No one has had a longer relationship with Napa Valley College than professor John Charlesworth, 78, who is finally retiring after more than a half century on the faculty.
He began teaching there in 1965, but his ties go back even farther. He started as a student in 1958 when the college was only in its second decade of existence.
Charlesworth figures he touched the lives of some 17,000 student as well as untold more residents who attended his stargazing events over the years.
He retired from full-time teaching 15 years ago, but has taught two astronomy courses each year since.
“I couldn’t give up teaching entirely because it was so much fun. I enjoy the students and teaching the subject material,” he said.
Charlesworth sometimes runs into former students who recognize him and stop to chat. He recalled a typical conversation:
“Remind me, who are you?”
“I’m John Charlesworth . . . you were my favorite student.”
“Oh, you’re still alive!”
When young people graduate from high school, Charlesworth asks them, “Are you going to Napa Valley College? Why wouldn’t you want great teachers at an affordable price?”
Both of his children graduated from NVC before going on to four-year schools. Two of his grandchildren have done the same.
Charlesworth is devoted to Napa, where his ancestors settled in 1910. After graduating from Napa High in 1958 he enrolled at Napa College where he met Mary Ann Fontana. They have been married 55 years.
He was part of a new generation of students who signed up for science after the Russians launched Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite, in 1957.
“As the first in my family who went to college, I didn’t have any idea what it was all about,” he recalled. “A friend of mine wanted to take science, so I did, too.
“I had wonderful instructors and was well prepared for San Francisco State,” where he graduated with two degrees and a Life Teaching Credential. He returned to Napa College in 1965 to teach chemistry, astronomy and other physical sciences. To celebrate, he bought a 1965 Mustang, which he still owns.
“I was impressed with the faculty when I was a student, and then when I was hired here I saw them from a new perspective. When I was a student, chemistry professor Larry Carter was one of my favorites, and then I became his office mate; it took me a while to call him ‘Larry.’”
Scared of public speaking as a youth, Charlesworth learned quickly how to command attention in class.
“I’m a star man, not a show man. If I can, I like to teach in a fun and entertaining way. But, I wear a necktie to help show that I respect them and that what goes on in the classroom is important.”
Charlesworth is a popular teacher, and his classes are always full. He was one of the first recipients of the Napa Valley College Foundation’s McPherson Distinguished Teaching Award.
One of his students, Erik Shearer, is now the college’s vice president of instruction. “He is an extraordinarily insightful and supportive teacher, who shared his deep love of astronomy with me and generations of other students at NVC,” said Shearer.
Charlesworth said one of his greatest challenges is figuring out how to advance underprepared students without lowering academic standards.
“I want everyone to know we go way out of our way to help underprepared students become prepared. We have professional staff who help them learn to better read, write, do math, improve language skills, as well as to counsel them and help them financially, but a lot of student don’t avail themselves of the services.”
Charlesworth spends time outdoors “communing with nature,” gardening, looking at constellations, wildflowers and birds and enjoying his grandchildren. At 78, he still rides a bicycle, and he and Mary Ann walk every day and visit the Sierra twice a year.
“Community and school groups still call upon me to talk about the universe. I like to talk about the grand design – the vastness and beauty of the universe,” he said, “as well as to tell them that we don’t know what things look like now, because we only see the ghostly images of a distant past.”
Despite his scientific mind, Charlesworth said he is a religious person. “If you believe that divine providence was necessary for life to form on earth, then if there’s life out there, it’s God’s will,” he said. “I couldn’t let the students know I believed that, but my son is a monk. He studied in Italy and has been a monk for more than 25 years.”
“I feel indebted to Napa Valley College, as if I should be thanking the college for what it has done for me and my family,” he said. “What could be a better job than teaching here? If I had to do it over again, I would do exactly the same thing. I feel blessed.”
“I had the joy of teaching, and I wanted to give them the joy of learning. It’s not about us, the faculty, but rather, it’s about them, the students.”