By Susie Fordi ’18
Ben Dize’s legendary classroom has been a home for countless students to paint, carve, draw, learn, grow, and eat pancakes. Welcome to retirement, Mr. Dize.
“I never wanted to become a teacher,” said Ben Dize, Gunston’s fine arts department chair. “My mother said to me, ‘Have I ever asked anything of you?’ Of course, the answer was no. ‘Just get your teaching certificate,’ she said. ‘That way you'll always have something to fall back on.’ So I did. I reluctantly signed up for student teaching and found that I really liked it. That was over 50 years ago.”
Countless students in Maryland have Mr. Dize’s mother to thank for introducing him to his love for teaching. He first began his career in Howard County at Mt. Hebron High School where he taught industrial arts and coached track. Later that spring he was offered a teaching position at Kent County High School in 1969, where he worked for 30 years before joining Gunston’s faculty.
Mr. Dize is a Maryland native, born and raised in Crisfield, where he gained a deep appreciation for the Chesapeake Bay and its heritage. After graduating from the University of Maryland, College Park in 1968 and receiving an M.Ed. from Towson State University in 1972, he began his 50-year teaching career.
“My first year at Gunston was one of utter amazement,” Mr. Dize recalled, referencing the scholarly and community-minded Gunston students, and he quickly became an anchor on the faculty. Mr. Dize was not only an art teacher, he was the advisor to hundreds of students, he organized and hosted numerous spring break trips and countless gourmet pancake breakfasts (which he made on a griddle in his classroom), and has always been the school’s biggest advocate.
Cole Evans ’19, was one of Mr. Dize’s many advisees and took a wood carving class during all four years at Gunston. “Mr. Dize oversaw a lot of my ambitious projects but I would have to say my favorite was experimenting with making duck and goose calls out of wood in his class. He helped myself and a few classmates handcraft these calls and remained patient with us as we made continuous mistakes.”
Even though Evans did not pursue the arts in his college years, he still has memories of Mr. Dize which will last a lifetime. “Given he was my advisor, he and I would spend time together every morning usually conversing about hunting, fishing, the outdoors and just life in general. He always had advice for me regardless of the topic. Aside from that, he encouraged me to work to be the best person I could be whether it was in the classroom, the outdoors, or the workplace. So I would have to say that Mr. Dize taught me the importance of persistence and dedication especially when it comes to your passion.”
Cole Evans’ 19 (at podium) shakes Mr. Dize's hand to celebrate his 50th year of teaching.
Another advisee, RJ Baldwin ’15, also took wood carving and his favorite project was carving a full sized swan. “Mr. Dize was a great advisor and mentor. He always encouraged me to do my best work and to push through any situation. He realized that there was more to learning than what could be taught in school. My favorite quote of his was when he told my mom that “you can’t let school interfere with a good education,” in response to her concerns about me missing school for a family trip. I am grateful for everything that he taught me during my time at Gunston and he surely has had a lasting impact.”
RJ Baldwin ’15 with an arm around Mr. Dize's shoulder at a classmate’s wedding.
“My philosophy is that everyone can learn to do art,” explains Mr. Dize. “Not everyone can become a great artist, but everyone can learn to produce a visual image that is satisfying to themselves.”
Annabelle (Fichtner) Camp ’15, who currently works as an art conservator, took every class Mr. Dize offered (except ceramics and woodworking) including both advanced placement art classes and art history. “I actually was the only AP art history student that year, and it was a blast getting to have that one-on-one time with Mr. Dize, and hear about his travels in Europe,” she recalled. “I loved doing lithography—it's amazing that that was available in a high school art course, and Mr. Dize is such a master of that medium. In my junior year of college, I needed to do print making for part of my graduate school applications, so Mr. Dize let me borrow a lithograph stone and come back to campus to do the printing with his press. It was great!” Mr. Dize even attended Annabelle’s wedding to Andy Camp ’15.
Anita Gruss, Emma Paz, Charlie Fichtner ’12, Andy and Bellie Camp ’15, RJ Baldwin ’15, Ben Dize, Lz Clemens ’15, Maddie Clemens ’13, and Olivia Cottril.
Rongje (Rose) Fan ’18 “feels so grateful that I had [Mr. Dize] as my art teacher and guidance counselor for life.” She continued, “I learned watercolor and oil painting, and believe it or not, before coming to Gunston, I didn't think I liked painting! Now, I have a great time painting alone and painting with friends. Not just painting, but also being creative. Who else would be lucky enough to see how lithography works?”
Rongje (Rose) Fan ’18 pictured with Mr. Dize during Green & White Awards in 2018.
Current student Eli Ireland ’23 participates in art club and several art classes and plans to look for “art-based colleges and ways to include art in a steady career. My favorite project from his classes are the self portraits. I also really liked learning [how to create] watercolor paintings. Mr. Dize has definitely taught me to do what feels right. If I feel that there is a mistake on a project, I will ask his opinion and he generally replies with a very kind, ‘that's right, that's great.’”
“For me, the individual projects students have produced have been my favorites. Watching an idea evolve from an idea in a student's mind into a reality is always amazing,” said Mr. Dize.
He added that not much has changed in schools since he began teaching — except the advancements in technology. “I remember giving an assignment and I told everyone to write down the assignment before they left. Instead, they just pulled out their phones and took a picture. Revelation!” he said with a laugh.
His advice is crucial for any educator: “A teaching career is like life, it's a marathon, not a sprint — you have to pace yourself. I've seen a lot of teachers burn themselves out after a year or two and find they couldn't keep up the pace they had set.”
Olivia Wood ’07, who took drawing and art history recalls “I was especially lucky to go on a trip he and Mr. Michaels organized to Italy and Greece, so when we were studying ancient Greece, ancient Rome, and the Italian Renaissance throughout the semester in art history, Mr. Dize would say ‘we will be seeing this painting, sculpture, architecture on our trip!’ What a treat to be learning about Michelangelo on the Eastern Shore and know that you’d get to see the real thing in Rome with your teacher. This trip was my first to Europe and I remember deciding on our first day in Florence, Italy that I would come back and study abroad there in college.”
Olivia Wood ’07 senior yearbook photo.
“Mr. Dize was the first person in my life who encouraged me to study art history in college. I am not sure that I would have pursued that path had it not been for him. I distinctly remember when he suggested that I should consider it: I finished an art history exam early and he said he would grade it while I waited for our class to end. It turned out that the reason I finished so early was because two of the pages of my exam were stuck together so I had left an entire page blank! However, I had done so well on the other pages, and answered all the extra credit, that the blank page barely impacted my grade. I was a good student but I wasn’t someone who aced every exam so this was not a typical experience for me at Gunston. But art history was the first time learning about an academic subject ever seemed effortless because I was so engaged and interested. When Mr. Dize handed me back my exam, he told me he thought I should major in art history and that is exactly what I did!” said Wood.
Wood graduated college with a degree in art history and moved to Washington D.C. to work for the National Gallery of Art (NGA) for seven years. “Working at the NGA had always been my dream thanks to the field trips that Mr. Dize organized to visit the museum each spring. During the years that I worked at the NGA, Mr. Dize was a regular visitor, sometimes bringing his students on the annual field trip and sometimes he and his wife came to see one of my exhibitions. When I left the NGA, one of the things I missed about working there was the chance to catch up with Mr. Dize in my favorite museum,” she adds.
“I was in my late 30’s when I began as Gunston’s Head of School, and I was a little intimidated by a faculty veteran like Ben. However, I quickly learned what everyone learns about him: he is a gifted and inspiring teacher, and he always has the students’ and the school’s best interest in mind. I think everyone who works with Ben aspires to stay as fresh and motivated as he seems to be after five decades of teaching. Although I knew that the day of his retirement from full time teaching would eventually arrive, I was still surprised when he told me formally.”
Head of School John Lewis with Ben Dize.