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The Weekly Blab

Volume 7, Issue 5—September 13, 2012


Farewell to a Friend…

As everyone has already heard, Bill Barnes passed away last Sunday, in Pittsfield, MA.  It was horribly sad to hear.  Bill had wrestled with cancer for the previous year, and for a long time it looked like he had wrestled it into submission.  We used to go out for Indian food once a week, and while I think it may have been a little too spicy for Bill, we both liked it and used to half kid that it had a therapeutic affect and was helping him stay strong.  Almost no one realized that Bill was 81 when he retired—he sure didn’t look it—and it helps me to keep the focus on that he had a long life, doing exactly what he wanted to do (he loved being the Dean and seeing all the wonderful advances at SPSU in general and in ACC in particular), and doing it for far longer than anyone else I’ve ever known.  Most people look forward to retiring at 62 or 65.  Bill was just getting his second wind then, and was able to sprint forward many more years.

In a campus email, I talked about some of Bill’s academic accomplishments while at SPSU.  I won’t repeat that here, but I’d like to talk about some more personal things.  Other than Indian food, Bill and I shared a love of music.  There were many artists we both liked, but the main overlap was in samba-style jazz—Stan Getz, Astrud Gilberto, Gilberto Gil, etc.  We loved to discuss politics at lunch, where we mostly agreed but would occasionally argue in a friendly way.  Bill was a little more liberal than me, which made it fun when he met my parents who were similar in age (my father four years older and my mother five years younger than him) but politically much more conservative (especially my father).  They quickly grew to like each other, and readily swapped war stories and other similar experiences.  A day or two before Bill and his lovely wife Marilyn moved to New England, my folks were here for a visit and we all went out for desert and to say goodbye and good luck on the move.  Desert lasted a few hours because we were all enjoying each other’s company.

I remember the annual Christmas parties Bill and Marilyn would host for the school, always at a lovely old home near the square in Marietta.  When son Mark attended the first one and was upset that there weren’t any pretzels, every year after that there was always a bag of pretzels waiting for Mark, whether he attended or not.

Bill was a passionate advocate for his school, especially for getting additional resources and space for its programs.  I quickly gave him the nickname “Rommel” since he was so tenacious (and a bit foxy).  He’d always laugh when I called him that, probably thinking back to his own experiences in the military.  He was proud of the buildings he had designed, and I remember driving around with him, trying to find one he had designed decades earlier, when we were both at a conference in Washington DC.  He cared about his faculty and our students, he’d get worked up whenever we weren’t living up to all we could be, and he was a wonderful friend.  Goodbye Bill—I hope you know how much of a mark you made and how much you’re missed.


Event Report

The first two of the Cross-Cultural Conversations events are now over, and both were great successes.  On Sunday, there was a road trip of 15 SPSU faculty (and some of their family members), staff, and students, to the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum to hear the talk “Bearing Witness” by Ilse Reiner, a survivor of the Theresienstadt Ghetto in Terezin, Czechoslovakia.  Theresienstadt was the ghetto in which the Jews of Germany, Denmark, and Czechoslovakia were interned.  While it wasn’t a death camp per se, the horribly crowded conditions (58,000 people in an ex-military camp designed for 7,000), lack of food, lack of medical care, and so forth were a death sentence for many of the people forced to go there.  The ones who survived these conditions were then subsequently sent east, to the death camps in Poland.  Out of 15,000 children interned there, less than 150 survived and Ilse Reiner was one.  She talked about her experiences before the war and then there, sometimes funny or poignant, but more often horrific.  

After the talk, we went to see the exhibit “Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow”.  When the Nazis came to power in Germany, in short order Jewish faculty in the universities were fired from their positions.  Desperate to get out of Germany and find new employment, they tried to get positions in other European countries and in America.  The anti-Semitism of the time combined with the after-effects of the Great Depression caused most doors to be closed at the major universities of the North and Midwest.  In a little-known page in history, some fifty wound up teaching in the black universities of the South, where they encountered a different form of discrimination—the Jim Crow laws.  A number of interesting individual stories were told in the exhibit, including a professor who was fined for “inciting a riot” by having a discussion group where white students from the town and black students from the university could meet, and another who was later labeled a “race agitator” by the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission for supporting voting rights.  I left the exhibit wanting to know a lot more.

On Wednesday, SPSU hosted guest speaker Henry Birnbrey, also from the Breman Museum.  About 100 students and faculty heard a fascinating talk about his own experiences as a small boy in Dortmund Germany, seeing the rise of Nazism, being evicted from his home, having his school building taken over and shifted to a ramshackle building, and ultimately being able to get out in 1938 by procuring an exit visa that required him to leave his parents and his country 24 hours later.  It was the last time he would see his parents—his father was murdered on Kristallnacht, and his mother died soon thereafter. 

He came to the United States as an orphan of age 14, and was sent first to Birmingham, AL and then to Atlanta.  He later became a citizen and then quickly a soldier in the U.S. Army, was part of the Normandy invasion, and then witnessed first-hand some of the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis.  His message:  The Holocaust was the ultimate and inevitable end result of societal indifference to discrimination—a lesson to all decent people to stand up against oppression.  He quoted poet Heinrich Heine, who in Almansor (1821—110 years before the Holocaust) wrote: “That was mere foreplay. Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings.”

A big thanks to Jill Forest, the associate director of Career Services at SPSU, who arranged both programs.  Next up this month is “An Evening of Classical Indian Dance”, at 6:00 – 7:15 PM on September 26th, in the student center auditorium, arranged by Raj Sashti (International Affairs Office).  The evening will feature Ms. Sasikala Penumarthi, an accomplished Indian classical dancer in the Kuchipudi Style.  She has given solo and group performances in Europe, India, the former Soviet Union, and at the “Festival of India”.  Please support these important activities with your attendance, and encourage your students to attend as well.


Golden Geese

There was an interesting editorial in the Washington Post on September 9, weirdly enough authored by Jim Cooper (no, not our Jim) and Alan Leshner, entitled “It’s Time to Get Serious About Science”.  In it, they remind readers of the old “Golden Fleece Awards”, popularized by the late Senator William Proxmire, which ridiculed scientists for doing research on weird things.  I’m sure you’ve all seen articles in the newspapers or on TV of this kind—“Ha ha ha—look at this professor studying the dung beetle” or the like.  Well, a bipartisan team of U.S. lawmakers, working with a group of science, business, and education leaders are now giving out what they’re calling “Golden Goose Awards” (i.e., the goose that lays the golden eggs—a good thing!) for research that looks dubious at first but winds up being quite important.   It turns out that this outcome is more common than you might think.

Among the research they mention is work on jellyfish nervous systems by Osamu Shimomura, Martin Chalfie, and Roger Y. Tsien.  This work ultimately led to advances in cancer diagnosis, understanding brain diseases better, and improved detection of poisons.  The three won the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.  In another example, Jon Weber, Eugene White, Rodney White, and Della Roy did research on the microstructure of coral reefs, which resulted in the development of special ceramics that are used in bone grafts and prosthetic eyes.  The editorial goes on: “Yes, “the sex life of the screwworm” sounds funny.  But a $250,000 study of this pest, which is lethal to livestock, has over time, saved the U.S. cattle industry more than $20 billion.”  The editorial ends with a plea not to cut R&D funding in the U.S., since our global competitors are increasing theirs. 

I think that all of us understand that research in dubious sounding areas can surprise us all by winding up to be critically important, and that the people who were doubters can ultimately wind up with (golden goose) egg on their faces.  What we often don’t recognize is that this argument applies to other areas as well.  There are thousands of stories of the student who was told that his educational future was dubious, only to go on to invent the huge invention, make a fortune, or win the Nobel Prize.  I remember the video clip of the audience at the British version of American Idol laughing at Susan Boyle because of her plain looks, only to gasp in amazement when she began to sing.  We think we know who will succeed and who won’t, and we craft policies (admission, grant funding, bookmaking, how we vote, hundreds of other things) that are based on that “knowledge”.  The truth is that we don’t know, and that a little less hubris and a little more openness to the idea that the unlikely sometimes succeeds would be healthy for everyone.


The Good Music List

Updates on the Music:

  • Charlie Watts—Warm & Tender (This one surprised me.  Since the Charlie Watts here is the drummer from the Rolling Stones, I expected his jazz combo to be a bit more “out there”.  Instead, it is pretty mainstream soft jazz.)
  • Pat Boone—The ‘50’s (I’m working my way through this 12 disc collectors’ set.  Pat Boone’s voice is amazingly smooth and a pleasure to listen to.  About 25% of the songs are religious, while another 25% are “whitened” versions of black artist 1950’s R&B.  The rest are nice ballads, many of which I’ve never heard any version of before.
  • Shorty Rogers—West Coast Jazz  (I’ve only heard one disc of the four, but much to my pleasant surprise, the first three songs featured vocalist June Christy, one of my favorites, who I never knew sang with Rogers’ combo.)
  • Sam Cooke—The Man Who Invented Soul (Four discs, all unbelievably great—all the big hits are here and lots of stuff I’ve never heard before.)


Last Week’s Trivia Contest

Last week’s questions had to do with mythology, and there were lots of entries with all or most answers correct.  As always, the prize goes to the fastest, so our winner was Misty York (ETCMA) with a fabulous five correct.  Erin Sledd (also ETCMA), who also got all five correct, pointed out something I didn’t know about one of the answers—that Quetzlcoatl is the source of the name Guadelupe (as in Virgin of Guadelupe)—“coatl” means serpent and “lupe” means crush—i.e., belief in Catholicism (and the Virgin Mary) crushing the serpent of belief in Quetzalcoatl.  The image of the Virgin of Guadelupe is somewhat like the Shroud of Turin—both items are claimed to have miraculous and supernatural powers and origins.  The story of the Virgin of Guadelupe is quite interesting and well worth reading.

Here are the correct answers to last week’s contest:

  1. Norse god of thunder.  Thor
  2. Roman goddess of beauty, first arrived on Cyprus floating on a scallop shell.  Venus
  3. Greek goddess, born as an adult, after her father’s head was split open by an axe.  Athena
  4. Egyptian god of the dead.  Osiris
  5. Aztec creator god, often depicted as a feathered serpent.  Quetzalcoatl


This Week’s Trivia Challenge

This week’s questions all have to do with the word “pink”.  Why?  I have no idea, but this one just popped in my mind.  As always, first with the most right takes the swag.  No looking up the answers now!

  1. Feeling healthy.
  2. Theme song of these cartoons and movies was written by Henry Mancini.
  3. Indicates support for breast cancer research
  4. Portland multi-genre musical group.
  5. It separates the presidential range of mountains in New Hampshire.