Oral History Transcript — Alma Kesner
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Interview with Alma Kesner
Alma Kesner; October 25, 1995
ABSTRACT: Discusses her experience as a director of a book club prior to her hire at Lamont Geological Observatory. Describes her work area in Lamont Hall, and the atmosphere and work ethic at Lamont. Recounts how she was dared into kissing W. Maurice Ewing at her first Lamont party. Explains the need to obtain clearance and a classification code from the government to work at Lamont. Finds out about some research happening around her only after declassification of the research. Works as purchasing agent and accounts payable. Struggles with Columbia Universityís bureaucracy and government auditors recalled. Characterizes J. Laurence Kulp, Kulpís geochemistry group, and David Ericson. Details her spare jobs; planting flowers on the grounds, selling bouquets, making centerpieces, and cooking, washing, and soup tasting for the cafeteria. Discusses the machine shop, machinist Angelo Ludas, parties at the machine shop, and Ludasís retirement party. Recounts a dispute with one scientist over reimbursement practices. Columbiaís oversight of accounts payable and government auditing discussed. Recalls her first view of the Vema and its sale. Describes parties at Lamont. Gives a description of Bruce Heezen, Marie Tharp, and William Donn. Explores Ewingís relationship with his staff. Supplies and does purchasing for the Bermuda Station. Her efforts to get supplies to Bermuda. Describes Carl Hartdegen. Initiates the Palisade Geophysical. Recalls outfitting the Vema. Private patronage at Lamont. How Lamont fit in with the older oceanographic centers explained. Mentions Oswald Roels work at St. Johnís. Recounts accidents at sea, particularly John Hennionís death. Describes Lamont after Ewingís departure in 1972, the atmosphere, succeeding directors, fund-raising. Regrets not getting the privilege of writing purchase orders at Lamont rather than going through Columbia. Explains why she left Lamont. More on Ewingís departure.
TranscriptSession I | Session II
Doel:This is Ron Doel and this is an interview with Alma Kesner and todayís date is October 25, 1995 and weíre doing this interview in New York just outside Lamont Doherty Observatory itself. Weíre going to be asking a lot about your experiences at Lamont in a few moments. But Iím curious about your early experiences prior to the time that you got to Lamont. Did you grow up in this area?
Kesner:No. No, I was born on Horatio Street in New York City. Iím a real New Yorker. And we sort of bounced around New York and finally ended up in Long Island, Jamaica, and from there I moved to Bay Shore when I was married. But prior to that I was a director in a book club called The Heritage Club. Are you familiar with that at all?
Doel:Iíve heard the name.
Kesner:I have a lot of those books, Heritage books.
Doel:And when were you married? What year was that?
Kesner:I canít remember. Isnít that terrible. I can tell you how long Iíve been a widow but I canít tell you how long Iíve been married. Isnít that awful. Youíre going to have to bear with me because Iíll be eighty-two next week and I kind of forget things along the path. I was the manager of the book club and then they started a new request to open up a new club which was going to be started with a cheaper version of The Heritage Club and asked me if I would start it and I did. I worked with them until I got married. The year was 1941. Then I left and I was home for twelve years. Just a plan old fashioned housewife. I was very happy after all the years of employment. And then my husband died. Heíll be dead forty years. From there I opened a flower shop in the town where Iím living now, Tappan, and didnít stay with it too long because of the death of a member of my family. I then decided Iíd better get into the real world so I answered an ad for the Lamont Geological Observatory as it was called in those days.
Doel:Had you known of them at all before then?
Kesner:Never. Never. I knew people who worked there. But I saw the ad in the paper they were looking for a plain ordinary typist and I was interviewed by Mr. Arnold [W.] Finck and he hired me. In those days when you went to apply for a job you wore gloves and a hat and that was a must. But anyway, the first few weeks I worked there I was very naive and I sat - - (if you know the Lamont Hall at all, which is the most beautiful building in the world,) directly as you come into the main hall, there was a switchboard to the right, and my desk came after the switchboard and then it opened into the Lamont living room, which was a tremendous beautiful room and that was where they held the Friday night parties; and also used for lunch periods, or quiet reading.
Doel:Right, this is all on the first floor of Lamont.
Kesner:All on the first floor of Lamont. So naturally being new and not knowing too many people, they all passed me about four oíclock in the afternoon and theyíre all going to the library you know. Finally one day somebody came in and said Alma why donít you join us. And I said I donít think so. I usually go home right at five oíclock. ďOh come on,Ē he said. I think it was Jack [E.] Oliver. I know it wasnít Denny [Dennis] Hayes; it was Jack Oliver. And so I went in and they were just starting the Columbia song. I heard that and I knew they were all well under the way. And there was a man sitting in the back of the room and I paid no attention. But Jack Oliver came over to me and said Alma you know I think what you better do is get to know people here. I said that would be very nice but I know quite a few because Iíve typed for them since Iím here. So he said Ďnoí he said, see that man over there in the corner, he has grey hair. I bet you ten dollars that you havenít the guts to go over and stand in front of him and give him a kiss, or sit on his lap and give him a kiss. And I said — and this is without a drink.
Doel:And this is you first party that youíve gone to at Lamont?
Kesner:My first party. So I said well I canít be a party pooper. Over I go. But the minute I sat on his lap and gave him the kiss, I knew I did something wrong, very wrong. Because the man happened to be Dr. Maurice [W.] Ewing. Oh God. I was never so embarrassed in my life. And something else, Maurice Ewing never forgot it to the day he died. Because every time heíd see me heíd give me a big smirk and, you know, heíd say come over here. But anyway we had a lot of laughs.
Doel:What were your impressions of Lamont as you began working there? Was it like other places you worked?
Kesner:No, it was completely different. It was very informal. Dr. [Bruce C.] Heezen, Bruce and Marie [Tharp] worked on the first floor and they had a little office and inside of the office they had their bathroom which was completely equipped with all their scientific equipment. So that if you had to go into the bathroom, you had to move a lot of equipment before you could do what you wanted to do. And sometimes Marie and Bruce would spend the night there, all night long. Many a time when I was down, after I was at Lamont a few years, and Iíd be working probably overtime. We didnít have overtime. We just worked. No such thing as overtime. We were there and very often Iíd be there until nine oíclock at night and Iíd hear a pitter patter coming down the beautiful staircase that twirled around to the lower floor. And who would walk in but Dr. Ewing. No shoes on, just his socks and he would come over to see what I was doing and weíd chat for a few minutes and it was a very, very wonderful place to work.
Doel:The piece, this one. Weíll put this on tape, a review of your work here.
Kesner:I see. It was the happiest time of my life. Because I had gone through a trauma of losing my husband and having two children to raise. It wasnít easy. And of course the salaries in those days were nil, you know. But anyway we thrived through everything. And I had many offers of other jobs but I wouldnít accept them because I liked Lamont. I liked the people. With the exception of just maybe one or two that I can slightly remember, everyone was wonderful to work with.
Doel:Just thinking back to the earliest of times when you joined Lamont, did you have much science at all in your training?
Doel:Iím curious how it was to work in an environment like Lamontís.
Kesner:It came very easy for me. As it was when I was running the book store. What I did in those days when I was in The Heritage Club and The Readers Club was when I was asked to start the club, I went to every book publisher in New York City.
Doel:Is that right?
Kesner:And I asked if I could see their operation and thatís how I learned. I had no idea of operating a book club. But I must have had something on the fire because they asked me to start a new book club. And theyíd throw me into this empty space and say go from here.
Doel:Quite a bit of trust.
Kesner:Yes it was. And I think too that when I got to Lamont, I did the same thing. I was interested in every department. Now I know one story I can tell you. Of course working in Lamont in those days you had to be cleared by the government.
Doel:Because of the classified research?
Kesner:Classified research. Now they were doing classified research down in the basement and that was directly under where I was sitting. And all I would hear, Bernie [Bernard] Luskin and Harry Van Santford were working on this project. And they were driving me crazy because all I would hear all day would be ďping,Ē ďping.Ē So I finally christened it ďthe pinger.Ē I said to Harry Iím going to christen that thing that you have downstairs. Itís driving me mad I said. Itís going ďping,Ē ďpingĒ all day long. Thatís all right you can call it what you want. Then Bernie Luskin came up one day after I was promoted from typist to chief purchasing agent — I was the purchasing agent.
Doel:Right, you were the purchasing agent.
Kesner:I was the purchasing agent. And accounts payable.
Doel:Right. And this was already in 1958, wasnít it?
Kesner:'57. Anyway, where was I now?
Doel:You were mentioning about the pinger downstairs.
Kesner:Oh yes, so Bernie Luskin came up one day and I said Bernie I know I canít ask you this question, but am I getting all your supplies on time. I know youíre working on a special project. So he said, oh Alma youíre doing fine. Thereís only one thing I want, I want something and I have to have it tomorrow because weíre going to use this very shortly. And he said you will be the first to know from me just what you were buying and what it was for. Well I didnít have to wait too long because the next day in the newspapers it came out that the Nautilus was going under the ice flow and when the Nautilus would come to an ice barricade where they could not go over or under, this instrument would go ďping,Ē ďpingĒ into their cockpit. What would you call it — a submarine? Well, whatever.
Doel:I know what you mean.
Kesner:You know what I mean. That was it was called. I said, ďOh that was my pinger.Ē So he says thatís right. So that was the kind of work that we used to do. It was so interesting because most of the people when they working on classified would always come and tell me, after it was declassified, what it was all about.
Kesner:It made it so interesting.
Doel:How many people were working on the classified projects when you think back?
Kesner:Everybody was supposed to at that time. There were about 25 or 30. Everybody in the main house had to be classified.
Doel:You mean that everybody had their security clearance but not everyone was working on classified projects.
Kesner:No, not everyone was working on it but if you were associated in any way with it, even though you werenít physically involved you had to be classified.
Doel:Right. What level was your clearance that you got?
Kesner:I donít even remember. I donít remember. But I know I was classified and cleared.
Doel:When you think back on it, how many nights did you have to stay say until eight or nine in the evening. How often would that kind of schedule affect you?
Kesner:Kind of frequently. Especially being the one purchasing. And of course donít forget, I had accounts payable. And not to be unkind to Columbia, but they gave me a difficult time. They did not want to part with any part of their authority whatsoever. And it was just infuriating me because it was holding me back so. When the boys came in and they said Alma I have to have this by next week. ďI canít get it for you by next week.Ē The best I can probably promise is maybe two weeks at the rate itís going with Columbia, you see.
Doel:Because everything had to go through Columbiaís office before it came back to you.
Kesner:Yes. And Of course that was a few years later of struggling and fighting and arguing with Columbia and trying to prove that I was capable of calling up and getting a purchase order number over the phone and so I could either send one of the boys down to pick it up ourselves or have it shipped out immediately. So it did help a little bit but I wasnít quite satisfied. I wanted to reach the point where I could issue my own purchase orders directly from my office. And it never quite happened. Even to this day it hasnít happened.
Doel:One thing that you mentioned in the document that you prepared and this is much further into maybe in the 70s you were still fighting for this.
Kesner:And they were going to let me do it but whatever happened after I left, I donít know. And in fact, I wish I was still up there at Lamont. Because I loved the place so.
Doel:You said something interesting in talking about how you learned in the book club by going to the individual publishers. Did you do the same when you were at Lamont? Did you go to the different centers that were emerging, such as chemistry, and get to know all the chiefs of the different divisions?
Kesner:Yes. And it was very interesting. Also not only did I have to buck Columbia but I also had to buck the government, because we were all under a grant as you know and the boys were working very hard on so many grants for money. That was our second game was the money. The point just slipped my mind. So, thereís a punch line to it too. I hate to pull this on you but blame in on old age, thatís all. Maybe I better go to something else it will hit me again.
Doel:Thatís fine we can come back to that at any point. Iím curious when you joined already in 1956 was the first time you began working at Lamont.
Doel:There were a number of other named facilities that were emerging. Larry [J. Laurence] Kulpís geochemistry facility. You met him I imagine?
Kesner:Oh yes I met him several times over the years. They were quite separate from the rest of Lamont. They had started and they had their own geochemistry building and they did their own purchasing and they did their own accounts payable. And they were connected — Elsie Grafo I believe was there at that time. She still was for many years and she did all her own work.
Doel:Why was it split that way?
Kesner:It was that Dr. Kulp wanted to be a complete separation from the Observatory under Dr. Ewing. There was a little conflict there, not a conflict but a little independence. Dr. Kulp wanted to get his material fast and things of that kind. So we had no connection until the later years when Dr. Ewing said this is not a way to run business. We all combine. So they sent all their paper work over to my office along with the girl who did it, Elsie Grafo. That was a great help. So it was the same thing but sitting in my office. But then she had to do things my way.
Doel:But then it was consolidated?
Kesner:It will come back.
Doel:What other centers at Lamont do you recall visiting when you were first coming on to campus in addition to Larry Kulpís operation?
Kesner:Oh thereís the core lab, Dave [David B.] Ericson.
Doel:What are your recollections of Dave Ericson?
Kesner:Dave was a character. He was a wonderful person. In fact I have his book up here that he wrote and he autographed it for me. And I understand Dave Ericson just died recently. Some girl called me from Lamont. Now you can imagine what they think of me at Lamont when they call me and ask me if Iíd write an obituary for Dave Ericson.
Doel:You found out quite a bit when you wrote that?
Kesner:Well anyway, Dave, well we went to the core lab. Then we had the, the first building was the — I forget the buildings. Isnít that terrible? Oceanography was built after the Marine Biology that was the next building that was built. And of course my other chores beside doing what I was doing at Lamont, in other words being the purchasing supervisor — Now by this time I had help and things were going along rather smoothly then.
Doel:Is this already the 1960s?
Doel:You were mentioning about coming into contact with folks in the core lab and which buildings were being developed?
Kesner:Oh this is what I want to tell you. The core lab was the first place I had been. And Harry Van Santford had his office directly in the main building underneath. He was in the cellar. He would make the eels for the cores that were used aboard the Vema. And I said before, the government would come in to review me and pull up purchase orders and say why did you buy this and why didnít you get a bid on that? And why is it not classified when itís over a thousand dollars? So I would have to sometimes think up a really good excuse or tell the truth. Well this time I could tell the truth. Because directly outside of my office was an eel, (they used to call them,) that Harry Van Santford was working on and it was stretching from, weíre up on the second floor, on the second floor, down the stairway to where Harry was working on the first floor. Oh that was in the Butler building, excuse me. This was in the Butler Building.
Doel:Now when did you go into the Butler Building?
Kesner:From Lamont Hall, about 62 or 63. So anyway all I did to this auditor. I said, well auditor answer this question? Hereís the purchase order number and the reason it wasnít classified as a piece of permanent equipment, you come with me. So he got up and we walked out to the hallway. I said they call this an eel and itís going down and itís going down the stairs and itís going right into Mr. Harry Van Santfordís office. Heís working on it at the moment. Now you see how eel is constructed. I said itís plastic, has wires going through it and little batteries going through it. Would you call that a piece of permanent equipment when itís dropped behind the Vema in 50 fathoms of water? He looked at me and said say no more. He said Iím through for the day. So little things like that would please me. Especially when Iíd been in the core lab and they showed the cores and the equipment used aboard the Vema you see. And when the cores came back from the Vema they were all packed in cylindrical tubes and then they were slit out and then they were dissected, the cure.
Doel:And you saw those operations go on?
Kesner:I saw all these operations, yes. In fact when I was having a terrible time with Columbia. The people from Columbia were very ignorant of what we were doing up at Lamont.
Doel:This is the Columbia administration?
Kesner:Columbia administration. Purchasing and so forth down there. And I used to have arguments and arguments with the people I worked with, the other purchasing agents down there you know. And about how you canít classify something as permanent even though itís over five hundred dollars. Everything over five hundred dollars to a thousand was considered permanent. So I said I have to do something about this. This is terrible. So I went to Arnold Finck and I also went to Dr. Ewing. I asked if I could have permission to bring the whole purchasing department from Columbia up to Lamont, invite them for lunch and then I will give them a tour of Lamont and show them various pieces of equipment and if they could see it personally, they would understand why you cannot classify some as permanent and some as expendable. Of course it was in December, the weather was very unpredictable. We did get everybody up to Lamont as we wanted to but it snowed. It snowed so badly we couldnít get from building to building. We did introduce a lot of the scientists to them who explained and brought samples of things, you know. And we had a nice lunch. And our rapport after that was very, very pleasant. We saw each other in other words, a face on face. We knew what we were talking about and they could see we were not making up stories when we said an eel cannot be classified as permanent equipment. And things of that kind. And not only that but when we had permanent equipment we had to tag all the things and it was a lot of extra work, and if something happened to it we were responsible.
Doel:It sounds like a very good way to educate them.
Kesner:Oh yes. And then besides doing my work Lamont as you know, — youíve been up to Lamont before this havenít you?
Kesner:Many times. Has the most beautiful garden that you ever saw in your life. When I was there. I donít know what itís like now.
Doel:Thatís the garden that stretches out in front of Lamont Hall?
Kesner:Well, yes it goes from there over to the old machine shop which is still there but I donít know what itís used for now.
Kesner:They change them around so frequently. Dr. Worzel [J. Lamar] was there. He was the assistant director. Now his wife and I — sheís a flower lover too — we would sneak in a piece of property off Lamont and plant tulips and weíd plant. She did an awful lot of planting out in back. Cut flowers. And I would get to Lamont maybe about seven oíclock in the morning and she would meet me with all the flowers that she could cut and I would make arrangements and weíd sell them at lunchtime and with the money she got sheíd buy more flowers, bulbs and seeds for future use.
Kesner:Yes. We did that for many years. So you know every time Doc had a party or we had a party at Lamont or if we had a special occasion like the dedication of a new building and that sort of thing, Doc would call me and ask me if I would do the flowers. So I said sure, of course. So I did all the flowers for them, arrangements. But of course I had to see where everybody was going to sit so I didnít have a bunch of flowers in front of somebody who was going to talk, you know. And then I was talking to you too before about the machine shop. That was another little place that was separate from the Lamont Hall. That was done with all the fabrication of the inventions and whatever Doe thought about or Joe Worzel wanted to have done.
Doel:All the instruments that needed to be developed.
Kesner:All. Everything. Angelo Ludas was in charge of that and it was funny because he would have a Christmas party every single year. But no women were allowed in the machine shop.
Doel:How did you feel about that?
Kesner:We all laughed. So we had our own party. But then after a while I used to talk to Ange. And I said Ange come on. Weíre all big girls now. He says youíre likely to go down the cellar. I said not with you I wouldnít go in the cellar. So anyway he did. One year he did invite, and he had the women into the machine shop and so we put a big flag up for that one.
Doel:Was this also in the 1960s before you had your first party?
Kesner:Yes. Then they started a cafeteria and that was particularly only for one type of person that was the student.
Doel:You were saying about the students?
Kesner:Yes, Doe was very, very concerned about the students and he wanted to have a service where the poor fellows could eat lunch. So when the Butler Building was built, adjacent to the Butler Building was the swimming pool that the Lamont had, indoor, gorgeous beautiful swimming pool. So they decided that a swimming pool was very impractical for the Lamont students, but a cafeteria would be more appropriate. So they immediately dismantled the swimming pool, put up a beautiful cafeteria as far as a room is concerned. As far as cafeteria equipment, zilch, nothing. We had to do that the hard way.
Doel:So you just had separate temporary plain cooking facilities?
Kesner:So all we had to do is to take a few of the old library tables that were not being used, line them up on one side of the room which was just occupied with extra tables and chairs and we would go down — Alice Hoffer was the originator of this little chore. She would go down to the A&P or wherever and buy cold cuts and all kinds of salads and in the winter it would be soups and a sandwich and we did splurge and bought a big coffee maker. So we could serve coffee, sandwiches and milk. That was their lunch. But then it started to get to be that it would be too much for one person to run alone because she had other chores to do too. So then they brought me into it after many years. And I was not only chief cook and bottle washer, but lots of times when I was busy in my own office the girls would call me and say could you come down please and taste the soup, it doesnít taste right to me.
Doel:This was when you would go from the Butler Building?
Kesner:Then I would go through the Butler Building across to the cafeteria.
Doel:Wearing many hats seemed to be very characteristic of work at Lamont?
Kesner:Oh yes. And of course my most — when Ange retired from the machine shop, he was a wonderful man.
Doel:What sort of person was he?
Kesner:He was an individual who was rough and ready. He adored Doc [Maurice] Ewing. Well between him and Doc Ewing they invented the SOFAR in Bermuda. And he would do anything for Doe and he lived right on the grounds you know. He had the building right on the grounds.
Doel:I didnít know that. He had a little.
Kesner:He had a house.
Doel:A house right on the grounds.
Kesner:See there were a few houses all around. Joe Worzel lived in one. Dr. [John E.] Nafe too. Dr. Nafe lived in another. And then they had a few that were given to select scientists who were here, probably with their families. And then they had the buildings and grounds man who was, Ange got this house first because he was in charge of the machine shop. But after Ange died then they gave it to the man who would run the grounds. In other words Ray [Raymond T.] Long. You know Ray Long?
Doel:I know of him.
Kesner:Ang was very honest, very hard working. He would work until sometimes one oíclock in the morning with Doe, or with Joe Worzel or whoever happened to have this equipment that were interested in getting ready for a certain cruise or to try whatever it was. And he was very, very — He was also a party man. He loved a party. And we had a lot of good times together. His wife was adorable. In fact, just to tell you how close we were as working partners. His daughter died very young and he wouldnít let anybody go near the coffin but me, because I made a little floral arrangement. He wanted me to put it near her hands, ďDonít cover her hands Alma.Ē Because she had the most beautiful hands of anybody I had ever seen. She had gorgeous hands.
Doel:It must have been devastating.
Kesner:It was devastating for him. And after that Ange was never the same. And then his wife developed cancer and she died. And he didnít last at Lamont too long after that.
Doel:When was it that that happened, the daughterís death?
Kesner:Oh his daughterís death was 1960 something. I forget the real date. You have to look into that. Oh, while I had the cafeteria running, Angelo decided he was going to retire. I told him he was making a mistake because if youíre going to retire Ange youíre going to have to leave the house here at Lamont. So he said well Iím going upstate, up near — oh I should be able to get the date from one of my mass cards.
Doel:That can always be added to the interview.
Kesner:Well anyway he went upstate to live. I drove up a few times to see him you know. Because we were very friendly. We were old time friends you know. Iíd go in there sometimes on a Saturday morning or a Sunday afternoon just to say something or to bring something to his wife Lenore and Iíd be there all day. Weíd be drinking. Sometimes I donít know how I got home, but I was all right. I was young then. But anyhow we put out all the spread for his retirement. Everybody at Lamont came to Angeís party and Doc was due in about, letís see nine oíclock, he was supposed to be there at the party to say farewell to his dear friend. Well Iím in the kitchen getting everything squared away and who comes into the kitchen but Harriet [Ewing], thatís Docís wife.
Kesner:And she said Alma I just had a call from Doc. Heís not going to make it. Oh I said what a disappointment for Angelo. Itís his last day at Lamont you know. Well she said, ďYouíre not going to like this, I have to tell you what he said.Ē And I said ďWhat?Ē ďYou have to give the farewell speech.Ē Me. I said no way. I never spoke in front of a group of people like this. Thereís Dennie Hayes outside, thereís Joe Worzel. Why doesnít one of them do it? ďDoc said it has to be you.Ē Well I was stupid. I never asked him why he did that to me.
Doel:Do you have any idea why?
Kesner:I havenít any idea. Maybe itís getting even for kissing him that first time. I donít know. But anyhow, I got through it but donít ask me how. And Ange says to me, ďHey Alma that was pretty good you know what you said about me but I would have preferred Doc.Ē I said, ďYouíre telling me. You would prefer him. I was wishing he would walk in any minute.Ē Oh dear. But there were so many of those funny things that we had. And everybody was so pleasant, everybody. I donít think I ever had a cross word with anyone. And oh there was one episode that was so trivial that it didnít matter.
Doel:This was a person that left Lamont?
Kesner:He left Lamont, yes. He tried to put me up on charges because I would not allow him to go out and buy material that he needed and not go through the usual form you know. And while I handed all the petty cash, I was not about to give this man a hundred dollars for going out to buy his material. Everybody in the place would be coming through for cash. This was for emergency things up to about forty dollars, fifty dollars tops. So he brought me up to Doctor Ewing.
Doel:What happened at that point?
Kesner:And Dr. Ewing called me that morning. And he said Alma, youíve been brought up on charges and I want you here. See I canít even remember his name. He came from California. And he wasnít with us very long.
Doel:Again, donít trouble yourself. We will make sure once we have the transcript ready that you have a chance to add those names.
Kesner:Yeah, okay. So anyway he called me up to the office and he had me sitting at his desk and he said Iím not going to tell you whatís it all about Alma. But when he comes, heíll tell you himself. He walked into the room and saw me sitting there and was amazed. He was just taken aback. So Doc said now you didnít think for one minute that I was going to let you charge Alma with neglect to help you with your science because you canít buy things against our rules and regulations. That I would let you come and tell me the story without having Alma answer the question. He said but Iím not even going to let Alma talk You know what Iím going to tell you. He said if it wasnít for this woman sitting here, half of the supplies would never get through to Lamont. He disliked Columbia very much.
Doel:Talking about Doc Ewing.
Kesner:Yes, talking about Doc Ewing. Because he was a scientist through and through and everything was held up because of paperwork and he didnít want that to be. And so he said that if it wasnít for me we wouldnít be as far as we were at that stage. And if you donít want to go with our rules and regulations, youíll have to go back to California. So he read the riot act to him. Very nicely though. And when we left the office, Doc Ewing shook my hand and he said now donít get upset about it. He said, but we have to set these boys straight, otherwise theyíre going to make a mess of your whole department. Well I said no they wonít because they wouldnít get any money. And when they spend their money and donít get reimbursed, theyíll soon stop. So anyway, he laughed. He said yeah thatís right too.
Doel:Was that typical of how Ewing handled personal relationships at Lamont?
Kesner:Not always. That was the first and only time he ever did that to me. He usually let me answer all my own problems you know. But I was surprised.
Doel:You were giving a lot of responsibility and let to go.
Kesner:Let to go, yes. And the only thing I do feel bad about is I never got down to Columbia enough. Because I was too busy. Not only with purchasing, but accounts payable and also the restaurant, you know the cafeteria. And all the little things I had to do. Very often I would be very, very busy and either Harriet or Doe or somebody from that office would call and say Doe is expecting company tomorrow from California. And theyíre having their lunch served in there by the caterer. And I said all right, what do you want? Theyíd want a lovely centerpiece because that Lamont Hall living room or ballroom, as we called it, was so big the table went from there down to where Iím sitting. Now if you put a little pot on that, it would look lost. So he said he wanted something very impressive on there.
Doel:Weíre talking about at least twenty-five feet?
Kesner:Oh sure. So I would make a centerpiece that long (about four or five feet). But donít forget I had the most wonderful surplus supply. Just went into the garden with my shears, or my knife I should say and cut it out. Oh I loved that. I have lots of letters just like that I have downstairs. Thank you for that, you know. But they were good days.
Doel:Did you have much contact with the Geology Department at Columbia at all?
Kesner:Not too much. All my contact really down there was the purchasing. Miss [Adeline M.J. Elia] in Kent, accounts payable. Oh boy, she was something else.
Doel:How was she something else?
Kesner:She ran accounts payable at Columbia University and she was a toughie. In order to pass any good marks in her class, I had to be on my toes constantly. And one time I wanted her to come up here. And she did, she came up. And she said, ďWhile Iím in the building, she said, Iím going to go up and see Doc Ewing.Ē I said, ďGo right ahead. Heís up on the second floor.Ē She says, ďI know where he is.Ē She went up there. I didnít go with her. She went up and she came back and she was furious. I said, ďWhat happened?Ē She said, ďWho does he think he is up there, God?Ē I said, ďWhat are you talking about?Ē She said, ďWhy he was coming out of his office and I was walking up the aisle to meet him, when his secretary came back and said to me, please step out of the way, Dr. Ewing wants to pass.Ē She never did say hello to Dr. Ewing. Never said a word to anybody. Just came down and blew her stack at me. You donít have to quote that. This is the type of person I had to put up with. And while it was true there were lots of little mistakes I did make in the very beginning, but I soon caught on. And I knew the rules and regulations and after a few interviews with the auditors from Washington, D.C., I knew where I had to keep my tongue in my mouth and what I had to do.
Doel:Iím sorry I didnít mean to interrupt. I was curious how often the auditors did come to Lamont?
Kesner:Once a year.
Doel:Once a year?
Kesner:Uh huh. And when they came up they meant business. Because they loved to catch us in a lot so they could discontinue our money you see. And it was dependent on that that you got a good mark on how we spent the money and it was done according to their rules and regulations. And we never had a bad mark. Thank God.
Doel:This is of course the Navy money and the National Science Foundation?
Kesner:Oh sure. National Science Foundation and Navy. Oh I had quite a time with it.
Doel:Is there any particular recollection from the auditing that comes to mind?
Kesner:The one fellow I told you about with the eel. The rest of them were always businesslike. No fooling around. No nonsense. And I was glad when they left. You can well imagine.
Doel:Did that take one or two days when they were there?
Kesner:Oh sometimes three or four. It was according to the way I presented. The reason I didnít put something in permanent equipment. And I would always say to them if you donít want to take my word for it, I will have the author of that piece of equipment come down here and explain it to you in full. So he said no it wouldnít be necessary.
Doel:And this was of course the classified as well as the non-classified research that was all done.
Kesner:Thatís right. And then of course there was — now letís see. And oh of course we were so busy in purchasing when the ships came in. That was another thing I loved. Captain [Henry C.] Kohler was a wonderful, wonderful skipper.
Doel:He was of course the skipper of the Vema.
Kesner:The skipper of the Vema. The reason being when I first joined Lamont in 1956 I was sitting in the main hall typing a paper for someone, it might have been Dr. [Manik] Talwani. And everybody started to pile out of the Observatory, out of the building. So I canít remember who it was but, someone said come on donít sit there and type, come with us. Youíre going to see a beautiful sight in a few minutes. I said what is that? ďThe Vema is coming in after an eight month voyage. And sheís going to come up the Hudson under full sail.Ē Well just thinking about it right now makes me cry. I went up with them and here this gorgeous ship was coming up. It was a day like this, coming up the Hudson under full sail. Ah, it was the most beautiful sight I ever saw in my life.
Doel:I can imagine. Where were you looking at it from?
Kesner:From the hilltop where the Oceanography Building stands now. There was nothing up there. We went through the woods, all the way to the top of the cliff.
Doel:Right and you had a view of the Hudson.
Kesner:A view of the Hudson. Oh.
Doel:Beautiful, clear, cool, crisp day.
Kesner:And we had that. From that time I just fell in love with the Vema. That was my baby.
Doel:It was a romantic ship.
Kesner:Ah she was a romantic person. Oh great. In fact so much so that when they sold her to the tune of $65,000 — Whoever did that should be ashamed of themselves. $65,000. That gorgeous, beautiful ship! When they sold it out, it was done very poorly, very badly. Poor Captain Kohler had no idea it was being sold until he came to New York that year.
Doel:That must have been a shock to him.
Kesner:He came here to my house and he said, ďHow can they do this to me? At least if I had known what was happening, when I left Cape Town, I could have made some plans.Ē And his wife was with him too, she was on the cruise. I was going to tell you something about that too, but I forgot
Doel:About that particular cruise or the decision to sell the Vema?
Kesner:The decision to sell. There was something else I was going to tell you but it will come back to me like the other one did before. You have anything else to ask me in the meantime? You think youíre through?
Kesner:Nope. You want to break for lunch?
Doel:Sure. Whenever you feel like taking a break. This is a good time now.
Doel:Weíre resuming right now after a lunch break. One of the things that we spoke about briefly at lunch and I want to make sure that we have that on tape. You started to tell me early in the interview that you been to a party at Lamont Doherty very soon after. That you joined in the staff there. Were you frequently at Lamont parties thereafter?
Kesner:Oh thereafter I automatically went. When the groups started I said all right Iíll come in and have one or two and then I had to go. Because I had another job see.
Doel:Oh I didnít know that. What was your other job?
Kesner:My other job was I worked for a doctor in Tappan, New York. And I used to work in the evenings.
Doel:How often did you work?
Kesner:In the evenings. Like Wednesday night, probably Thursday night and then Saturday afternoon. After all I had two girls and soon after my husbandís death it just wasnít enough. So I had to take, get — especially since Jane wanted to become a nurse and I sent her to St. Vincentís Hospital School of Nursing and that cost money.
Doel:When did you start that second job? Was that in the 1960s, the 70s?
Kesner:In the 1970s. And then unfortunately the doctor died and then I never went back. I tried to find another job and things started to get better for me and I could manage then on my own.
Doel:Up to the time of your retirement. I wonder what you recall from the parties particularly in the late 50s and 1960s when you were on the staff. Were you at the parties quite often?
Kesner:Oh yes, yes.
Doel:Who would come to them? Would it be?
Kesner:George [H.] Sutton. George would always sing. And I forget whether it was the alma mater.
Doel:The Columbia alma mater.
Kesner:The Columbia alma mater. I used to know the words bit by bit. But Iíve forgotten them all. And then we would have Christmas parties. That was done, now in the house that we stayed, the main house.
Doel:The Lamont House.
Kesner:The Lamont House. It was my job every year to put the Christmas wreath on the door. I would do that. I would go out and cut branches, make the wreath and put it up on the door. Iím jumping around too much here. I know I am. And whoever has to do this dictation is going to kill me for this.
Doel:You were recalling the parties from the social scene at Lamont in the late 50s and early 60s.
Kesner:Well we had a housekeeper who with the Lamont people. That was Alma and Harold Smith. They were a couple who stayed on this job as long as they lived from the Lamont people. As long as Lamont was giving this house, they wanted to be sure.
Doel:That they were covered.
Kesner:That they were covered. So they had an apartment on the first floor and it used to drive us mad when sheíd start cooking about three oíclock or four oíclock in the afternoon. But she was very kind. She used to have a few of the students in for dinner.
Doel:Thatís interesting. Which students do you recall in particular?
Kesner:Oh. Well. Manik Talwani was one of them Iím sure. And Bruce was another.
Doel:Bruce Heezen of course. Was Frank Press part of that?
Kesner:Frank Press, no. Yes he was. But see Frank Press went out when I came in sort of. And of course where this whole Observatory started was in the basement of Columbia University you know.
Kesner:You know that?
Doel:This is after World War II?
Kesner:After World War II, yes. And it wasnít until recently I just found out what that secret invention was that was being operated out of Bermuda. I learned that not too long ago. Well anyway, Alma was very kind to all the students. And if she knew I was working late or Doc was up in his office, sheíd always come with a cup of coffee or something around ten oíclock. It was like living at home really. And she would have a Christmas party for all the children of the scientific group. And they would be all invited. And she would bake cookies and she would bake cakes and she would, oh she would have some spread. And then Harold worked too. He worked with Harry Van Santford for a little bit and then he worked in various departments as a helper. He was a very nice person too. And they lived on for years until they finally retired from Lamont and went down to Leisure Village in New Jersey. Retired down there. Harold died first and then Alma died. I was very good friends with Alma for a number of years. But she was a great help in the house. She sometimes would have maybe a group of women in for lunch and she was a lovely person. She worked for the Rockefellers, too, at one time.
Doel:Were those parties that were held on Friday afternoons an important social event for Lamont? Would most people at Lamont generally try to come to them?
Kesner:Well there were so few of us. Most of the scientists were housed right at Lamont Hall so they all have their little niche, Jack Nafe and all the rest of them. The only one off campus or off the Lamont grounds, off the Lamont home, was geochemistry at one end and the machine shop. And thatís all we had. And then of course later came the Core Lab and then the Marine Biology Building, then the Butler Building and then the cafeteria. And the Oceanography was the last. Then there was one other building put up later than the Oceanography Building, that was behind the Marine Biology Building and I forget what itís called now. I told you there are some things I canít remember.
Doel:These are things weíll put in the final transcript. Were those parties something that Larry Kulp would have come to?
Doel:He and his group really were socially separate as well.
Kesner:Separate as well.
Kesner:They were completely separate. They had their own Christmas party and we had ours. Very strange. And of course I didnít go into geochemistry too much because I wasnít part of it, you see.
Doel:They stayed by themselves?
Doel:You came to know Bruce Heezen fairly well? What were your impressions of Bruce in the early days?
Kesner:Bruce was a tough taskmaster. He was very temperamental. He would fly off the handle for nothing at all. Fly off the handle at Marie Tharp. But as a team they were fantastic. He was very demanding. He wanted perfection and if he got what he considered perfection from you, you were his friend for life. And I tried to understand his predicaments. To know that when he needed something, he wasnít fooling. I did this with everyone no matter who it was. But particularly with Bruce because sometimes he would be here today and gone tomorrow and he wanted it before tomorrow. And these are the things I couldnít convince Columbia about. They couldnít understand until, as I explained before, I got the whole group together to note the urgency of our needs. The urgency of our requests. They werenít something I was making up. After that I didnít have too much problems, too many problems. But I did in a way that were still not fast enough for the Observatory and their urgency to get their work done. Because more work meant more money.
Doel:It was critical for Lamontís budget.
Kesner:Oh it was critical for Lamont. For the budget. But Bruce was very fair Iíd say. Sometimes if you interview people now — Mildred Rippey for instance. There was gal who was over a hundred when she died. She died very recently. She worked for Bruce for a while and they got along terribly. But thatís the close association. You see I was associated with him but in my own office and he knew he could get service. But if you worked as a typist or whatever, sometimes he was a little rough on the person. But I was always fond of Bruce, always. I donít think there was any person there, as I told you, that I really had any problems with or they had problems with me I guess. My philosophy always has been, you do your job right and in your heart if you know youíre doing right, you canít be all wrong.
Doel:How often would you see Bruce and Marie outside at Lamont?
Kesner:Oh quite frequently when I was working full time. Marie would invite me up to her house if she was having a lot of work done and she had forty-nine or fifty people working all over the ground.
Doel:Is that right?
Kesner:Yes. She put a nice house up in Nyack, which I was there many a times. Gorgeous, right on the Hudson. And I got a few boys to work for her and she was very fond of them. Conscientious boys. And then Bruce of course lived here in Piermont. He had a lovely home in Piermont. After, I believe she got that when Bruce died.
Doel:It was willed to her.
Kesner:It was willed to her, yes. But I was always fond of Marie. A little on the slap happy side but she didnít care about anything else but her work. And I believe sheís still the same today.
Doel:When you say that, what are you thinking about in particular? Are there any recollections that come to mind just now?
Kesner:Well I told you about the flowers. And I told you about when her place burned down, she sat there. And sheíd probably sit there until today if we didnít come along to help her.
Doel:As I said you did tell me some things at lunch and I want to make sure that those are on tape, otherwise they wonít be available.
Kesner:Oh. And then of course when we went out, or were invited to Columbia for a formal affair, Bruce would come and say Alma will you go over, Iím going to pick you up, but Iíll drop you at Marieís just to make sure sheís dressed properly because it would be just like her to wear sneakers with a long evening gown. And sure enough Iíd get there and Iíd say Marie let me see your feet and she held it up and sure enough sheíd have sneakers on. You canít wear those. You know I even brought extra shoes in case she could. Oh she was very funny. These things didnít matter to her. She would go and attend these parties and sheíd be off talking to a million people and all on her own. This was what she liked and she didnít care how she looked. But she was always a fine person.
Doel:Just to make sure we have something about it on the tape, you mentioned at lunch that when you had dropped over to her house a dozen roses, she immediately put them in a milk jug.
Kesner:Well on the spur of the moment, Bruce would call me at the office or sometimes here in the house, and he would say, ďAlma weíre having a little dinner party tonight, come over and join us.Ē Okay, well one night I did ask any special occasion. He said, ďYeah itís going to be a very fancy party. I have a butler and I have maid coming and I want you to come. Itís Marieís birthday.Ē Oh I said fine Iíll be there, what time? He said about eight oíclock. So of course buying for Marie is impossible so I bought a dozen roses. And then I arrived. Sure enough the maid was there, the butler was there. The table was set beautifully and I gave Marie the roses. She said, ďOh, Iíll put them in water and Iíll bring them out.Ē And she did. She brought them out. She put the roses in a regular, old fashioned milk bottle and put it right on the center of this gorgeous table. The poor table. Oh dear. Bruce said thatís Marie. No we had good times. I think that was held in Marieís house and Marie had an old fashioned stove which was beautiful. You know those old black stoves?
Doel:Is this at the house on Washington at the river?
Kesner:At the river. Yeah, she used to have a lot of parties down there too.
Doel:You were saying she had an old black stove?
Kesner:Black stove. I wonder if she still has it. I imagine she does. Knowing Marie she would have it. I have to call her next week. See whatís cooking.
Doel:These would be parties for staff members and people visiting Lamont?
Kesner:Not necessarily. It could be friends of theirs. Maybe neighbors. Or it could be part of the staff. And sometimes I would be there and I would be the only one strange to everybody else because Bruce knew them, Marie knew them, but I never met these people before. And it was all right. There wasnít anything to do but be entertained and entertain somebody else, you know. We had a good friendship thatís all I can tell you about them because they were wonderful people. Itís just too bad that Bruce died so prematurely thatís all.
Doel:Right. He died in 1977 as I recall.
Kesner:'77, yes. And then of course another one who was one of my favorite people too was Bill [William L.] Donn. Now you know about Bill Donn. He died too and I went to his services. They were held right at Lamont Hall. Itís going to make me sound as though Iím a terrible drinker, but he would call me at the office and heíd say to me, itís Friday night Alma. Meet you over at my house, weíll have a martini. Iíd say, okay. Now he had a beautiful home over on Piermont, right on the river. And when you would go through his home, youíd come in the front door, go through his living room, go through part of his dining room, and come out; open up and you would think you were in a different world. The Hudson was right there. Right on the Hudson. It was beautiful and I used to have one martini with him because I was always afraid of martinis. And his wife was lovely. I believe sheís still acting; sheís still a doctor in Piermont. I think she works from the home. She was a childís doctor, a pediatrician.
Doel:These are all part of history one way or another, I suspect. How well did you come to know Bill Donn?
Kesner:Oh very well. His wife in fact was the pediatrician for my granddaughter for a while, and Iíve known Bill ever since I worked at Lamont.
Doel:What sort of person was he?
Kesner:Very kind. I donít think I could say a bad word about Bill. He was wonderful. He didnít approve of some things Doc did and — other than talk — because I approved of Doe, you know. Although I associated so closely with these people, how could I say? Iím not a scientist. Therefore I couldnít sit down and speak to him about his work. It would always be on personal things or how we make an apple pie or would you like to come to my house for dinner and a few drinks. Those were relaxing associations.
Doel:But did he talk to you also about how Ewing was running the Laboratory?
Kesner:Oh yes. Sometimes they didnít have a very nice comment about that either. It seems as though if they wrote a paper, Doc would always want to put his name on it.
Doel:Is that right?
Kesner:And they resented it, see? Did somebody tell you that already?
Doel:Itís not uncommon in facilities where thereís a strong director for him to want a name on the paper. These were on papers where Ewing had not actually participated at all?
Kesner:Thatís right. So they didnít quite like that. But on the whole they all respected Dr. Ewing tremendously.
Doel:Were there other areas where say Bill Donn would have concerns about Ewingís direction?
Kesner:That I wouldnít know really.
Doel:It wasnít something that came up when you would talk. it would be mostly things like the authorship.
Doel:You started to tell me too at lunchtime and you made a reference to it earlier in the recording about Lamontís involvement in the Bermuda station. How did you first become acquainted with the Bermuda station?
Kesner:With the Bermuda station? Well the Bermuda station is a part of Lamont you know. And I became involved particularly because I did their purchasing. They had no way of getting their orders to New York and the supplies back to Bermuda. And they also had a ship and I used to get supplies for their vessel too. Clem [Clement L. J.] McCann was the skipper on the ship at that time. And the orders would come through their purchasing department to mine and then we would take care and get the material back as fast as possible. Now very often they would want something like explosives. Now explosives, you have to understand, would take months, but I mean months, to get to Bermuda. They would have to go through Camp Dix down in New Jersey. And when Camp Dix was having a ship that was going that way, theyíd be glad to drop them off. But otherwise there was no other way. Flying? Well, that was difficult too. So very often my dear friend Carl Hartdegen [III] would walk into my office with a smirk on his face and say Alma would you take this package and take it home tonight? Put it in the closet and then when I tell you bring it back. All right, okay Carl. I know whatís in it but you know. Then when he wanted them back again, he would go into the department that took care of our air travels to find out when the next plane was going to Bermuda and then come back and say, ďWould you like to take a package to Bermuda for me as a little vacation?Ē
Doel:And this would be the same package that youíd been safekeeping for a while? How heavy would these packages be?
Kesner:Probably about the size of this book here.
Doel:Okay weíre looking at a standard school text.
Kesner:A very small package. And I would find out later that this was needed in Bermuda because they were going to have an experiment go off and they needed detonators. They had plenty of the blasting caps and without the two together nothing would happen.
Doel:Nothing would happen so you had to carry the detonators.
Kesner:So I had to carry the detonators. They needed them in a hurry so very often I did that. But I knew what was in it. But luckily for me it looked like a box of candy or something in my personal suitcase and they never made me open it.
Doel:You were never searched?
Kesner:No. There too there was a party bunch out there too. But anyhow it was all good clean fun. When I see Arnold Finck I must ask him whatever happened to Leonard Spry? Because I was very fond of this man and his wife. They were ďveddyĒ British. Oh and when I used to come to visit, theyíd take me underneath their wing. I was young then too, donít forget. And they would say to me, donít go out on the Grace? Itís too stormy out on the water. And I would yes them to death and then walk outside and the first thing youíd know Iíd be on the Grace? They talk me out on the Grace once. That was a sailboat. And I didnít like it.
Doel:This was the ships that were operating out of the Bermuda station?
Kesner:The Bermuda station yes. And they worked very hard out there and at a disadvantage too of not getting their materials on time. I always felt bad about that. But I helped them as many times as I could by putting my life on the line you know. Imagine if I was every caught? Oh my gosh.
Doel:I was thinking about that.
Kesner:You ask Arnold Finck and he probably doesnít know anything about this stuff you know.
Doel:Iím sure Ewing knew about it though.
Kesner:Oh yes, Iím sure.
Doel:How important was the whole Bermuda operation to Lamont? How did that actually work in practice?
Kesner:This is just hearsay. I understand that Dr. Ewing and Angelo Ludas invented this instrument that could detect a submarine approaching land. Now that was highly scientific and highly secretive at that time. And thatís where the explosives came in too. At that time I knew nothing about that. It wasnít until recently I found out. I did a little research myself so I could get my memo to you with a little more continuity. There was something I wanted to recall and I found out what it was. But as you can see I didnít pry into too many of their secrets. I only repeat what Iím told. But anyway I donít know where it is but Iíve mentioned it in here some place. And thatís part of it. Gordon Hamilton and Carl Hartdegen, they were the directors and the assistant directors of the Observatory there.
Doel:How well did you come to know Gordon Hamilton?
Kesner:Hamilton, not very well. We would meet a meetings or parties. Or if I was in Bermuda weíd meet. But not as much as Carl Hartdegen. Carl Hartdegen was the work horse more or less.
Doel:He was the Ewing in some ways of the Bermuda station?
Doel:What sort of person was he?
Kesner:Very loud, boisterous. I imagine he was a very good scientist or he wouldnít be where he was. He was always talking about women. Thatís another thing you have to mark down not to quote right? Completely dedicated to his work and he traveled a lot. He was transferred after he left Bermuda down to Cape Canaveral. I had no idea he had such a bad heart. But he did have a heart attack and he died down at Cape Canaveral. And I knew nothing about it. Nobody ever let me know and yet we worked together so closely for many years. And he had a lovely home in Bermuda. He was almost a Joe Worzel type if you know what I mean.
Doel:I think I do.
Kesner:Joe is the same way. They were about the same type of personality. You could hear them all over and yet they were very, very well informed and they were wonderful scientists. They brought the whole Lamont together.
Doel:They were the social centers?
Kesner:Now Doc wasnít that social. Doc was more all business, all work, no play. And he was a renowned man really, terrific.
Doel:How long would you stay down in Bermuda during those times when you went to ferry equipment?
Kesner:Oh I was back the next day.
Kesner:Oh yes, oh sure. But if I went down for vacation, In fact Iím going there again you know?
Doel:No, I didnít know that.
Kesner:Yes. I donít know when but itís going to be soon before I get too old. Thereís nobody there that I know anymore. Itís just that the island is just so beautiful I donít like the other islands.
Doel:One of the other issues that I wanted to talk about in the earlier period and I want to save some of the later developments toward the end of your time at Lamont from the second interview to catch up on. But Iím wondering how often if at all you would hear Ewing or others talk about fund raising. How to continue the contracts? Was that something that was ever?
Kesner:It never came through me.
Doel:Were you ever involved hearing conversations of people involved in that?
Kesner:No, no. That was all done with; let me see; now I canít remember his name. He no longer works there. Mollyís [Malone] office would handle that, where Molly worked. And I never sat in on any meetings containing fund raising at all. When the Palisade Geophysical started. I started that. That was completely a fund raising organization.
Doel:When did you start that?
Kesner:When did I start that? Oh God, it was the early 70s.
Doel:And what does that involve?
Kesner:That was with Frank [C.] Mongelli, Carl Hartdegen. It was an offset from the discontinuance of Navy SOFAR Station and Cape Canaveral.
Doel:And was it a private concern at that point?
Kesner:No — well not connected with Columbia. Yeah you might say it was a private, yes. But see there too I wasnít in on the workings of it. I canít tell you like I can with the purchasing and the accounts payable.
Doel:How long were you involved with it?
Kesner:Maybe about two months, thatís all. I set the whole system up. I went up to the office. Set them up and I also showed the purchasing. They wanted me to do purchasing which I did for a while but then I couldnít do it any longer. And they got their own purchasing man. Incidentally, Frank Mongelli took me to lunch about a month ago, two months ago. He said I want to take you to lunch. I said what do you want me to do? Thereís something behind this you know. And sure enough he wanted to know if I would come up to the Palisades office and work for purchasing. He said maybe one or two days a week. I said no I couldnít. It would be unfair to begin with. Iím not here all the time. And I said Iíll be leaving soon to go to Florida. Iím gone for six months and it just wouldnít be right. He didnít even say think about it. But I think he took a look at me and said lady, youíre getting old too you know. And I think that sort of put the kibosh on it. But anyhow, he didnít call again. And I know his man who does purchasing, he was ill. He has sort of like a Parkinsonís disease problem and it was sad to see go downhill. I donít know what theyíve done really.
Doel:You mentioned earlier that when the Vema came in there was a real flurry of activity in fulfilling the purchasing orders, getting everything ready quickly so that the ship could go back. I wonder what you remember particularly from any of those times when the Vema came in.
Kesner:Those were hectic periods. Because Captain Kohler or Captain would bring you a list of everything they needed you know. And Iíll take the Vema right now to tell you how I would work that. They would need everything from soup to bolts and nuts. So when you were buying for that ship, you bought everything.
Doel:And you were in charge of buying all that needed to be bought.
Kesner:So in the early days we got messed up on a couple of things and Captain Kohler would come and say, Alma that meat you bought last year. Well it was all right. Itís terrible to be stuck in the middle of the ocean and you find out your steak is tough, so I said all right Iíll see what I can do better next time. So anyway when the ship came in the next time I made myself known with the Kansas Meatpacking Company, went down and inspected their plant, got samples of everything, and brought samples to Captain Kohier before I ordered. And he was pleased and from there on in we had no trouble; that is with the food and the produce and that sort of thing. But unfortunately Columbia could never understand why I couldnít get three bids on all of this stuff and that was a battle royal. But anyhow after a while, they understood and I had no problem. Because itís hard to get three bids for something like that. The time I found where I could buy canned shrimp from Texas, I think Captain Kohler was almost dancing the tune of heaven on earth. Because I brought him a sample of it. And all you had to do was open up the shrimp. Open up the can, fill the can with water, and you can serve it immediately after its cool. He had me buy as many as I could possibly get without sinking the ship believe me. It was wonderful. We had that. And he was happy about a lot of little things that way. But the most when the ship would be leaving Piermont and everybodyís down there saying goodbye and Iím amongst them. And he comes up and heíll say Iím going to hold the ship another twenty minutes, we forgot something. I said like what? He says like ice cream and we canít leave without ice cream. I had to get into my car and run up to Nyack fast, get forty gallons of ice cream. Run down to the pier again and then back my car up right up to the dock. They would take the ice cream off and then the ship would go boop boop on its way.
Kesner:More things like that happened though. And of course it was always a pleasure to go into his cabin when heíd invite us down. ďCome on in Alma have a little snort.Ē
Doel:This is on board the Vema?
Kesner:On board, his own cabin. And weíd go in there and his wife would be there and weíd all be there and heíd go over to his little —
Doel:Quick aside for the transcriber, we were having trouble getting this tape to continue running. You were saying before we got cut off two times that he already had chilled martinis waiting for you.
Kesner:Waiting. And we always enjoyed going into his cabin and sitting down and enjoying that one martini together before he sailed off.
Doel:It sounds like it was a tradition after a while.
Kesner:It was. And then of course, the last time I was ever on the Vema was after the sale of the Vema. Columbia University sent out invitations for everyone to embark at 72nd Street and the Hudson River and the Vema was docked there and we went aboard and we had a nice luncheon. And we were going to go up the Hudson for the last time and leave it at Piermont before it was taken away. Well weíre all talking around. Weíre all on the deck and weíre reminiscing good times and sad times and what not when I hear over the loudspeaker, ďAlma Kesner come topside.Ē I said what did I do now? So I get upstairs. I mean I went up to the deck and Captain Kohler said to me, Alma weíre coming to the Hudson, to the George Washington Bridge, weíre going to let you handle it from there on up.
Doel:Is that right?
Kesner:I said, ďYou wouldnít really trust me Captain Kohler would you?Ē I said, ďHenry when I get underneath the George Washington Bridge Iím going to make a fast U-turn.Ē He said donít you dare. So I did. I guided her. I was very thrilled about it and then after we passed under the George Washington Bridge I said, ďIt goes back to you sir.Ē
Doel:That must be very memorable.
Kesner:Yes, yes. That was the last time I saw the Vema. But Iím going to make it myself to make sure I get aboard when I get down to Miami someday.
Doel:As you mentioned at lunch, the Vema is now serving for cruises.
Kesner:Yes, for Barefoot Cruises out of Miami, Florida. And I understand that — Iíve seen it a few times on television, because she is used in a commercial and she looks beautiful.
Doel:Thatís interesting. When you had to get the supplies ready for the Vema, because Ewing wanted the ship to go out again very quickly, did you receive any of those requests by radio before the Vema docked or was it all simply handled when the ship came in?
Kesner:Sometimes — most of the time it was handed to me when the ship returned to port. But usually it would remain here quite a while because weíd have to go to dry dock. There was a lot of work that had to be done before departure. Therefore I had ample time to get everything and if I didnít, like I said, at the last minute there was always something which made life interesting.
Doel:How did the character of Lamont change once people left again on the ship? Did you notice a definite change in operation?
Kesner:Oh definitely. It was resumed to half panic now instead of full panic. And it was a quieter time and I donít ever remember the two ships being in at the same time or it would be utter chaotic.
Doel:The Vema and the Conrad.
Kesner:And the Conrad yes. I did see the new ship. I wasnít invited down to the ship at that time.
Doel:Do you mean the Conrad or the one thatís replaced the Conrad?
Kesner:No, the Maurice Ewing. I never did receive an invitation to come down, but Molly again told me about it. She said would you like to go down? And I said Iíd love it. So we drove down and I was on the ship then. It was a very nice surprise.
Doel:Weíre — etc. — Weíre resuming after just a very brief telephone interruption. I didnít mean to cut you off on what you were talking about in general before. You had mentioned just a moment ago — let me hold off on that just for a moment — I want to come back later to the Vema and what you recall. One of the things that Iím wondering about in the early period. Were you in the loop in conversations at all about the advisory committees that met regarding Lamont? Was that something that Ewing or Adams would talk to you about — review committees?
Kesner:No. Nothing at all.
Doel:One of the other things that may or may not have come up. Iím just curious if you have any recollections about it. While maybe navy grants were absolutely critical for the support of Lamont. There were times when Lamont sought money from industry, from oil companies and others. Was that something you recall being discussed?
Kesner:No. Thatís one thing I never got into, and it was always with the — John [I.] Ewing Youíll get a lot on that from him.
Doel:Were there others who were particularly interested in and involved in attempts to get private money?
Kesner:Yes. Joe Worzel. He had a whole committee set up for the private patronage. They had an office in the main house, where we were all —
Doel:When you were all together in the main house.
Kesner:No, it was before that. When we were in the Butler Building already. They had an office in the main house. Some of the names I canít even remember any more. They were all for the funds from private industry, and I didnít get involved in that at all.
Doel:I was wondering, too, thinking back particularly to the earlier period, did you ever talk much Lamontís relationship to the other major oceanographic or ocean research centers?
Kesner:Woods Hole and Scripps. A lot of our scientists would go to Woods Hole, and they would have meetings: John Ewing, for instance, and George Sutton, and Jack Oliver, when he was with us with the seismic group.
Doel:Of course, just prior to the time you arrived at Lamont, Maurice Ewing used the Atlantis, the ship from Woods Hole, quite often.
Kesner:Quite often, yes. Oh, definitely. Those are things you forget, you know.
Doel:Right. I was wondering, in a general sense, what people thought of Lamontís relationship to those other facilities — how they regarded themselves, in terms of the older laboratories.
Kesner:Well, we were so new.
Doel:I was just wondering if people seemed to talk about that or note that particularly.
Kesner:It was always a good association, because they respected what we were trying to do and helped us as much as possible. Our association was very good — especially with Woods Hole. There was another place, in Florida that we had relations with. I think this was in the marine biology bit, though. Iím not too familiar with any of that — although I did work with Dr. Oswald Roels, and I spent time down at St. John, when he set up his office down there. They rented a plantation in St. John, and I flew down to St. John and stayed at the plantation for about a week, just setting up private industry credit orders — that they would accept without passing out a lot of cash. Which I was able to do. I put my life on the line. I said theyíd get paid very shortly from Columbia, and when I said it, I had my fingers crossed, because they were notoriously slow in paying their bills sometimes. But we worked it out pretty well.
Doel:And what kind of operation was it at St. John?
Kesner:Down at St. John, Dr. Oswald Rouls, who is no longer with Lamont, had these lobsters and clams — trying to breed these out of the ocean. Out of the sea water. They had tanks, and they would have all the scientists work on these fish and breed them. There was their main work. I canít remember what it was.
Doel:Thatís okay. Again thatís something you can add when you see the transcript. [Crosstalk]
Kesner:Again, itís something I donít know much about. I can always go back to it.
Doel:I was just curious what you recall of that?
Kesner:They had a lovely setup. A lot of scientists from Lamont came down and worked there with Oswald Roels. He evidently had discontinued the same method of — I forget what they called it; now they had a name for it. I canít remember. When I was working with it, I was very familiar with it, but now I canít — Iím sorry.
Doel:Youíll remember it the moment we turn off the tape recorder, as so often happens. [Laughs]
Kesner:Like before. Yes.
Doel:When you say the ďothersĒ went down, who from Lamont had the closest association?
Kesner:Anybody from marine biology. There was Lionel Wilford and some of the men who went with him. I canít remember now. Iím really sorry. It will probably all come back to me, but I didnít know you were going into that depth of it, see. [Laughter]
Doel:Thatís fine. I donít mean to be pressing you. Thatís not something we can get to. [Crosstalk] Let me ask you what you had raised a moment ago, and I didnít mean to cut you off. Clearly, one of the tragic events from the Vema was the death of the crewman. I believe it was the Vema 3 expedition. It was not long before you came to Lamont — around 1954. I think thatís the same incident.
Kesner:Itís the same October. I was here. I was working for Lamont at the time.
Doel:There was someone who was killed by a dynamite explosion or something. Very, very early on. Was that the one that you meant?
Kesner:Yes, thatís the one.
Doel:Not the one where the crewman was washed overboard.
Kesner:No. Dr. Ewing and the crewman were washed over.
Doel:Right. That was the 1954 incident. [Crosstalk]
Kesner:That was 1954. This was after that. He was aboard and they were throwing dynamite overboard. John Hennion.
Doel:This is for the seismic work — the traditional method —
Kesner:Thatís right. In doing so — it had to be done with precision. Somebody counts and then a bomb. Somebody counts and then a bomb. Somehow it miscalculated, and when the bomb went off, it was here.
Doel:Youíre pointing to your stomach.
Kesner:Yes. It was terrible. In fact, somebody from Lamont was visiting me that day, when we got the word about this. I canít remember this manís name, either, which Iím very sorry about, because I spent time with his wife when it happened. It was just unfortunate that they were so far away nothing could be brought back to New York. He was buried at sea. And yet I do know his name, like my own. (John Hennion)
Doel:Iíve seen it myself, but I donít recall it right now. Weíll make sure —
Kesner:He was a wonderful, wonderful person.
Doel:How long had you known him?
Kesner:Oh, just a short time. But he was always so pleasant and always so cheerful. I canít describe him. He never should have died that way. And Dr. Ewing was beside himself. Oh! As you can imagine.
Doel:Was Ewing on that particular voyage?
Kesner:No. Iíll remember his name. Iím sorry I canít remember it now. Thatís the thing about getting old.
Doel:It happens to those of us who are much younger, too. As I say I wanted to cover particularly the 1970ís, the last decade that you were at Lamont.
Kesner:Seventies to eighties?
Doel:Seventies and the very early eighties and your continuing involvement after your initial retirement.
Kesner:The hard years at Lamont were when Doc and Joe and the rest went to Texas.
Doel:1972 and thereafter.
Kesner:That was the most difficult time. There was so much heartache and so much unbelief that this could happen to us that it was very difficult for everybody. They asked me if I would go down to Texas. I was very flattered to think they would want me, but — I spent quite a number of days down there, too, when they went down. Then of course when the death of Dr. Ewing came, it hit Lamont like a bombshell. It was just awful. I also went back with them for the services down in Texas. I was very pleased that they would even invite me, and it was all very sad. Nothing was ever the same at Lamont after that. You know, Manik [Talwani] was not the best director. He was, in fact, invited to leave, and then we started with a series of interim directors. But everybody seemed to forget what went on before — how we had been all working together, especially money-wise. Nothing was raised after that.
Doel:In terms of fund-raising.
Kesner:The fund-raising. Nothing of the fund-raising was even done — to a great extent. But Iíll tell you who could tell you more of that would be Arnold Finck. See, Arnold Finck never bothered too much with my end of the operation. He just would come in and say, ďHi. How ya doiní?Ē and walk out.
Doel:Maybe about the extent of it.
Kesner:Yes, thatís about the extent of it. It was just — as I say, Iím just sorry now, after thinking about what I could accomplish and what I have accomplished for them, that I couldnít accomplish more, had I visited Columbia more — got on more of a relationship with them, instead of fighting my battles up here all the time. You see.
Doel:Would there have actually been time for you to do that —
Doel:— given the number of hats that you wore?
Kesner:I couldnít. They kept me so busy, with all these other jobs. I wasnít too happy about the cafeteria — Iíll tell you that — because that was time consuming. I was happy, as far as accomplishing as much as I did in the short period I was there. Well, I was there almost 25 years. Not quite. They gave me a silver dish anyway. I never would have left when I did. Never. I left on the spur of the moment. I donít want that in at all. Brought somebody in that I could never work with. Never.
Doel:You donít mean Tom?
Kesner:No, no. No, thatís different. He was director. But Arnold Finck left before I did, you know. He brought somebody in I could never work with. Never. And I felt as though I could have done lots more with Lamont. And if I could have just achieved my goal — which I never just did — that was to have the privilege of writing up our own purchase orders from my office. Thatís what Iíd like to see.
Doel:Youíd been leaning towards that for — [Crosstalk]
Kesner:And I was promised it whole-heartedly — that it was going to happen.
Doel:Promised by who?
Kesner:By Columbia. Iím trying to think of the man who ran the purchasing department down at Columbia for so many years. [Richard N.] Jenkins?
Doel:How long had you known Manik Talwani before he became director?
Kesner:I used to do typing for him, when I first came.
Doel:When he was still a graduate student.
Kesner:When he was still a graduate student. 1956. He used to bring his papers in to me, and I used to type them up for him all the time. And scientific phrases came to me very easily. I never heard of some of the phrases or some of the terminology before. The seismographs and the seismology — if that little drum started to go off the needle, weíd call Jack Oliver and heíd be down, you know — tell us where the earthquake was. And things like that. I was much better a few years back, but now Iím forgetting it all again. But I had no problem at all doing their typing. As bad as their handwriting was sometimes, I made it out. [Laughs] So as I said before, they were the happiest days of my life. I loved every minute of it.
Doel:Were there discussions that he might replace Doc Ewing.
Kesner:There was, but I wasnít involved with it. But I know there was an awful lot of discussion, and sometimes I think it was done for — I donít know what reason. I know Bill Donn was very upset about it.
Doel:About Talwaniís appointment?
Kesner:Yes. And there were a lot of people who would have loved it. But thatís as far as I can say. And there was an awful day that day, when we were all sitting in that seminar room, waiting for the announcement. And then it came. Youíd think you were at a wake. Everybody was upset.
Doel:Thatís the day that Doc Ewing made the announcement that he was going to go to Texas. Had you known at all what was coming?
Kesner:No. I knew something was coming up, but I didnít know just what it was. As I say, it was a bad day for all of us.
Doel:In covering this I suspect we should backtrack a minute and talk about the Doherty gift, because that was really a factor that later influenced Ewingís decision whether to stay at Lamont or go to Texas. Was that something that you had direct awareness of?
Kesner:No, I didnít.
Doel:I wonder if you recall any discussions concerning the donation.
Kesner:Never, really. No. Not a bit. If there was any discussion, I certainly donít remember it.
Doel:Do you recall the discussions at that time with Ewing particularly — or others at Lamont — about the relations with Columbia, and problems? You mentioned at lunch that —
Doel:— things were building up. The tensions.
Kesner:I know Doc did it. Doctor Ewing was very disturbed about the way Columbia was handling our affairs — number one. He would threaten to leave many times. You know. But the culmination of it I donít know. No one ever discussed it with me. Our friendship didnít go that far — that they would tell me something I shouldnít know. You see. And I never asked questions. Never! Of anybody. All my friends there — I would never come out and say, ďWhat are you doing about this or that?Ē Thatís why they liked me — because I never would question anybody about the efforts, or whatever was going on that I shouldnít know.
Doel:I was wondering if your impression that the problems with Columbia were somewhat specifically centered or a broad range of problems.
Kesner:I think there was a broad range of problems — not only financial. I know Doc would like to do things his way, and he was not allowed to do them. He just didnít go with them at all.
Doel:Letís end right now with one general question. There are plenty of things that we should back to during the next interview. Given Ewingís strong personality, was personality a factor in the selection of other individuals who came and became part of Lamont? Did certain kinds of people simply not fit in? It would take a strong personality to succeed at Lamont, or was Lamont accommodating to a wide range of talents? [Crosstalk]
Kesner:Well now, according to what you mean about ďsucceed.Ē I think Doctor Ewing was fair enough that you would succeed on your own merits It was that that brought you to Lamont. If you could prove to him that you knew what you were doing, that was all he required. And Peter Ward was [laughs] the name of that man that went to see Doe Ewing. Peter was so chagrinned that when we left Doeís office, I could hear Peter walking behind me. All of a sudden, his steps came faster and faster until he caught up with me. And he apologized to me! He said, ďAlma, I had no idea that rules and regulations were so prominent. I came from Scripps, and they donít do things like that at Scripps.Ē I said, ďThey allowed you to buy whatever you wanted?Ē He says, ďYeah, more or less. Up to a couple hundred dollars.Ē I said, ďWell, does Scripps have the same kind of financial background that we have — that we have to account for every nickel? Or every purchase I make? You know, if you could sit in at my desk and listen to the auditors when they come in and question everything I buy — why I bought it; why I put it here and there — I think youíd have a different story.Ē So he said to me, ďWell, it wonít happen again.Ē [Laughter]
Doel:And as you say, it didnít.
Kesner:It didnít. No.
Doel:Let me thank you very much for this first session, and this should go on the tape — not make the tape available or the transcript without your express permission.
That will come in two forms that you will be receiving.
Session I | Session II