This memoir has been percolating for a long time. I have asked friends about their undergraduate professors, and I consistently find that most cannot recall even one. While my memory is far from perfect, I remember every single professor I had, and can tell fond stories about most of them. Over the years I have marked the passing of some of them with a sigh, but recently I learned that TAS was gone, and a desire came upon me to remember him to you.
Another recent event has finally moved me to act on that desire, and more. My son is embarking on his undergraduate education, and I want him to take some of these memories with him. We all have had teachers who inspired us, if only for a moment. When we were very young it might have been with a sense of wonder; as we grew older, with a curiosity to know more. I have been very fortunate in my education to encounter a great number of excellent teachers, professors, advisors and mentors who have made my education one of the most exciting experiences in my life. This is how I remember my journey...
Second grade was a very long time ago, but Miss Naylor did something one day that I have never forgotten, and which never fails to rekindle the same sense of wonder that it did so long ago. She put some torn newspaper into a half gallon milk bottle. She lit a match, dropped it in the bottle and quickly placed an egg on top of the bottle, plugging the opening with it. The newspaper caught fire and burned, and in a moment, the egg was sucked into the bottle, where it landed unbroken! How did she do that?
She told us she had soaked the egg in vinegar for several days, and that the vinegar had made the shell soft. The fire used up the oxygen in the bottle, and the air in the room did the rest, pushing the egg through the hole. Whenever I see or hear of something that seems impossible, I think back to Miss Naylor's "egg trick", and remember that there is a logical explanation for everything.
Miss Naylor also taught us to knit in second grade. If you could see the irregularly-shaped pot holder I knitted, you might understand why art is not my forte; I am seriously straight-line challenged...
Seventh grade was not that much more recent, but it was filled with experiences that in some sense, made me who I am. Since I am a physicist, it is no surprise that many (but not all!) of those encounters were in math and science. My science teacher in seventh and eighth grades was Paul Dawson, and the thing I recall most clearly about those classes was the genuine enjoyment he got from teaching us.
He was also responsible for my acquisition of two of my most prized possessions: my CRC Abridged Mathematical Tables, and my slide rule. He taught us how to use the tables to do computations with logarithms, but for me it was more exciting for the vast amount of knowledge that was condensed in such a few pages. How many people worked for how long to put all that together? And how much more must there be to learn when we graduate to the unabridged version...
And what a simple, yet brilliant invention is the slide rule. Mine got me all the way through my undergraduate studies. In college, my classmate Len had the first calculator I had ever seen, but it cost as much as a semester's tuition and was way out of my reach.
I learned on what would have been Paul's 71st birthday that he had passed, way too early, twelve days previously. It saddens me that we had had no contact for over ten years. It is a shame how the minutia of life lengthens the distance between old friends. In those e-mails of a decade past, he accused me of having the patience of Job, at that young age; four decades later I cannot fathom how I might have left him with that impression, unless it was simply by the slow deliberateness of my thought processes. From his last e-mail to me:"I loved and lived the sciences. My Mother would tell me as a teacher, that she was too often afraid to wash my pants and shirts for fear of the living things she would unearth from the pockets.... Teachers are powerful people and if they are positive in their approach and helpful in their actions, they will be shaping the future in a wonderful way."Paul's love of science and his positive approach in teaching did indeed shape my future in a wonderful way. Despite the years since last we wrote, he has remained close in my thoughts, and I miss him greatly.
Mr. Copeland did a thing with us that he called "computation competition". For about five minutes, without using pencil or paper, we had to keep up with a long arithmetic problem which he dictated to us, making it up as he went. To this day, I make every effort to do my arithmetic in my head. I don't need no stinking calculator!
Later, when they came down in price, I actually did buy a calculator, and used it for a while. But I discovered that my mental arithmetic skills were atrophying, and gave it up. To this day, I only use one for logs or trig functions, and only because it has greater precision than my slide rule. I practice every time I shop (which package is the best price per quantity?) or go out to eat, computing the tip in my head, then rounding the sum to the nearest prime, perfect square, cube or some other interesting number.
One day Ms. Rhoads brought in and played for us a record called In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida. After years of playing recorders in music class, this was great: loud, long, and a lot more interesting than anything I ever heard on WSAI!
While I outgrew the Iron Butterfly very quickly, this experience led me in rapid succession to Jimi Hendrix, Cream, the Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd, the Who, Frank Zappa, Santana... and then (by way of John Mclaughlin) to John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Eric Dolphy and Charles Mingus, and from him to Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie... and that was all by the time I started driving.
Somehow high school memories are much clearer than those that come before...
This class kindled my fascination with other places and other cultures. But what I remember most is Mr. Williams, perched on that big stool of his, whacking his cane against the desk to wake us up when we were being stupid. Six months before, he had been in a terrible automobile accident, and we were most fortunate that he came out of it with only a limp. He had this big scar on his leg which he would scratch as he lectured, and the girls all thought it was gross, which the guys quite enjoyed. He expected a lot out of us, and was not afraid to tell us when we were under-performing, and by and large he got us to think at pretty close to full potential.
And he had a long-running fake feud going on with Mr. Brix, on the other side of the movable partition which separated the two classrooms. Humor had a valued place in that class. Mr. Williams also introduced us to Tom Lehrer, and this student will always be grateful.
Why doesn't anyone teach Geometry anymore? Bisecting an angle with only a compass is an exercise in mathematics as art, and proving theorems is (at least for this student) the pinnacle of puzzle-solving.
But the life-changing experience of my high school years came in March of 1970, when Mr. Bach taught us how to write a FORTRAN program to do some sort of computation that I have long since forgotten. I have described my fascination with computers elsewhere, but it all started with his decision to do something a little different with us.
I spent more time with Mr. Kern than any other teacher at Princeton High School. He taught programming, which I took as often as I was allowed; he ran the Data Center, and gave us every opportunity to help. We wrote programs that the school used for attendance reporting and course scheduling, we punched cards, we sorted cards, we printed posters. And we ate a lot of the granola that he kept in his desk. The only thing I missed out on was learning to program the plug-board on the accounting machine that predated the computers I did use. Mr Kern helped me perfect my FORTRAN, taught me RPG (ugh!) and APL, and pretty much is the reason I spent my undergraduate years in Computer Science, and the eight years after that working as a systems analyst.
We all loved Mrs. Chamberlain (later Mrs. Money), and she left us far too soon. She taught us not just to read the words, but to think about what they meant, and more importantly, the motivations of the author in writing them. My love of Mark Twain, Douglas Adams, Philip K. Dick, William Gibson, Robert Heinlein, Frank Herbert and Kurt Vonnegut all trace back to her classes. I learned there to love all kinds of literature, but especially those books that made me think for myself, and expand my horizons.
Given how much I liked Mr. Marshall's Chemistry class, I wonder that I did not become a chemist; except that the computer bug bit me that same year. He too always seemed to truly enjoy teaching us, and I recall his leprechaunish sense of humor. One time we came into class, and there was a line of stoppered Coke bottles along the edge of his desk. We began taking a quiz, and suddenly there was a loud explosion from the front of the room. Pencils flew in all directions, and he had this big smile on his face as he lit another and then another of his bottles of Hydrogen gas.I was fortunate to be taught by many other excellent teachers at Princeton; these are only the postcards that I can still read clearly. Probably because they are the ones that I have looked at most frequently over the years. But there was Mrs. Williams, who introduced me to Joseph Conrad, and whoever it was who taught that Film as Art class where we saw De Duva, and...
One other time we came into class and the back half of the room was roped off. In three or four places along the back wall there were small pieces of paper with some powder on them. Mr. Marshall put a feather on the end of a cane pole, and proceeded to tickle each one, causing each to explode! The explosion of the second one actually triggered the third, just by the sound vibrations. So began a lesson in instability.
A course catalog is one of my favorite things. I would pore over all the things that could be learned, trying to figure out how many I could possibly take before they made me graduate.
Of course, that's not how it worked out. I couldn't afford to live on campus, but with gas at 30-odd cents a gallon, I could afford to drive to Dayton every day. But after three years, I was tired of the miles and decided it was time to finish being a student and get a job...
I came to Dayton as a reasonably good programmer. So you might imagine my amazement as these fellows guided me into the other 90% of computer science that I never knew was there. I spent many hours in class, but many more in their offices, asking questions, seeking guidance and generally being a sponge and trying to soak up everything I could learn. It seems a shame that college transcripts don't record the professor's name, because mine, and a few old texts, are all that I have to help my aging memory. But it almost doesn't matter who taught which class; what matters is how great is was to learn ALGOL and LISP, and about complex data structures and compiler construction and automata.
One of my close friends once criticized me for going into computers, because I would be "taking jobs away from people." My response was that I had only ever seen computers make more work for people, and I still think that is true. But the professors in the Computer Science Department at the University of Dayton emphasized the science part of it, and while it could be work, it was always an opportunity to learn.
And so at last we come to Brother Schoen, known to all of us affectionately as "TAS". He was an amazing fellow, and the news of his passing on April 14 of 2010 brought a host of memories to the forefront of my thoughts. I can see TAS in his sweater, leaning back in his office chair, a peaceful smile on his face as he listened to your question; or working at his terminal, a pipe in one hand and the other busily typing at the keyboard. You might have mistaken him for a cherub - one who once wrote a PL/1 compiler over the weekend.
My classmate Fred recently reminded me of another TAS story, related to us by another classmate (later coworker), Tom. In the middle of the night, sometimes the computers or modem banks would go down, and no matter when they came back up, TAS would be back online. He had a Silent 700, which he used both at the office and at home. We all imagined him in bed, the phone ringing the modem bank, and when it finally answered, TAS hearing the squeal of the modem and the soft chatter of the carriage; then getting up and lighting a pipe, he got back to work.
In the classroom, he was all business. My second two semesters included his Assembler Programming and Operating Systems classes. If you didn't ask questions, TAS made the quite logical assumption that you understood what he was teaching you. And so we finished Assembler after eight or ten weeks, and started right in with Operating Systems. About week six of the OS course, TAS announced that we had covered all of the material, and had the remaining nine weeks of the semester to write our own OS. We could work in groups, but we sweated blood the remainder of that semester, and barely got the project done in time.
So why do I remember him so fondly? I don't know that I was particularly close to TAS, in the way I was with my other computer science professors. But I remember him for his strangely "beatific" academic mastery, and even after two decades of teaching, count him as one of my most important role models.
Most students (and parents) aren't particularly happy when a course is taught by graduate students. But I have to say my freshman Introduction to Philosophy course, team taught by a pair of grad students, was another of those life-changing classes.
Introduction to Philosophy is supposed to be a survey course, with a little bit of everything and not too much of anything. But these two grad students (whose names I have long forgotten) decided that it should be an introduction to "doing philosophy", and so we spent the entire semester reading Plato's Republic, and dialoging and writing about Plato's ideas. I can conceive of no better introduction to philosophy than thinking and talking philosophically, rigorously analyzing and evaluating Plato's ideal and how it relates to our own lives. How else could you get 18-year-olds to contemplate the difference between experience and conceptualization? It was a spectacular way to start my college career.
And so, of course, the two grad students were forbidden to teach it that way again, and I count myself to be one of the lucky ones. Guys, I hope you're still out there, somewhere, teaching it the way you taught it to me, and lighting the same intellectual fires you lit for us.
Another whose name the mists of time have occluded, I remember liking my chemistry class and my chemistry professor. But I remember him most for what he did at the end of my freshman year.
After teaching us a fascinating class for two semesters, he announced that he would be leaving U.D. at the end of the semester. He was no spring chicken, but he was going back to school, to become an M.D., and intended to return to his rural home town to practice medicine, in an area of the country where doctors were few and far between.
As you might have guessed, I did something similar, far earlier in my life and far less altruistic, and part of the reason I was able to do it was the immense respect I felt for my chemistry professor and his courageous change of career.
I enrolled in Dr. Benedum's Introduction to Music Theory course in hopes that I might learn something about how the jazz I loved was put together. I stayed with him for five semesters of music theory, and learned to love classical music, and most especially Mozart, as much as I love jazz. I still have the two major analyses I did for his classes, of the opening movement to Beethoven's Eroica symphony, and my final project, of the complete eighth symphony of Beethoven.
Dr. Benedum inspired me to learn all about classical music (although it would be another few years before I moved on to opera), and in some sense my collection, from Handel to Schoenberg and Stravinsky, is a testament to the musical concepts he introduced to us. I even talked him into giving me a few informal lessons on the small pipe organ owned by the department, which was tucked away in a small room in the back of Albert Emanuel Hall. Unfortunately I wasn't coordinated enough to move my hands and feet independently...
As we will see, after eight years with Sperry I went back to school to earn my Ph.D. in physics. But my high school physics class had left me oddly uninspired, and since I CLEP-ed out of the first semester of physics, I only took one with Dr. Kepes. But I really didn't want to spend all that time in class, so I struck a deal with him: I would take the class as an independent study course, and take the tests with the rest of the class. After acing the final, he took me aside and asked if I didn't really want to switch my major to physics? At that point, no way! But Dr. Kepes, you asked just a decade too soon...
Brother Stander was the Provost of U.D., but he taught one course every year to keep in touch with student life, and I was lucky enough to take his Linear Algebra class. I liked it immensely, but I must confess to treating him somewhat disrespectfully. Brother Stander would begin each class with a prayer. Len and I, who worked together in the next building, and were taking the class together, were always running late to class. And since we knew that we had an extra 60 seconds or so before Brother Stander really got going, we took just a few more minutes to finish some bit of programming, and then rushed over to class. We must have walked in at the end of his prayer practically the entire semester. I'm sure Brother Stander sighed over us more than once. And I'm also sure he found it in his heart to forgive us.
I can't remember exactly which courses I took from Dr. Gorton... One of my Probability and Statistics courses, and maybe Differential Equations. The Stats class might well have been the one when I forgot my name on the final; I had studied really hard, and had the material nailed. But when I started to write my name on the first page, I forgot it! I had left my wallet in my office in the building next door, and it took me about 45 minutes to remember who I was. Then I wrote my name across the top of every page, so I wouldn't forget it. And I aced the final.
But what I remember most about Dr. Gorton is a number of fascinating discussions in his office after class, about all the math I didn't have to take: Non-Euclidean Geometry, Topology... I was very close to going after a double major, computer science and math, when I decided that I really needed to stop driving 75 miles a day. His influence on my future was long-delayed but very strong; my strongest interests lie in the confluence of physics and geometry.
I also remember this really cool ring he wore, which had a spider encased in plastic or glass; I believe it was a black widow...
Dr. Berk was one of the sweetest people you could ever meet, and her 18th Century Counterpoint classes were some of my most enjoyable. I would visit with her after class, discussing some problem in a chord progression or voicing in a piece I was writing for her. And here, I think, is where I realized that music would forever be an avocation for me; Dr. Berk was very kind in her evaluation of my compositions, but her comparison of one of them with an early piece by Mendelssohn did it. I have never really been a Mendelssohn fan... except for the Hebrides Overture, which I am quite fond of. I wish I had gone back to Dayton to visit her occasionally after I graduated.
I have organized my Dayton postcards in a loosely chronological manor, but I have definitely left one of the best for last. For the eight semesters after my very first, I worked for Mike May in Academic Computing, in the basement of Miriam Hall. Our job was to provide software services to the academic community. We did statistical work for faculty in the College of Education, but I spent most of my time on special projects for an electrical engineering professor. He wanted to run a huge electrical circuit analysis program called SuperSCEPTRE, which did not run on our Spectra VMOS computer, and my job was to make it work. This was probably the best possible training for my eventual job an an analyst. Tough work, but fun.As was the case of my high school teachers, there were many other excellent professors who taught me at U.D. There was H. James Nersoyan, whose Philosophy of Religion and Eastern Philosophy courses I quite liked; I visited his office after class on many occasions, to continue discussions begun in class. And there was that fellow who taught my Logic classes, whose name I have forgotten. Since those classes were taught out of the Philosophy Department, he got me my minor in Philosophy. And there was Ms. Minton, my long-suffering piano teacher, partially responsible for my minor in Music. And the fellow who taught that fascinating Anthropology course...
Mike gave me a really challenging job for my last major assignment. We used in interactive FORTRAN compiler called TFOR, and he had me rewrite the mathematical subroutine package so it would be re-entrant. That would allow multiple users to use it simultaneously without wasting a lot of memory; in those days, we still had to worry about memory utilization. The code was all in assembly language, so I got to seriously apply most everything I had learned so far at U.D. This project really sharpened my assembly language skills, and gave me the one thing everyone needs: something you're really good at, that people need, and few know how to do well.
While I had no classes as such with Dr. May, working with him was easily as valuable as all of my other computer science courses put together. Dick Zeh and Jack Kester, who worked with Mike in the summers, were always available for questions, and Dick always had a good joke or two. It was Mike who introduced me to the "shaggy dog story". These folks were the first of many good people it has been my pleasure to work with over the years, and gave my college education a "practical" aspect it might have otherwise lacked. A tremendously helpful and enjoyable experience.
In what turned out to be my penultimate year at Sperry, I saw a NOVA program on PBS called "The Pleasure of Finding Things Out." It was a sort of monologue about how cool Feynman found it to be a physicist, and it impressed me greatly. I had recently read The Dancing Wu-Li Masters, and physics was becoming interesting again, like it was back in Mr. Dawson's science class. I decided that maybe I could do this too (be a physicist, not a Nobel prize winner!). That year my wife gave me The Feynman Lectures for my birthday, and I spent the next six months wading through them with great interest. I could do this.I remember Pierre Ramond, entertaining a table of students at lunch during TASI '87, talking about Feynman. He paraphrased something he had seen on Feynman's office blackboard: you must be able to solve every problem that has ever been solved. Feynman was altogether an amazing fellow. I highly recommend two of his popular books, Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! and What Do You Care What Other People Think?. I have quoted that last to myself on more than one occasion...
So I made an appointment with Dr. Scanio at the University of Cincinnati, who was then acting as graduate director. I told him about my interest in pursuing a Ph.D., and told him about my studies with Dr. Feynman's texts. Joe asked me how many problems I had done; well, there weren't any in Feynman's lectures. So Joe showed me which text they used (Halliday and Resnick's 3rd edition, still the best), and told me to work the problems... and I had to start all over. I worked my way through it, but it proved to me that there is a huge difference between "understanding the words" and knowing how to apply the knowledge.
I left Sperry and spent a year taking two undergraduate classes to get back into shape. I sweated blood getting my calculus chops back after not having used it for eight years! I didn't take Dr. Jackson's Mechanics course, but I did work through the book and went to him with questions, and he was happy to spend time with me. He and Dr. Scanio, whose Group Theory course I took at a later date, were two of the best teachers I had ever had.
Odd that many of my best teachers eventually went into administration. Paul Dawson spent many years as Headmaster at Bethany School, and Joe and Howard both did stints in administration, although I'm glad to say they're both in the classroom again. When you're that good, maybe that's where you should stay...
Dr. Wright had the most amazing lecture notes you can imagine. I took courses from him two years in a row, first the undergraduate Electricity and Magnetism course, and then the graduate course Mathematical Physics. In both classes, his lectures were the epitome of organization and clarity. I never actually saw the notes, but I would love to have a copy of them now... When he asked a question in class, it was never a rhetorical question; sometimes a couple of agonizing minutes would go by before someone had the courage to venture a tentative answer.
Dr. Wright was not "friendly" in the sense that many teachers are, but he did me a great kindness and I would like to remember him for it. In 1963, when he first came to Cincinnati, he had purchased a harpsichord kit. It sat in his office in Braunstein Hall for 25 years (the wooden parts getting quite warped). He heard through a classmate that I had an interest in building a harpsichord, and so one day he called me into his office and gave it to me! I was dumbfounded but very thankful. I promised that he would see and hear it when it was finished, but alas that did not come to pass. Dr. Wright was very interested in Native American Indian culture, and while on a trip out west, he passed away, before the harpsichord was complete. The finished harpsichord now bears a small brass plaque with a dedication to Dr. Wright.
Paul is another of those great teachers, and he too puts together spectacular notes. Paul serves one of the most valuable purposes in academia: it seems that his calling is to learn everything, organize what he learns, and then teach seminars about it all. His office is legendary for the lack of available space: bookshelves are two books deep, and there is about two square feet of open desk on which he works; yet he can find anything in that office in a moment or two. And he is always happy to answer a question.
During my first year of graduate school, Dr. Witten gave a seminar in string theory phenomenology. The interplay of geometry and topology and particle physics hooked me in short order, even though I understood a small fraction of what he talked about. The following year, after passing my qualifying exams, and after I took his String Theory course, I asked him to be my advisor. No, he didn't think he wanted to take on another graduate student. His most recent student was finishing, and he was just learning String Theory, and didn't feel ready to take a student in that area yet. I kept after him, and finally wore him down: we could learn it together.Many of my professors from my graduate school years are now colleagues, and are not included here only because my stories about them aren't quite as entertaining; they were just good professors. But they are part and parcel of why anybody who likes to learn should consider graduate education: most people never get that kind of opportunity to learn from the experts in their fields.
So began the most challenging and rewarding part of my educational career to date. It is one thing to learn from textbooks; another to learn from recently published papers; and still another to learn something new because you figured it out yourself. Under Lou's guidance, I attended the month long Theoretical Advanced Study Institute in Santa Fe, earned a summer University Research Council grant the following summer, and over the course of the following two years, completed my thesis. I remember giving my thesis defense, answering questions, and then being asked to leave the room while my committee deliberated. Ten minutes passed by as I waited in the hallway, then twenty. Friends kept stopping by to ask how it went. And I started to sweat a little. Finally after 45 minutes, Lou came out and congratulated me; they had been in there telling jokes most of that time.
One of the most important things that Lou taught me was that any day you learn something new is a good day. When you're working on a tough problem, you can feel awfully stupid for a long time. Then you solve the problem and all of a sudden you feel smart; until the next day when you start the next problem, and can feel stupid again. But as long as you're always learning, you're doing fine.
In my two decades teaching at Raymond Walters, I have worked with and learned from many excellent colleagues. One in particular stands out: Ted Cook. Now retired, he was widely considered among his peers in the Mathematics, Physics and Computer Science Department to be a font of wisdom. When Ted wasn't in class or working on some problem with the VAX, there would be a handful of students, or more often, fellow colleagues, discussing current developments in computer science or pedagogical issues in their own classes. Ted had a telling tale about one of the many persistent student misconceptions: why is computer science so hard? His students would insist that he was hiding some trick or piece of knowledge from them, and if he would only relinquish that particular bit of wisdom, their lives and homework would be as easy as they thought it should be. But one thing Ted never did was hide any such knowledge from his students. He gave them everything they needed to learn, and then demanded that they prove to him through the programs they wrote, that they understood the lessons at hand.
I see Ted every once in a while, and it is always a pleasure to hear about his latest travels. But those colleagues who spent so much time in his office all agree: we miss having Ted around.
I would like to dedicate these undoubtedly faulty but nonetheless valued memories to all of my teachers, whether mentioned here or not; to my son; and to every student setting out on their undergraduate career.
College should be filled with classes that inspire, classes that challenge, classes that extend your awareness and your ambition into areas you had never considered. For most of you, it should be the greatest intellectual experience in your life. For many of you, it will be the beginning of a lifetime of growth and enlightenment.
Just remember to write yourself some postcards along the way.
©2014, Kenneth R. Koehler. All Rights Reserved. This document may be freely reproduced provided that this copyright notice is included.
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