By Mila Besich Lira
Roughly 5000 students have passed through the biology and earth science classroom of Sam Rua over the 7,500 days that he has taught for the Superior Unified School District. After 50 years of teaching, Mr. Rua will officially be retiring from the District, closing the door to his lab filled with specimens, plants and experiments, knowing that he has left a legacy that very few teachers accomplish.
Rua has been the primary science teacher for the district teaching Biology, Earth Sciences and Anatomy. He has been a local legend within in the district and the region for his ability to bring science to life for his students. He was often known for getting the attention of his students by throwing erasers at those falling asleep or talking. Some of his catchy phrases, such as “Stop that oral diarrhea,” all helped to shape and mold many students.
Recently, co-workers and alumni hosted a retirement party for Rua where many of his students, co-workers and family members in attendance spoke of how the lessons he taught in biology or on the Tennis court helped them to become a better student or person. Longtime co-worker Cindy Benson led the roast by speaking of how Mr. Rua was always available to help with student activities such as the prom, watching the smudge pots on the “S” or coaching sports.
The stories went on and on, some funny, some were inspirational, and one student wrote a letter explaining how the lessons learned from Mr. Rua helped him when he was in Vietnam. For some in attendance, Rua had taught three generations of their family.
In an interview, Rua said he came to Superior after graduating from Arizona State University and he chose Superior because they were offering him more money—$5,000 a year versus $1,800—that the private Catholic school was offering him in Phoenix. He explained that all of his life, he hustled to augment his teachers salary, catching scorpions and snakes to sell to the university, landscaping and anything else he could do in addition to his teaching to help support his wife and five children. He credits working during the Summer vacations in the mine for Magma for helping him to build rapport with the parents of his students.
He reflected back on some of the changes in teaching today, saying students do not have the respect for their elders and teachers they once had. He explained that the students are still good, but they have different social challenges and family situations. He explained that he had to stop throwing erasers several years ago and could no longer use the phrase, “I will cut your throat,” to get his student’s attention. His proudest moment as a teacher is seeing his former students succeed. “There are far more successes than failures,” he explained.
Over the years, teaching methods have changed and he argued he has become more of an accommodator than a teacher. Technology has also changed the way science is taught. “it is more focused on chemistry, physics and math,” he explained. “Students are not learning as much about plants and animals.”
Reminiscing about his years at SHS, he talked about students he went hunting with and the families who became close friends with him over the years. “That connection with students and their families is not something you can get working at a big school,” he said.
That connection was one of the main reasons Rua never left the district even when other offers were made to him. “This was the land of milk and honey,” he said, “there wasn’t a reason to leave.”
He shared many stories of how proud he has always been with his students and the members of his tennis and volleyball teams. In his 50 years of teaching, Rua was the sponsor for at least 35 Proms. “We never had any real problems, the kids always came and enjoyed themselves,” he said. “That was always great to see.”
This is actually Rua’s third attempt at retiring from the district. The first time he tried to retire was after 35 years, and the Superintendent came back to him before school started and explained that he could not find another science teacher.
The next time, he retired for a short while, then when that teacher left Rua returned to his post as the science teacher. Rua explained that he still plans to substitute teach in the coming years. “I live off the youth of the students,” he explained. “They keep me young.”
When asked what advice he has to a new biology teacher, he said to call him. “I will be happy to show him or her where everything is and get them off to a good start,” he said. He highly recommended that a new biology teacher should be from Arizona and be familiar with the local geography, geology, plants and animals. “That keeps the kids interested,” he said.
His advice to his past and current students was to be altruistic. “Life is meant to be enjoyed,” he said. “Don’t lose sight of your future, give it all your all and please others with the extent of your knowledge.”
Rua not only taught and coached in Superior. He was also actively involved in the community. He and his family conducted the fireworks show every Fourth of July and he was a member of the Sanitation Board that was responsible for installing the sewer system.
He described the last 50 years of his career as soul-satisfying.
“On my headstone, I want it to say: ‘Husband, Father, Teacher.’ Those are my three biggest accomplishments,” he said.
He plans to spend his retirement enjoying his family, his wife, five children, seven grandchildren, and great-grandchild. His second great-grandchild will be arriving this summer. He has also started gold mining in Alaska during the summers.
There is no doubt about it that Mr. Rua will be missed by the staff, students, and parents in Superior. He touched the lives of many, his energy and commitment to the education of students will be hard to replace.