Professor, student bond over chessboard

Published 5:29 am Tuesday, February 23, 2016

It doesn’t hurt to be friends with the dean — until you start checkmating him regularly.

Alex Morton ’16 breaks out into a wide smile when he talks about playing chess with his favorite partner at Longwood, physics professor Dr. Chuck Ross, former dean of the Cook-Cole College of Arts and Sciences.

“I beat him pretty regularly these days,” said Morton.

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“Not so fast,” said Ross. “I still have a few tricks up my sleeve I can use to get him.”

The origin of the Morton-Ross friendship is somewhat murky — neither can remember the moment they first met. It was probably at a chess club meeting Morton’s freshman year, but no matter the beginning it quickly morphed into weekly chess games in Ross’ old Ruffner Hall office, dean and student both staring at a checkered board by the window, contemplating their next moves. After one player emerged victorious, there was time for conversation.

“I always found him thoughtful,” Ross said. “He improved very quickly and became the very strong chess player he is today by diving deep down into theory more than most of his peers. Once he sets his mind to something, he goes after it vigorously. More than that, he’s developing into a very strong person with goals he’s determined to achieve.”

For Morton, the relationship that developed went beyond the game.

“I see him as a mentor, and not only on the chessboard,” Morton, who grew up in nearby Keysville, said. “We started out with his challenging me to get better at chess, but it has morphed into something more than that. When I studied abroad in my sophomore year, Dr. Ross recommended me for a scholarship through the study abroad office and guided me through the process. He’s always taken an interest in how my studies are progressing.”

This spring, Morton will graduate with a degree in history with a concentration in secondary education. His chess games with Ross have become less frequent as student-teaching responsibilities keep him away from campus more and more. But he’s taken on the mantle of mentorship in his own life.

Morton joined the Longwood chapter of Call Me Mister, a national teacher leadership program that prepares college students for careers in secondary education, the summer before his freshman year. Working with the program, he not only served as an example to other Longwood students but also led outreach efforts to area high-school students. Morton credits the program with pointing him in a positive direction from the moment he stepped on campus.

And it’s filtered into his budding professional life. Morton completed his practicum — a preparatory student-teaching experience — at the Altavista Combined School, teaching sixth-grade history. In his class, he encountered a student with average grades who Morton believed had the potential to excel if only he applied himself. So Morton forged a relationship with the student in the same way he had found a mentor in Ross: over a chessboard.

“We talked about chess pretty often, and he got pretty into it,” Morton said of the student. “Toward the end of the semester on a slow day after SOL testing was finished, I brought my chess set into school and showed him a trap called ‘the fishing pole.’ All the other students gathered around to watch this, and I showed him how he could learn these other simple traps. It was a lesson in humility, in having the discipline to study and learn more.”

In that way, the lessons that Morton has learned from countless hours spent hunched over a chessboard — Ross sitting opposite but similarly lost in thought — have filtered into his life. As he begins to close the chapter on his collegiate career and open a new one as a history teacher, chess looms large.

“We all have a passion and, in order to develop as a person, you need to have a mentor who will challenge you,” Morton said. “Someone who is a positive influence and has a vested interest in your growth. I’m lucky that I found someone like Dr. Ross at Longwood who is one of those people in my life, and I want to pass that along to kids as a teacher.”

Ross feels lucky, too. “Alex is a special person who is going to do great things with his life,” Ross said. “I’m honored to be a part of it and even happier that I can still teach him a few things on the chessboard.”