortable there and enjoy the security.” And Trice? “I enjoy what I’m doing at T.C. and like the diverse student body there,” he says. They both immerse themselves in extracurricular activities after a typical eight-to-three day teaching geometry, algebra, algebra-trigonometry, calculus, pre-calculus and business math.

A trumpet player since the third grade in Cape Girardeau, MO., Umbeck sat in with the pit orchestra in an Ireton musical in the late 1960s. He checked off a few productions – Fiddler on the Roof, The Music Man, Guys and Dolls – before shaking his head and saying, “There are so many more.” The Ireton experience led to gigs in numerous local ensembles.

“Ireton used to hire out for conductors at school plays,” he said. “When the conductor saw the old guy sitting in the orchestra with the students, he asked if I’d be interested in joining other groups.”

That led to spots with Georgetown University wind ensemble, the Georgetown Hoyas Pep Band, the Port City Players, the Northern Virginia Community College jazz band (“Nighthawks”) and the Washington Redskins Marching Band.

“Georgetown coach John Thompson loved us so we traveled to games with the team,” Umbeck recalled. The Redskins Marching Band didn’t travel but played and marched at all home games. “If it rained at old D.C. Stadium, we wouldn’t wear our feathers,” said Umbeck, who added he got to know Redskins quarterback Sonny Jurgensen. “Our locker rooms were side-by-side so it was easy to get to know the players.”

I told Umbeck that music and math seemed mutually exclusive but he disagreed. “Music and math go together,” he said. But how?

At his alma mater, the University of San Diego, Umbeck and his math teacher once played a piano duet in the university’s production of George Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue.’ And at Ireton, Umbeck teaches music on Saturdays to middle school students.

“There is no feeder school for Ireton,” he said. “Parochial middle schools don’t have music departments (due to budgets), so we teach students interested in music on weekends at BI.”

Umbeck also moderates the Ireton “It’s Academic” team, a group he’s coached for 49 years. I asked him if he gets any “air-time” on the NBC4-TV program. “The show is taped a week in advance so it’s not live TV,” he said, “but at the third commercial break, the students and I get introduced.”

To prepare for the show, Umbeck tests his high-achievers. “We have tryouts where I do a mock show,” he said. “We select the three best students to go on the air. I’m proud of them.” No wonder, since the Ireton team has won the competition numerous times.

I asked Umbeck if he knew all the answers to TV host Mac McGary’s questions. “No,” he fired off, adding “I get all the science questions wrong.”

Math was an obvious career path for Umbeck at a young age in California. “It came easy for me,” he said. “It was the only subject I excelled in.” The reward for him is when former students return to share their accomplishments.

“One of my students is the head of the math department at Duke University,” he said. “Another, Bob McDonnell, went on to be Governor of Virginia. One designed postage stamps for the U.S. Postal Service. And Jon Carroll won a Grammy Award for “Best New Artist” in 1977. Carroll was a vocalist in the Starland Vocal Band, which bested Boston and two other nominees for the award.

Umbeck has applied a personal touch to the BI math classroom. He co-authored a textbook with Richard Bulcavage, titled A Brief Introduction to Calculus, which he uses in class.

Umbeck and Trice have never met, despite living one block from each other in the south Arlington community of Fairlington. Trice could walk to work at T.C., it’s that close.

Trice also excelled in math as a young student. He had two mentors. His father taught math at the University of Virginia and his mother taught elementary school. By his teens, Trice knew he wanted to be a teacher.

Trice’s alma mater, Hampden-Sydney, was founded in 1775. It is the 10th-oldest college in the United States and has graduates from many professional fields. Perhaps most notable was William Henry Harrison, the 9th president of the United States.

After graduation in 1967, Trice earned a master’s degree in education at the University of Virginia. During his second year there, he served the internship at T.C. that led to a full-time teaching position.

Trice taught algebra, geometry, algebra-trigonometry and pre-calculus at T.C. for 40 years. Since 2008, he’s also been the building use coordinator, scheduling events in the school just yards away from the original building. The job allows him to meet more students and faculty.

I asked Trice how he keeps students’ attention in class. “You find ways to make it fun,” he said. “If you can relate the information to real life, like in consumer math, it helps. But it’s harder to do at higher levels, like pre-calculus.”

Trice said his students were more interested in algebra2-trigonometry. “It was rigorous but fast moving,” he said. And when students had trouble calculating what he’d taught, Trice would tutor during class.

“I sometimes work with students but I also involve other students to help during class,” he said. “This is so they don’t end up lost at night when doing homework.”

About the only changes in the math classrooms today is the technology, said Trice. “Changes came with technology,” he said. “when calculators, graphic calculators and then computers became part of the classroom. Instruction changed around those elements and you adapt your teaching to that.”

Out of the classroom, Trice engaged in student activities such as Key Club, student government and Future Farmers of America. He coordinated the Titan Expo, which started as an outdoor carnival in nearby Chinquapin Park, for 19 years. The event generated college scholarships. “It brought the business community and T.C. together,” he said, “to help send T.C. kids to college.”

Though he’s about to celebrate his 50th year in Titan land, Trice hasn’t considered leaving. “I’ve started to think about retirement but I have no plans,” he said. “I’m healthy and I enjoy having to do things, although my days now are just five or six hours long.”

No matter what he’s been involved with at T.C., he’s content. “I’ve liked working in one community and getting to know the parents of my students. By staying, I’ve built friendships and made a lot of connections. I see the next generation of students come through the school.”

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