Mr. James K. Alvis

b. 08 June 1904 - Appomattox, VA
d. 09 July 1990 - Newport News VA - age 86

University of Georgia
College of William and Mary
V.P.I., M.S.

Science, Physics

  Friday, December 6, 1963 Issue
of the Beacon - p. 2
1964 Anchor, p. 52  
  Courtesy of Dave Spriggs ('64)
of VA - 03/28/08
Thanks, Dave!

Mr. Alvis was among the eccentrics I have previously mentioned. 

(In retrospect "eccentric" is not quite an accurate adjective to apply to any of them.  They each had unique
personalities and idiosyncrasies. To us adolescents who strove to dress alike and speak alike and listen
to the same rock and roll, such individuality might well seem like eccentricity.  With the wisdom of hindsight, I
see that they were merely fellow human beings who were products of their upbringing and culture, as are all of us.)

It was an irony that Physics, which merely describes how nature works, would be seen as such a fearful and
mysterious subject.  We tended to speak of it in such hushed tones.  "Did you hear?  Dave is taking .... uh.... physics
next year. Is he some sort of Shaman?  And what is it with that slide rule thing? He scares me."  Physics was the great
scholastic separator.  Many took Biology and Chemistry, even if they were not especially interested in the sciences,
but it seemed that only a select and daring few would venture into the heady world of Einstein.

And, with that fear and trepidation, we entered his class, wondering if we were worthy to understand all that we were
about to learn. Knowing how the world works is an awesome thing; once you know how it works, you get the sense that
you are somehow responsible for making it work, that when something ceases to work correctly, everyone looks
for somebody who knows "physics" to fix it.  But, JK was not some egghead in a lab coat, spouting unintelligible
concepts about the Cosmos; he was just some guy in a rumpled jacket with thinning hair and horrible breath.
We began to wonder if we had somehow been cheated out of our expected elitism. But, every day, little by little,
he filled us with an understanding of motion and momentum and thermodynamics and optics. This was no Carl
Sagan, stunning us into insignificance by explaining how we evolved from a single hydrogen atom over "billyuns
and billyuns" of years.   No, here was a man who explained the beautiful order and mathematics involved in drag
racing our cars between the Lions at Mariners' Museum, how acceleration over time equaled velocity, how
velocity over time equaled distance.

Well, he did do one Saganesque thing, or so the apocryphal story goes. He was asked by a student to define "infinity." 
Without hesitation, he grabbed a piece of chalk, walked to the blackboard and placed the chalk against it. He walked
toward an open window, making a line on the blackboard as he went.  As he arrived at the window, he tossed the chalk
out and declared that to be the definition of infinity. Only later, with several more physics and calculus classes behind
me, did I realize what a clever and subtle thing he had done; he had taken something so esoteric as infinity and reduced
it to a simple concept understandable to anyone.

I should explain why I chose bad breath as a defining trait.  We quickly learned that it was unwise to ask a question in class
while working problems at your desk.  If you did, he would lean over your shoulder to get a closer look at your work
and .... hoo boy ... he must have been a heavy smoker. It would make your eyes water.
  I sat at the same table as Wayne and Skippy and was probably just out of this shot. I can testify with some confidence that both Wayne and Skippy were holding their breath as the photo was taken.

Like many of my teachers, I dearly wish I could shake his hand, thank him, and tell him that his efforts really
did change the world. He certainly changed my world.

1964 Anchor, p.68
- Dave Spriggs ('64) of VA - 05/09/03 and 10/31/04

Thanks, Dave!


NEWPORT NEWS - James Kenneth
Alvis Sr., 86, died Monday, July 9, in Riverside Regional Medical Center.

A native of Appomattox, Mr.
Alvis was a Peninsula resident 42 years. He retired as an agricultural engineer from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1957 after 22 years of service and taught physics and math in several Newport News high schools.

Alvis earned bachelor's and master's degrees in engineering from Virginia Tech.

He was a charter member of North Riverside Baptist Church, where he served as a deacon and Sunday school teacher and on other church committees. Mr.
Alvis was also active with the Riverside and Hilton Boy Scout troops.

Survivors include his wife, Sarah Timberlake
Alvis; one daughter, Lucy A. Hearn of Collinsville; one son, James K. Alvis Jr. of Newport News; one sister, Ethel A. Evans, and one brother, John P. Alvis, both of Appomattox; 10 grandchildren; and 11 great-grandchildren.

A funeral will be conducted at 2 p.m. Thursday in North Riverside Baptist Church by the Revs. John Sowell, Thomas B.
Alvis and Michael L. Alvis
. Burial will be in Peninsula Memorial Park.

The family will receive friends from 7:30 to 9 tonight in Peninsula Funeral Home.

The family requests expressions of sympathy take the form of contributions to North Riverside Baptist Church or a favorite charity.

Published in the Daily Press on 9/11/90.

Vangelis' "Heaven and Hell" audio courtesy of,
at the suggestion of Dave Spriggs ('64) of VA - 07/19/03
Thanks, Dave!

Physics Clip art courtesy of - 12/04/03

Obituary added on 04/19/08

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