Professor of Physics
9 a.m., May 17, 2009
Thank you. It is a great pleasure for me to be standing here today, I was flattered and honored to be asked to speak to you. And as you might imagine I thought a great deal, mostly in vain, about what to say to you. For a professor the temptation is nearly overwhelming to give a lecture on something she or he feels strongly about, something of intellectual challenge and global significance. Instantly flashing through my mind is the character of nuclear force, or perhaps the mind-boggling nature of measuring the quantum-mechanical systems. Maybe not. Even my closest friends have limited patience for those topics. Perhaps I should talk about lack of equity in higher education, or maybe the double edged sword of a giant endowmentâ¦then again. I thought maybe I should just be humorous, but then I saw I was a warm-up act for Rachel Fields. [applause] It was clear I would fall flat in comparison. I finally dawned on me that I might take a clue from the fact that commencement occurs somewhere midway between Mother's Day and Father's Day. That may be simple serendipity but there's no doubt that this is a family time and especially a time for parents to take pride in their children's growth and success. I must digress and say to you graduates, I mean "parents" as a stand-in for more inclusive concept of those people who have helped you become the people that you are, those folks who have a deep emotional investment in how this endeavor we call life is turning out for you. You and they may not share genetics or even the same household but I am confident you know who they are.
So as many of you know, I don't really like to lecture, but I do like to tell stories. So I'd like to tell you about my parents. At first glance the connection between them and me are not so obvious; my mother was a stay-at-home mom, my dad a lawyer and went into law enforcement. Me, on the other hand, I'm an experimental nuclear physicist and a college teacher. Did I just want to rebel? For those of you who don't know me or haven't even peeked in my office, let me set the stage a bit before you gauge my individuality. My office is stacked with books papers and photographs. Despite the disarray, my chairs get sat in frequently enough they seldom become difficult to clear. Like most of my colleagues at Grinnell, working with students fuels me, especially on those occasions when I really feel like I might have made a difference. I keep emergency supplies in my office, Tylenol, Ibuprofen, tissues, dark chocolate, a five string banjo.My great grandfather, Peter, was a professional photographer with a portrait studio in Chicago. My grandfather Ed took over the business, but the 1930s were not good years for an enterprise seen as a luxury and the studio failed. My father, also a Peter, was pushed into a law school tract at the University of Chicago, maybe for a reliable career, but when he graduated at the end of the Depression, there were not a lot of opportunities, even for lawyers. However, the FBI was hiring, so he became a special agent. He was good at his job but neither law nor law enforcement was his passion. He was a tinkerer, wood-working, electronics, plumbing, auto-repair, a serious amateur photographer, a wine maker, a barber, an outdoorsman. It seemed to me he knew how to do everything. My father retired from the FBI in his early 50s, when I was about ten, so in contrast to my older brothers he was actually home through much of my childhood. My dad was an emotionally distant fellow, so my opportunity to connect through him was often through hobbies, such as photography. He kept an odd collection of tools, supplies and documents, much of it in cigar boxes stacked on shelves. To the untrained eye, it looked like chaos, but in fact the boxes were carefully numbered and indexed and he could pick out exactly the item he desired from the apparent jumble that spread over most of our basement. Oh yes, he wore bowties.
My mother, Mary, was born in Pierce, South Dakota and grew up in Grand Island, Nebraska. Thanks to my great aunt Martha Coon, known to the family as "old Aunt Martha," I have some written descriptions of their youths. Martha writes: "Mary was a good student, graduating as salutatorian but she also had many other interests." She was a leader particularly within the family. She was popular within her own age group. The play room in the basement of our family home was a popular place for teenage dancing and get-togethers. Her love of music was shown by her membership as violinist in the Grand Island Symphony Orchestra. The family also enjoyed playing at home, with Mary on the violin, Ralph on the oboe, Brad on the clarinet, and Martha on the piano.
Old Aunt Martha describes the chance meeting at Grand Island between my parents when my father was on a drive west for a summer job as a park ranger in Yosemite. He also stopped on his way back east, this time in park uniform. Apparently, that cinched the romance. Martha's story continues: "Following graduation from the University of Nebraska, she got an advanced degree in social work from the University of Chicago. Upon completion of her work there, she accepted a position as counselor first in Michigan and then in the Chicago Penal System. Her innate kindness and concern for others made her a favorite with both inmates and staff. An example of this was furnished when two young girls escaped from a Chicago correctional institution while Mary was visiting her family in Grand Island. The girls, desperate for a friendly refuge, made their way to the family home in Grand Island. Mary, of course, had to persuade them to give themselves up, but before they had left Grand Island, she had persuaded one of them to give up her life of crime."
My parents passed away nearly 15 years ago now. When I was in college, I considered myself finally independent and able to be my own person. Fortunately, by the time I was in graduate school, I was getting some inkling of the deeper complexity of how I became me. I thought that I would keep better touch with my parents than I had managed during college. Even so, a handful of years later, when I became a parent, and so many new questions arose for me, Alzheimer's disease robbed me of many important conversations with my mother. As I said at the outset, I like to tell stories, so let me close with a story my mother thought was very important to tell me. She was walking down the street near our home in Chicago and saw an elderly woman walking down the sidewalk, and she repeatedly picked up litter off the sidewalk. My mother stopped the woman and said, "I admire you for picking up like that. I do that too, but I sometimes hesitate from embarrassment in caring around an armload of trash." The woman looked directly into my mother's eyes and said simply "You never have to be embarrassed about doing what is right," and walked out. So at this very public, yet very family time, I extend my congratulations to all of you mothers, fathers, uncles, aunts and so on. Clearly, these students' successes are yours too. And to you graduates, let me only say, don't forget to phone home.