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Interview of Benjamin Peery by David DeVorkin on 1977 November 5,Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,College Park, MD USA,www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/33698
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A short biographical study dealing with the origins of his family; his upbringing and influences upon him leading him first to engineering and physics and then into astronomy; University of Minnesota undergraduate years; The Depression; teaching physics in the South; Fisk University; University of Michigan graduate school; faculty position at Indiana University; the 1964 Civil Rights Amendment; decision to move to Howard University in 1977.
Well, Dr. Peery, as I mentioned, we start out with biographical information. So I’d like to know when you were born, where, and something of your family background, your father and your mother. Don’t forget your mother.
No, I couldn’t forget my mother.
I was born in 1922, in St. Joseph, Missouri, a rather isolated part of the world in northwestern Missouri. I lived there till I was two years old, at which time my family moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota, and I subsequently grew up, a bit here and a bit there, in southern Minnesota. I lived in small towns in southern Minnesota, there on the banks of the Mississippi. A very marvelous way to grow up. I think it’s one of the smart things that my parents did.
What were the causes of the moves?
My father was a railway mail clerk, and it seems that he frequently had his runs shifted. In those days, the trains always had one mail car on them, and railway mail clerks would actually sort the mail as the train went along. The last railway mail car like that was phased out within the past year.
What was your father’s name?
My father was Benjamin Peery, Sr. I’m a junior. I’m the eldest son. I have six brothers, no sisters.
And you’re the eldest.
Yes, and I’m the eldest, which seems to be the rule in my line of work. Hadn’t you noticed that? Astronomy is a collection of eldest sons.
That’s very interesting.
So are so many other professions as well, for that matter, but particularly professions that I think usually display, in the profile of the practitioner an internalized set of motivations — as opposed to, you know, seeking applause. Are you aware of any of these curious clusters of personality components and all that go along with being in science, in astronomy in particular?
I’m becoming more and more aware of them. But the big problem is that there has not been too much documentation work done on that.
They haven’t done as much as one would expect. There have been some fascinating articles written on the over-representation of the oldest son. After all astronomy is still, in 1977, primarily a male profession. And the over-representation of the oldest son is notorious in the sciences, in the physical sciences generally, astronomy in particular. There have been a few articles written on this, but not nearly enough for my taste, because I think it’s a fascinating observation.
Yes. I mean, I must admit, I’m not that aware of it, and you’ve made me aware of it. That’s one reason for these, interviews.
You asked me about my parents — I’ll say a word about them. My father died a few years ago. My mother is still living. Both of them were rather unusual, in that they come themselves from families that are somewhat aberrant.
That’s what I’d like to know about.
Sure. My Mother’s name is Caro1ine Watkins Peery. Her family is traced back to slavery times in Kentucky. My great-grandmother and her family came in covered wagons from Kentucky into Kansas. Kansas at that time was the great frontier. This was immediately after the Civil War, and Kansas was the great frontier, the Wide Open Spaces, and very, very few blacks were to be found out there, of course. This was a journey into the large unknown, where presumably opportunities were waiting and so forth. Now, I say an aberrant family, because you know, the family that has enough drive, enough ergs of energy to make this very difficult sort of a transition, especially a hundred years ago, is an unusual family indeed. Well, this is true of immigrants in general. We talk about the dangers of lazy people coming to America in order to bask in the easy life, and of course, just the opposite is true. It’s always, I think, the most energetic, and the most enterprising people who have the vigor to make a large transition in their lives.
May I ask you about the migration? Your family, in order to get the facilities to move — were they supported in any way by any group?
No, they weren’t supported by any group. My maternal great-grandfather, whom I remember died at the age of 96 — I was five or six at the time. His name was David Watkins; David Watkins from Horse Cave, Kentucky. My mother knows exactly where he came from, of course. But beyond Horse Cave, I really haven’t tried to find “roots” — it’s fashionable to do that now, and I probably will, but so far I can’t say anything beyond Horse Cave, Kentucky.
So the individualism that you’re identifying with — they were amongst the few that did migrate when the chance came.
Yes, I think that there was a certain family tradition of adventurousness, that one perhaps has the right to assert on the basis of this sort of thing.
Your mother must have met your father somewhere — this is much later, in Missouri?
St. Joseph, Missouri, was the region of my father’s family, at least for a generation or two before him. Actually, if you go through northern Missouri, you find the name Peery, with this curious spelling, not infrequently. It’s clearly, as was the case with slaves generally, the name of the master that was taken as the surname. The Peery family in Missouri has a number of distinguished people that one can trace back over the generations. As a matter of fact, because the name has an unusual spelling, you often find Peery’s looking one another up when they go into a new town — look in the phone book, you see a few Peerys with this curious spelling, and it’s not unusual. I shouldn’t say it’s that frequent, but there have been times when our phone has rung and someone has explained that he’s in town and he notices this name and he wants to find out something about the family. But they radiate from northern Missouri, and there are judges and that sort of thing in the background. The name comes from Ireland. It’s been traced back to Ireland. It’s been traced to an emigration to Virginia, as a matter of fact, before the Revolution, and the name has gradually worked westward, and seemed to come to rest in northern Missouri. So my mother was working for a judge, a Judge Peery there. My mother, let me say right now, professionally was a school teacher. But before she went to college (she went to a two year college). It was a city college in Kansas City. It doesn’t exist anymore. It was strictly a college to train teaches; one of these “normal schools.” Before she went to college, as was still commonly the case, she went from a very small town, where she lived in Kansas, Oswego, Kansas, to the big town. The big town in this case being St. Joseph, which was considerably larger than Oswego. And she was working for a judge by the name of Judge Peery, and I think, if I’m not mistaken, that may be actually the way my mother met my father. I’d better abandon it. I just don’t remember quite how it was.
We can use this as a sketch for later work. The important thing is that your mother was college educated.
A two year normal school.
I’d eventually be interested to know how she came to go to college, but let’s take it now back to you, since the time is upon you, especially around the age of 10 to12. Your father remained a mail clerk?
Yes. My father remained a mail clerk until he retired, sometime after World War II.
And your mother continued teaching?
No, my mother quit teaching when I was born, and never went back to teaching. As a matter of fact, she may have quit a few years even before that for all I know. She didn’t teach that long. Her teaching, incidentally, was in Mississippi and in the rural South, for the most part. However, she did go back into the heartland, back there in Missouri, at the time she was married. Well, I think it’s a curious thing — and this is another one of these regularities that has been brought to light — it’s a curious thing that urban communities produce so few scientists. Most of the scientists, you know, especially physical scientists, are products of smaller communities.
Yes. Someone once told me that the typical physicist comes from Sioux City, Iowa, or something like that. A small Midwestern town, which has been fairly successful in keeping down rampant crime and just the general sort of social deterioration that we find going on in so many larger cities. If you can keep some sort of innocence, it helps very much, if you are science-bound. I think I was extremely fortunate, actually, in having grown-up in a rural setting. I don’t mean to say that people from large cities are inevitably corrupt, or anything like that. It’s just that their preferences seem to be guided along other directions. I mean, maybe they become urbanologists, psychologist or something like that.
In your early childhood, up to your teens, you always lived in Minneapolis?
No. I lived, from the age of six, until about 15, in a few small towns in southern Minnesota — Randolph, Minn., population of 250, Wabasha, where I lived several years, population of 2000. My point is this, that I believe that it was quite significant that I, for a variety of reasons, spent these rather important years in a very, in a semi-rural community. It not only provided me opportunities for some sort of contact with nature, which I think is very important if a person is science-bound , but there was this sort of preservation of innocence, which I don’t want to make too light of, because I do think it’s terribly important. One of my great depressing feelings about the lack of blacks in science has very largely to do with just this sort of debilitating influence that I think black urban life has on this loss of innocence, for want of a better term. I think there are lots of other reasons why there are so few blacks in science, too, but I think this is one of them. As a matter of fact, frequently repeated item in the background of scientists generally, their less than large-city origins, with respect to blacks — those who are in sciences — show this characteristic in a very skewed way. There are almost no blacks who come from large cities in science.
I don’t know. I’m not sure about this; I think he’s from a suburb of Chicago.
Let’s talk specifically, though, about your family, and what your home life was like, during these years.
Well, it was really a very happy life. In southern Minnesota, we used to be the only black family wherever we lived, and it just didn’t seem to make that much difference. It just wasn’t that important, I mean, we knew what we were, as I suppose every Polish family knows what they are, every Jewish family knows what they are, but it just didn’t have that kind of a structuring role in our outlook or in our style. I mean, we were just members of the community.
And you went to public schools?
Public schools. My parents, especially my mother was active, in the PTA, you know. My father was one of the boys who sat in the barber shop and swapped tales with the others, you know. It was a very normal kind of an upbringing. My parents were always proud of whatever I and my brothers showed interest in.
What did you show interest in?
Well, in the very beginning, I realized I was headed for some kind of physical science. I was always curious about the way the world works. I had many hobbies. I was an avid model airplane enthusiast, flying models. A few friends and I were really deep into this sort of thing. And as a matter of fact, this attracted a great deal of ridicule when I moved to Minneapolis in my middle teens. This comes back, I think, to this lack of innocence, this assault on innocence, especially in contemporary urban communities, where the socioeconomic status is not all that high. This was not the hip sort of preoccupation to be engaged in.
This must have been in the late thirties?
This was just about ’37. I guess — when I was 15, yes.
At that time, was there a very strong feeling that model airplanes just were not the thing?
No, it wasn’t really. It wasn’t the hip thing to do.
These were your peers.
These were my peers. And I think there’s one other aspect about the difference, growing up in an urban community, versus a non-urban community. There just aren’t the peer group pressures in a non-urban community. There isn’t the pressure to conform, which I felt in a devastating way when I first went to Minneapolis.
When you went to Minneapolis, what part of town did you live in?
Minneapolis had very few black families, at that time. The black population is far larger now. We lived in what I suppose could be called a black community, although it really wasn’t — it was mixed up. The peer pressure came primarily from black children. Very strongly so. I think that I, fortunately, was just old enough and stubborn enough to go my own way. I don’t know what would have happened if I’d moved to Minneapolis a few year previously, a few years earlier. I might be an urbanologist today. I doubt that.
At the University of Chicago?
Possibly so. But I am very strongly convinced that this kind of freedom from pressure, that could only come in a non-urban setting, has played a very important role in not only my history, but in the histories of many others who are in this business.
That’s a very interesting point. It certainly would alert us to look into that.
I think, the lower the socioeconomic status of a community, the more the peer group pressures of the community probably will be felt. People are living closer together. They’re thrust more into one another’s faces. Much of their style, I think, is a style of group expression, against what they perceive as the people who have got it made, versus themselves. I think that there are many unifying pressures that people under these circumstances feel, that simply doesn’t value individuality, individualism, in the way more affluent communities are able to do it. Well, here in Washington, there are many affluent black communities, the pressures to conform are much relaxed there, compared with regions where the population density is higher, where the tendency in schools, is towards a dominant leader, sort of setting the tone for the rest.
In Minneapolis, then, you continued to go to public school for a few years before you graduated.
I graduated from high school in Minneapolis and went to the University of Minnesota.
But before that time, I’d be interested to know if you had any influential teachers in high school or even in the rural areas?
Well, the most influential teacher I had surely was a junior high school science teacher, who, I just think, was a rare marvelous person. She was very supportive of whatever we wanted to do in that class scientifically. She was particularly interested in me.
I can’t remember her first name. She was Miss Kitcher.
And this particular junior high school?
This was in Minneapolis, Bryant Junior High School.
Fine. What was it about her teaching?
I’m not sure that I can really define what special thing she had. There was, in the first place, a dignity about her. She was a warm person, but yet there was a certain dignity of formality in her style at the same time. She was terribly interested in every individual. I don’t know that she was more interested in me than anybody else, but I certainly prized the interest and support she gave me. Again, here we had various clubs. There was the model airplane club that I belonged to. There was another club or two that I belonged to that she was the guiding spirit of. And there was a sort of an instilling, I think, by her example and instilling in us of the dignity of what we were doing, the importance of it and the dignity of it. Questions of relevance never came up, for example.
What about the facilities for science? Were there good labs?
Oh, they weren’t that good, by today’s standards, at all. But there was enthusiasm and a sense of the importance of what we were doing.
Do you know anything about Miss Kitcher’s background, where she came from?
No, I don’t. I was terribly disappointed to find that when I finished my PhD work and went back to Minneapolis, she was the one person I was going to look up, and tell her some of these things I’m telling you, which I never told her when she was around or subsequently — only to find that she had died very recently, which was an unhappy bit of information. I don’t know what her background was. That wasn’t a thing you ask about teachers. There was another teacher, too, that I must mention. She was a teacher whom I still know yet today, and with whom my mother is on very, very intimate terms; a woman by the name of Fern Franz. She was my third grade teacher in Wawbisha, Minnesota and she was subsequently the teacher of many of my younger brothers. In Wawbisha the school we went to had the first three grades in the downstairs room, and then you went upstairs for the next three grades for 4th, 5th and 6th grades, where there was another teacher. So one teacher had three classes and that took some doing, clearly. Fern Franz was a very warn and wonderful person — is yet a very warm and wonderful person. She’s terribly different from Miss Kitcher, but it was her very great friendliness and just something in her personality that was terribly attracting, that I think worked such wonders with the students that she had. She had a way of really bringing out the best in kids, and because so many of my brothers went through her tutelage, my mother got to know her very well, and the friendship has been prized for many decades now.
That’s marvelous. Let’s talk about some of your career interests, to move along, considering the time. When did you, or did you always, in your family, know that you were going to go to college?
No. My father didn’t go to college. I used to stand in awe of my father — an enormously talented person, extremely bright and quick. He did a lot of writing. He was a newspaper writer for a number of years.
In addition to being in the mailroom?
Well, when you work on the railway that way, you usually are away three days and then home three days, and so you get large blocks of time. He used to have large blocks of time. He was terribly interested in politics, intensely interested in politics, and he wrote about it. I remember when he began writing, he was very proud that he wrote for a small black paper, with a strongly dissident voice, and loved this kind of writing. Everything he wrote was a polemic, always.
This was in Minneapolis?
Yes, this was in Minneapolis.
What was the name of the paper?
The name of the paper was the TWIN CITIES HERALD.
In itself it didn’t have a polemical title, then.
(laughing) No. No, it didn’t have a slogan as its title. But my father was always into things. He was very active politically. As a matter of fact, he spent the last 20 years of his life in California, where he was a very large political personality, and I guess he ran for the legislature, the California state legislature, one time.
From which district?
It’s in Los Angeles, yes, L.A., it’s in the Watts area. He died in 1971 and subsequently, a social services building was named after him. You can go to LA now and see the Ben F. Peery Social Services Building, I think it’s called. I haven’t seen it yet myself. I was invited out there, with all my brothers, for the dedication of the building, back about 1972. I wasn’t able to make the trip, but some of my brothers went out there and saw it. He was into such things as Social Services. There’s a large hospital that’s been built, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Hospital, in Compton, somewhere out in one of the many little coalescences of LA, and he was on the board of governors for that hospital, and so his name is on a plaque in the cornerstone. Well, I mention these things only to note that he was a very lively, very public, spirited, really very aggressive sort of a person.
This seems to have come after your move to Minneapolis?
— No, he was always this way. It’s just that the avenues for the expression of all this sort of thing only slowly evolved.
Right, but what about at home? How was he at home?
— Oh, at home? Well, he was an extremely stern person, as far as morals are concerned. He really thought that it was terribly important for him to stress right and wrong, which he constantly was into. Really, that was a different age. There was a different style, I think, in those days. You were never supposed to forget what the right thing to do in a set of circumstances was, the morally, ethically right thing to do, and what the wrong thing was. He was really very, very attached to this side of life. He was a lot of fun. He had a fantastic sense of humor, and his wits so darned quick. I mean, he liked to do things like make up poetry on the spot. He wrote a lot of poetry. He liked to make it up as he went along — just for amusement.
Well, did he have a strong interest or any interest in science?
When you began showing interest yourself, I assume this was in high school?
Junior high school; actually, before that.
What were their reactions, your mother and father?
Well, as I say, they were both, especially my mother, very supportive, in whatever we showed any interest in, no matter what it was. Now, I’m the only one of the family who ever showed any scientific interest. The rest of my brothers were interested in other things, writing particularly, and a whole host of things.
Are they all in professional areas?
Yes, I suppose you could say that. None of them get their hands dirty. If that makes it professional, ok.
What do they do?
Well, my youngest brother is a newspaper reporter in Cleveland, the CLEVELAND PLAIN DEALER. My brother next to him is living also in Cleveland. He is an administrator in a big complex of poverty program activities. My brother next to him is in charge of training of insurance agents. I can’t remember the company, but he’s national director of a training program for insurance agents. And on and on, I don’t know if you want me to run down the whole thing?
Well, if that’s the general type of work.
One of them is a writer. He’s written some books. He’s interested in politics, and we don’t see eye to eye on the politics, but I’m glad that he’s making an honest living writing books. I’m the only one in science.
You’re the only one in science, ok.
I’m the only one in science and I don’t think there’s anything particularly science-consciousness-raising in my family anywhere.
Did you read science books?
Oh yes, I used to read all kinds of science books. My goodness, I read the science fiction of the day, which was, back before World War I, far more filled with fantasy than science fiction — science fiction’s become another genre altogether.
By any chance, did your father read science fiction?
Yes, he did, as a matter of fact. Many of the things that I read he brought home.
Because what I’ve read from the thirties, myself, really did follow that very strong moral philosophy — the “Lensman” series, Doc Smith.
Oh yes. Well, these things counted. These things were important in those days. One wonders, whatever became of them today?
That’s true. Ok. You mentioned that it wasn’t necessarily obvious that you were going to go to college?
Well, let me put it like this. My father didn’t go to college, [copy missing here] We were coming out of the depress ion then. For the first time jobs, even menial jobs were beginning to be within reach. Actually, I had my first job the year before that, the summer between my junior and senior years in high school, as a dish washer for Walgreen’s drugstore, 35 cents an hour. I was just ecstatic about this fantastic opportunity that had come my way.
Was there any peer opinion you might say, about that kind of work?
Well, yes, there was a great deal of not only peer opinion, but a great deal of peer competition for a job like that.
So it was a positive thing.
Oh yes, indeed it was. There in Minneapolis. Now, I don’t know what the feeling might have been in Chicago.
Well, we’re in Minneapolis.
In Minneapolis, oh yes, everyone, my friends, my peers desperately wanted a job.
What about college among your friends?
Well, many of them went to college, but that was after the war. I wanted to point out that, also. Well, let me take this point by point. After graduating, I went back to work at Walgreen’s drug store during the summer, and then I got what I thought was the golden opportunity to learn a trade, namely, to learn to be a pants presser. I was paid $5 a week. I remember that well, there in the neighborhood. I still treasure the skill. At least I know how to press my own pants.
Was this with a hand iron or with a large machine?
No, It was with a large machine. One of these steam machines. I was a real machine operator. Well, autumn came, and I didn’t have the money to go to the University of Minnesota, so instead, a group of my friends and I went to what were called the National Youth Administration Camps. There was a camp outside of Minneapolis run by the old National Youth Administration. It was a remnant of the CCC camp, except that we worked one half day, and the other half day we spent learning at trade. The trade that I went into was drafting, and it’s as a very valuable experience, because I make my own drawings for my publications now, largely on the strength of what I learned back in those days. I stayed at that camp for, well, over the winter of '40-'41, and then I said “I absolutely have got to get into college, I can’t put it off, I’ve lost a year now. I’ve got to get in.”
What about the war and the draft?
Well, it was still early, in 1941. We’re in the spring of ‘41 now. That was when we were still being told that we would not get into the war, when Roosevelt was telling us about how he hated war and Eleanor hated war and all, which of course I’m sure they did. There was a certain naive assumption, I think, in those days that actually we might stay out of the war. And then, of course, there was this great tumult on the home front, of America First, and the philosophy, say, that Lindbergh promoted a great deal, among many others, that this was a war in the European family, and that we shouldn’t walk into other family’s quarrels, this sort of thing. I think that was terribly naive.
But you were well aware of these things at that time.
Oh, we used to hang on every word, when Gabriel Heater came on. Well, anyway, between working as a pants presses, that summer, and working again at Walgreen’s and doing a variety of things I was able to get enough money to get to the University of Minnesota, which was right there in Minneapolis. Incredibly, the tuition in those days was $18 a quarter. There were some additional fees that had to come into the picture also, but it was almost a tuition-free set of circumstances, from our view today. Tuition was extremely low.
Were there standard type exams like we have now?
No, there were two criteria, if I can recall, for getting into college then. One, you had to demonstrate that you had a C average in high school. And secondly, there was a set of examinations every entering student had to take — English, mathematics and so forth. We didn’t have SAT then. You had to sit down; you had a desk, and write an impromptu theme, for example. Well, I guess I did very well in these things. As a matter of fact, I was exempted from English. At any rate, I wasn’t sure at the time what I was going to do. Let me go back a few months. When I was at the end NYA camp, I was wondering, “Gee, do I really want to go to college, or do I want to go to an engineering school?” I was still terribly interested in aeronautics at the time, and someone informed me that many of the aircraft companies had their own schools for engineers — like Ryan Aviation and Lockheed and a variety of them. Oddly enough, Ryan’s still around. Pratt and Whitney had their school. And I said, “Gee whiz, I can go two years and be an aeronautical engineer, if I go to one of these things, or even less, for some of them, — should I think about going to college?” I was really casting around. I sent off for literature, for these various schools. And the decision was made for me: without exception, not one of them would accept Negroes. Every one of them had a footnote, to that effect.
Oh yes. They didn’t make any bones about it.
Do you have copies of these things?
No, no, I certainly don’t. So I said, “Well, hell, it’s going to be University of Minnesota for me.” So my intention was to become an aeronautical engineer.
You would have gone?
I don’t know. I may have. I don’t know. The issue became moot very quickly, as soon as I began receiving these catalogues that I’d been sending off for.
Yes. You continued to live at home then?
Well, at this time I was living at the NYA camp. But when I went to the university, I was home. It was one street car token, 7 ½ cents, to go from home to the university. Well, the war came on then, and I finished off the first year in December of '41; of course Pearl Harbor happened. The following summer, I went into the Army, to the Army Air Force.
You went in the Air Force?
Yes. It was the Army Air Force then — although I never did fly. I was in an ordnance company. What we did was set up ammunition dumps. Also, those were the days when the armed services were still rigidly segregated, of course.
Let me ask you one question about that year. You did have one full year then in the university?
These were just sort of general freshman courses — anything special?
I went into the University of Minnesota College Of Engineering, the School of Chemistry, and School of Physics and so forth are all in a group called the Institute of Technology at University of Minnesota, and I was in the Institute of Technology. I thought I was going to be an aeronautical engineer, but first I changed my mind several times during the course of that year and by the end of that first year, I had decided I really wanted to be a physicist — which is what I am mainly.
What were the things that caused you to change? Do you remember any instances?
Oh, I don’t know. I think it’s because I’ve always been rather strongly philosophically inclined, and it seemed to me that physics really got down to the bedrock of our existence, in a way that engineering didn’t. I think it was really because of the philosophical appeal, the appeal that large questions of existence have always had for me, much stronger.
But not astronomy?
Oh no, astronomy I didn’t discover till after I graduated.
Well, ok, then — I didn’t want to interrupt your interesting narrative.
Well, when the war was over, I came back, like a zillion other GI’s, and sailed through on the GI Bill. That was smooth sailing then. That GI Bill was a godsend.
You came back in physics. Did you have any experiences at the University of Minnesota?
Oh, I loved it. I made enormous numbers of friends. I was in the thick of things. I had a very full and vigorous campus experience, both scientifically as well as socially.
How many blacks were there at that time?
Well, probably, we numbered in the very low hundreds. 200, 250 would not be a wildly wrong guess, I would say.
Was it large comparatively?
Minnesota at the time was the largest university, the largest campus in this country — 24,000. I remember that number well.
So it really was a very small fraction.
Oh, an almost non-existent fraction. But there were two things I think when I first got back after the war, there was a strong tendency for all blacks to seek one another out, and to lead a separate sort of a social life, and I was in that. But after a time, just by reason of the fact that I was a physics major and none of my friends, my classmates were black, I should say — inevitably this kind of association brought about mutual social participation, you know, and in the end, my friends were people who were my classmates.
Was there any question, what are you going to do in physics? Is there going to be a job for you in physics?
Oh, very little. I intended to go to graduate school. That’s an interesting story there, too, I must tell you. There was a digression from graduate school, because here I was, a bachelor degree holder and I thought it might be worthwhile maybe to spend a year working before going to graduate school A friend of mine who had graduated a year earlier than I had had taken a job, as a matter of fact, at A and T College, the Agricultural and Technical College of North Carolina.
What was his name?
His name was Robert S. Brown. He was black — an electrical engineer, very bright fellow. He’s out in California now. Quite an extraordinary guy. He’s one of the people who had a big effect on my life as I grew up. He’s one of my very close friends. He took this job, held it a year, came back, and said, “Hey, it might be fun to go down there for a year.” He had come back to go to graduate school. So I did get a job there. It was a very bitter reality, I should say, my going there, to college mind you, with a bachelor’s degree, as an instructor in physics. In those days education in the South, and certainly North Carolina, did not permit the hiring of white professors in black colleges. Black colleges were all black, from stern to stern. And so consequently because of the paucity of black physicists they said, “Come on board.” I stayed there for two years and had a very interesting experience there. I learned physics as I’d never learned it before, by teaching it. And I was terribly compulsive about my teaching. I was just determined to be the best teacher that ever walked across the campus. I spent an enormous amount of time, to myself, just getting my physics down. And it was a terribly radical experience for me. I really feel very very favored in having had that opportunity. It was great. I decided I was crazy about teaching too, as a consequence from that experience. These were things I didn’t know, you understand. These were all new explorations for me at the time I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I wasn’t exactly sure what physicists did anyway.
Your teaching was successful down there at A and T?
Yes, I think it was very successful.
Did any of your students actually end up in physics or anything?
No. Some of the students were already headed into engineering.
In technical fields?
Yes. I don’t believe it’s likely that you’re going to capture someone that way. I mean, you might cause someone to shift from engineering to physics. But I don’t think you’re really going to re-direct a person’s life’s direction, at that stage the game. It was only then that I discovered astronomy, by the way.
While you were teaching?
Yes. I decided it was ridiculous not to know anything about the physics of our existence outside of the laboratory. One or the responsibilities I had was for library books in the physics department. The department consisted of two persons.
Who was the other person?
Well, the other man was a man by the name of Dorsey.
Ok, but was he considerably older?
Oh yes, he was much older. He’s died now. At the time he was in his sixties.
Yes. He had a Master’s degree from the University of Chicago. He was a very interesting fellow.
Did he really?
Yes. Well, as I was saying, I had responsibility for all of the library books. So, I decided what the heck, astronomy is really physics in the great laboratory in the sky. I ordered some astronomy books for the library. I’d read these darned things, and I grew absolutely gripped by astronomy.
What books did you order?
Because I was not an astronomer, I really didn’t know. I mean, I had no judgment what to buy. First thing was THE EXPANDING UNIVERSE, by Arthur Eddington. And that book was probably the most influential book, I suppose, in practical terms that was ever written, because for the first time, it showed me what some of the problems were, and I thought, that was the problem at that time, that astronomers entertained.
Was this about 1946?
No, this was in the very early fifties, around 1950. I ordered many books concerning relativity. I remember one by Martin Johnson called STELLAR ENERGY AND DECAY. I was fascinated by a number of these things. I ordered many star maps. I remember Norton’s STAR ATLAS, that I used to take out in the football field at night, and with my flashlight, and the STAR ATLAS, I had learned the constellations. Students like to take short cuts through the football field in the dark. This was a kind of a lovers’ lane. Students would see me out there with my flashlight only when they almost stumbled upon me. And with this large atlas and all, and looking at the sky. I think I had a name f or being very very weird, in the first place, among the students, and I’m sure some of them thought I was going through some mystic ritual out there under the stars. No idea what I was really trying to do. I don’t think it helped my image any at all.
Well, did you get any of them interested?
No. I’d never looked through a telescope at that time. This is something else I must mention, because it’s one of the great experiences I had. I had never looked through a telescope. I’d never seen a telescope. But in our physics laboratory, we were on optics at the time, I remember very distinctly, and the students were making small Galilean Telescopes, setting their lenses on meter sticks, etc. I thought, “Hey, why don’t I take one of these things out after it gets dark, and look at the sky?” So I stood outside of the physics building. I remember distinctly, I was standing on the front steps, and the sky was rather murky. There were lights all about. That didn’t occur to me. But I held this meter stick up with the two lenses, and apparently by accident I directed the darned thing right at the Milky Way. And I saw these stars up there, just fantastic numbers of them. And I was so astounded that I dropped the meter stick, and lenses were falling all over the place. It was just such an overwhelming experience, to see this murky grey sky and yet, with these lenses, to see all these countless stars out there. I wasn’t prepared for it at all.
It was quite an experience.
This was the beginning of your interest. And you knew you were going back to graduate school, I assume, at some time or other. Did you go back in physics?
Well, for a variety of reasons, because this was a new experience, just being in this black environment was an experience to me. The style of the college was so different from the Minnesota, that I’d known, that I thought: look, since I’m going back to graduate school, why not go to a black college, where I might be able to do some research, perhaps get a Master’s degree, and not lose any time, and see more of what all this is anyway? So, there was only one place where I could do that and that was Fisk University. So I went over to Fisk University, which had an extraordinary person there, in infra-red molecular spectroscopy. There was a real honest to god research laboratory there and this man and a couple of his colleagues were publishing a good number of investigations of the structure of small molecules.
What was his name?
His name was Nelson Fuson. And at this point, I just must say that there was one of the most influential persons in my life. He’s such an extraordinary person. There was a man who, I think, gave me a greater ethical awareness. Well, my father did, of course, with his frequent preachments, but this was more real. I mean, this guy really lived what he was talking about. A Quaker and pacifist he had been a conscientious objector during the war, and just a thoroughly extraordinary person. I saw him a couple of weeks ago. 1 went to Fisk, after 20 odd years, on the Astronomical Society visiting professor program, which I’ve been in for about a dozen years. So I went to Fisk a couple of weeks ago. It was great to see him again, great to see a lot of old faces. Well, anyway, what I’m trying to get at is that I went there, to get a Master’s. I got a Master’s degree. Met my wife there too. This was a big stop along the way, obviously. Then I went on up to the University of Michigan and did my graduate work.
You applied in astronomy?
Yes, in the astronomy department then. Leo Goldberg was the chairman at that time.
How did the application proceed? Was it just a formal application with recommendations?
Yes. Now, at that time, there were so few people in astronomy, getting in was almost a sort of personal. You had to undergo personal scrutiny, almost.
Did you go up for a visit?
As a matter of fact, I didn’t go up. There was a man, an astronomer, also a Quaker and a good friend of Nelson Fuson’s , whom I 'd met, a fellow by the name of Guy Omer.
You know Guy Omer?
Well, I know the name. I’ve met him, yes.
Well, he was a personal friend of Fuson’s, and he visited Fisk, and he and Nelson and I were talking.
There was no astronomy at that time?
No. So Nelson pointed out that I was going to turn my coat and go into astrophysics, instead of staying in molecular spectroscopy, and Omer said, “You’ve got to go to Michigan.”
Yes. He had spent some summers at Michigan in their summer program. So he urged me strongly, “The only place to go, University of Michigan.” And it was a marvelous choice.
Did he give you a recommendation?
I don’t recall whether he did or not. He probably didn’t, because after all, the guy had only met me. These Quakers are pretty ethical people.
But you must have had a letter from Fuson.
Oh yes. I had one from him — the secretary, who is not a Quaker, even let me know what he said. He said good things for me. That helped.
Did you do research with Fuson at Fisk?
What was your Master’s thesis on?
The infra-red spectrum and structure of PO C13 (Phosphoric chloride).
0K that’s fine. What year did you go to the University of Michigan?
1955. There were such extraordinary people there, and I think one of the great things about Fisk has been that it has always attracted a small number of extraordinary people. It’s a very small college. It’s always attracted a small number of super faculty people, real contributing scholars, and at the same time people who had an enormous humanity about them. There were other physicists, like a pair named Rempfer — Gertrude and Bob Rempfer; very rare influences.
These were faculty?
Yes. They were professors there.
Gertrude was in physics and Bob was a mathematician.
Ok. That’s interesting, they were a couple. That’s rare and wonderful anywhere you go. Ok, well, we should move on to the University of Michigan, which always, since the 19th century, has been pre-eminent in teaching. Guy Omer is absolutely correct. I’m sure you know that now. What were your first impressions when you got to this university?
Well, I had never been around astronomers. Guy Omer was the closest thing to an astronomer I’d ever talked with. I think I had a rather awe-struck image of the astronomer, as the craggy individualist who perhaps was an ultraconservative. I don’t know where I got all these ideas. But I must confess to you that I went to Michigan with a certain uneasiness, because of this rather naive estimate of what an astronomer was. It took me no time whatsoever to discover that it wasn’t that way. The graduate students were very energetic and warm and welcoming. There were some great people there among the graduate students.
Who did you meet there?
Well, there were people like Ed Spiegel. I don’t know if you know Ed Spiegel?
I know the name.
He’s at Columbia University, has been for a number of years. John Waddell was a well-known solar Spectroscopist until he was killed in an automobile accident a few years ago. There was Lowell Dougherty, who’s now a university professor at the University of Wisconsin, who was one of the older graduate students. Martha Liller (Hazen), then Martha Hazen — she was one of the senior people when I came in. Oh, there were a total of about 15 graduate students there. Arthur Upgren and I entered together. That’s how I met Arthur. It turned out that Art had gone to high school with my youngest brother, we discovered after we’d been there a while.
That must have been in Minneapolis?
Yes, right. Dean McLaughlin was my advisor — I was going to tell you an interesting story about Dean. I arrived, and I believe it was Ed Spiegel who took me around. I don’t know how graduate students do it now. I’d like to believe they show the same solicitude for their entering students, younger students. But Ed Spiegel took me around and introduced me to a few of the faculty members, one of whom was Dean McLaughlin. I met him, and he said, “Oh yes, you have an assistantship, an observing assistantship, working for me.” Well, I knew I had an assistantship, but I didn’t know just what it involved.
You applied for that along with applying for graduate school?
Yes. So he said, “Let’s go up and look at the telescope, because you’ll be on tonight.” [laughter] Well, I’d never seen a telescope in my life, remember. At the University of Michigan, the astronomy department was housed in the observatory on the campus.
This was the 37 inch?
Yes, that’s right.
So we walked up the creaky stairs to the 37 inch, and I tell you, the impact the sight of that telescope had on me is just absolutely beyond my power to describe! I thought this had to be one of the great works of man. We had this huge ship’s wheel that we used to have to turn, in order to adjust the thing in right ascension. And then we had another big thing to do it in declination — oh, it was ridiculous.
Was that a homemade telescope?
That telescope had been made at the University of Michigan in 1911, yes.
I’d like to know more about that telescope someday.
It was enormous. It looked like it was made of boiler plate, with rivets all over, in the tube. And it was driven by a descending weight. In one of the piers was a descending weight. Well, you see, I didn’t know that there was any other way to do these things, and I just thought that this was a fantastic achievement of human ingenuity. Only later I was to learn that this was one of the true relics left in astronomy.
But it was the way to learn.
I remember, the first night or two, McLaughlin was up there with me. He’d oscillate between upstairs and down in his office. And I remember with such enormous pride, the first night I was absolutely alone with the telescope.
That was the very first night, you were alone with it?
No, that was not the first night. The first two nights, I think, McLaughlin was there. And when he was satisfied that I knew which wheel to turn, he left me alone.
So he taught you all of the elementary principles of finding objects and everything?
And how to change the cameras in the spectrograph, and how to develop the plates, and all this kind of thing. We went through a good deal of routine.
Were there a number of projects you were going to be an observer for, or?
No. It was all spectroscopy, but we used a variety of spectrographs and a variety of cameras, with the spectrograph. So that was a good deal to learn. But after a time, I was totally on my own, and I just thought that was magnificent. To be entrusted with this fantastic instrument! And then after a few months, I saw some other telescopes — and the bubble burst.
That was the only telescope Michigan had at the time?
That was the only telescope on the campus. There was another one. There was the old refractor, 12-inch refractor that was 100 years old.
It’s still there, isn’t it?
It’s still there, I think; as a museum piece.
Did you use that for the public or for the undergraduates?
The public and the undergraduate students both.
Were you involved in that?
I was later on.
Ok, well, right now, you’re on the assistantship.
The first year I had courses from L. Goldberg and from L. H. Aller and from Freeman D. Miller, and I was enormously impressed with all of them. I was just enormously impressed with all of them. I just thought they were super people, every one.
Well, they all certainly are. But especially for uniqueness, wasn’t it Miller who later on wrote up a pamphlet on how to become a professional astronomer?
Because that was a unique effort at the time, and if you’re interested in teaching, did you have any contact with him as a result of this?
Well, not really in that context. I took courses from him. We used to talk a lot about teaching, about everything in the world, for that matter. All the people were extremely good with the graduate students, by the way. Miller, as well as others, would ritually have all the graduate students over to his house, to their houses, and that was always wonderful.
Did you say Miller did or Liller?
Miller did. Liller had a small apartment at the time. He wasn’t able to have the whole crew over. Goldberg used to have a great number of social affairs for all the graduate students.
What was Michigan like as a department? It sounds very friendly.
Oh, it was very friendly. There were about 15 or 16 graduate students there. Including people at the Observatory at the Solar Observatory, at McMath-Hulbert, who came down a lot, there was a total I think of 11 faculty members. So it was a very favorable student-faculty ratio, although not all of them had anything to do with graduate students. Hazel Losh did.
I was going to ask you about her.
Most of us worked at one time or another for her, as a teaching assistant, of course, and I certainly put in my stint with her. Two years, I believe, 1was a teaching assistant to her.
How did the students at the University of Michigan react to you as a teaching assistant?
They seemed to love me. I know that sounds boastful on my part, but I got along marvelously with them, absolutely marvelously. I knew what I was doing, and the rapport was great, just great. You couldn’t ask for anything much nicer.
Was there any awareness of your uniqueness in the position?
Oh, I don’t know. I often wondered about that, just before I fell asleep at night. It kind of shows you how much it was in the forefront of my thoughts.
You were married by this time?
Yes. I was married, yes. But I was so wrapped up in what I was doing that I really didn’t have time to think about extraneous matters.
That came later.
Astronomy was what was going on and when it came to teaching, teaching astronomy was all-important. And when it came to research, doing the astronomy was all-important. It was kind of an idyllic existence in many respects, I guess. Certainly racial matters never seemed to impose themselves into the routine, and they didn’t seem to occur much.
What years were these?
‘55 to ‘59.
You really weren’t politically oriented or aware of the national scene during that time:
Oh no, I was very political, very politically aware and interested, as was everyone at the observatory. God, we used to have fierce political debates. There was every shade of political persuasion represented among the graduate students and the faculty — a preponderance of liberal inclinations, to be sure, but not exclusively so. No, I was aware of what was going on. I know those were the times — it was during those years that Little Rock became known.
— Brown vs. Board of Education (1954)
We1l, that came a little before, that came in ‘54, but I mean, some of the violence began to happen — Little Rock, school desegregation actions. It was the early stages of the heroic period, when individual courage was so conspicuous in many of the things that went on.
That’s a marvelous term that you used. Is this a general term or an observation, of your own?
Calling it “the beginning of the heroic period.” I think it’s very poignant.
I don’t know, I think that it just tumbled out just now. I don’t know that I’ve heard that before.
Great. Well, we’ll go on. Did you ever at this point begin to ask yourself, could you be doing something more, quote, “relevant?”
No. I acknowledge I had a naive view of what science was in those days. I thought we were really coming closer to the truth, that we were uncovering the layers of the universe hidden from us. I have I think a more sophisticated view of what science is about today. I think there’s a good deal that’s circular in the whole thing. I think a lot of science is proving what you assumed at the outset. But on the other hand, I don’t want to sound cynical either. I think science is a legitimate business, and it still has gobbled me up totally. It’s just that I think that in those days, I thought science was going to reveal all for us. I entertain more modest hopes than that, today. But I always felt, to come to your question that understanding our origins and our probable fates was a fully legitimate enterprise, and it didn’t occur to me for a moment that there might be something about astronomy irrelevant to the important matters; never occurred to me. I remember when I was first challenged, to justify astronomy. The question itself seemed so outrageous.
First of all, I’d be interested to know if you remember who first made the challenge, and what your reaction was to it. What I was asking was, in terms of this heroic age that you identified.
— you mean, should I have been a Freedom Rider? That came just a little bit later.
No, I’m saying, just possibly going back and teaching in the South or something, or did you see that as particularly helpful at all?
Yes, I did feel that I should make some kind of a contribution. I wasn’t sure just how or what. I felt that research in astronomy, being a professional astronomer, being an astronomical scientist, was something that you couldn’t compromise with. This had to come first. Now, anything that I could do as a professional was fine, but none of this business about becoming a “Half-astrophysicist.”
I have heard that one before.
Sure, that’s a well-known one — independently discovered by a variety of people, one of whom was myself. I told my wife that before I heard it from anyone else. I want that on tape.
It was independently developed by many. But there was none of that. I thought that nothing but the most thorough going professionalism could be entertained as my purpose at that time, when I was a graduate student, and nothing less. Now, as a matter of fact, I did, as many of the graduate students did, participate in our public nights with a great deal of relish. I thought this was making a contribution but with a professional approach, professional at the level that I was occupying at the time as a graduate student.
People talk about demonstrations and people think of violence, but in a way, did you feel that you were demonstrating the fact that a black could be there in that position, in a profession?
Well, I suppose that occurred to me mildly. It never was all that big a thing. I was really simply trying to become the best astronomer that I could. I felt very keen competition with my fellow students, as astronomers all. I didn’t really feel I had to prove anything. Oh, I felt it very minimally, that I had to prove anything, really. It was a matter of becoming the most inventive astronomer that I could become, in competition with my fellow graduate students. I had a different kind of a consciousness.
you were talking about going in front of the public on these public nights.
Oh yes. I felt that this was carrying out a social obligation, and doing it in a way that only I could do. I used to tell my wife — this was later, when the demonstrations became much more active — that I essentially agreed with the purposes of all the demonstrations, but that any fool could get out and march and sing. When a person had gone through graduate school, he ought to do something that his experiences uniquely equipped him to do, that others can’t do. What was the unique contribution that I could make? That was the way I used to think about things. I agree that it sounds as if it could have been a cop out. Well, it wasn’t. I still feel that way. I feel that contributions should always be made at the most effective level that one’s personal attributes equip him to do, to make. Well, anyway, as graduate students we were all involved in public education. We thought it was terribly important and terribly exciting, to try and explain things to the rest of the world, about just how great a thing we were into. I used to love giving lectures. I just loved it. Still do!
What topics? Were you able to choose your topics?
More or less. I used to go to grade schools and talk about things. Well, usually the latest thing that had captured my enthusiasm. As a graduate student you’re learning new things always. You’re discovering that there are a hundred things that you didn’t dream of in astronomy. It was always astrophysical. I still feel primarily like a physicist. My approach to things is more the approach of a physicist, that is, in very fundamental terms. I still feel a certain uneasiness with B-V, because I mean, that’s not quite as physical as talking about ergs and electron volts.
As was suggested earlier in this symposium, to do away with magnitudes and substitute flux units?
I was well aware of that.
Well, I’m afraid that I’ve never been able to make the transformation completely, in those terms, to astronomy.
Well, then, certainly your specific research interests must have been developing through your graduate work.
Oh, yes. Yes.
What were these?
Actually, Dean McLaughlin emerged as my thesis advisor. As a matter of fact, I did spectroscopy, a thesis in spectroscopy which was intimately related to the kind of assistantship that I had, for him.
And what was that?
Well, my thesis was on the very curious system, V V Cepheid, and that’s one of his old stars.
So that was Dean McLaughlin’s interest?
Is that the star, or is it another one — is that the star that’s on the front of Russell, Dugan and Stewart?
Is there a star on the front of it?
Well, on the binding.
Oh yes. Yes indeed I never noticed there was a star on it.
Is that the one that has the very dark secondary?
It has a dark primary.
Well, it has a cool primary and an intensely hot and curious secondary. That’s what made the whole thing so much fun. I doubt if this would be that star on the book though. But that was the thesis. Of course, Lawrence Aller also had a big influence. Aller taught most of the astrophysics. And Aller was a remarkable guy. Really, he applied the latest and best ideas in the data, and so he was remarkable in that respect. I appreciate Aller. As the years go by, I learned to appreciate him more. I think this is true of many.
What were your first impressions of Aller? He was very young as a teacher at that time.
No, he wasn’t young. He was in his forties then.
He was in his forties then?
Yes. Liller was the youngster of the crew. Back in those days Aller had already written his first edition of THE ATMOSPHERES OF THE SUN AND STARS, and the other volume, NUCLEAR TRANSFORMATIONS, and so forth. He’d already written those.
So he was already very well established and his teaching as well thought out and worked on. Not to say it might not have been when he started, but I’d be very interested to know something of his early style.
Aller, of course, was every bit the character that he is today. Why don’t we let it go at that?
Sure. But you got along all right with him?
Got along beautifully. Aller and I were on the best of terms, finest of terms. And we’ve gotten on better terms as the years have passed. I’ve just come to appreciate him far more, as time has passed. I was on marvelous terms with everybody there. Leo Goldberg is one of my great personal friends, and has been, ever since. Bill Liller is an excellent friend of mine. Freeman Miller I see much less of than the others. He doesn’t come to many meetings. But I did see him last fall.
He must not be too active.
He’s not so active. He’s semi-retired, at last description.
McLaughlin died back in the early sixties. Hazel Losh, I understand is still around.
Yes, we recently had a chance to look into their archival holdings, and I’m interested in the history of Michigan Observatory because of Franny Brunnow in the 19th century and she was one of the ones we were thinking of contacting to talk about that, that earlier period. Well, anyway, there must have come a time, probably during your thesis work, that you began wondering about getting a job, after?
Well, you know, we were in a different age then. It’s hard for young astronomers to believe this, but in those days, you didn’t call them — they called you!
What years were those?
That was 1959.
Ok, this is two years after Sputnik.
Yes. Apparently, in those days, and I’ve heard stories to this effect, many of the older astronomers would sit around of an evening at a meeting and discuss who was about to get his degree at this school and that school, and where it would be best for this person and that person to go, and your future was sort of taken care of. I think that’s an exaggeration, but not grossly so. Three different people got hold of me, when I was writing my thesis, and when the judgment was being made, apparently, that it must be time for me to get out. One of the Five Colleges, a women’s college, not Smith but possibly Smith-Mt. Holyoke together had a joint department made one job offer.
Do you recall who asked?
Well, yes, Allan Sandage’s wife, who was not Allan Sandage’s wife quite yet, at that time. Mary Connell, I think her maiden name was. I think, that was her maiden name.
She was on the faculty there?
She was on the faculty at Mt. Holyoke. So she wrote me, and I went out — I mentioned it to many people — and she offered me a job, which I didn’t accept, because in the meantime, there was Connecticut Wesleyan. Thornton Page was there and he had me up. I stayed a couple of days there. They gave me the thorough going treatment; and then Indiana University. Well, Lawrence Aller had come from Indiana University. That was his first teaching job.
Yes. He was not there too long.
No. And I was asking everybody, gosh, what should I do? What should I do? I talked with Leo Goldberg, talked with Miller, talked with everyone, talked with Bill Liller — I was getting all the advice I could. The president of Holyoke came through town, and I had a long talk with him. I had these three things cooking. He said, “Well, try to look at it this way. This is a decision you must make for yourself. If you’re interested primarily in teaching, you must come to the best quality small College, Liberal Arts College, you can find. If you’re interested in research, the choice is made for you — its Indiana University.” No one had ever put it to me in those simple terms. I thought it was vast1y over-simplified, what he was saying, but he was essentially right, of course. Or least he was right at that time. Now the five college complex up there in Massachusetts of course is well known in research and does some marvelous things, today. But at that time, research was distinctly a secondary aspect of their existence. They had no PhD program. They did some Masters but no PhD program. Well, it was because I really wanted to get into research, and at the same time, I wanted to keep my hand in teaching, but because of the research opportunities at Indiana, I went there.
Edmondson must have been your contact there.
Yes. Edmondson was the man. Now, at that time, they were looking for somebody to use the telescope there at Indiana University more than it was being used. It was being under-utilized — the Goethe Link Observatory. So they wanted someone who would pursue an active observational program, and Frank Edmondson happened to come through Michigan one time and he saw a machine that I had built for the measurement of spectrograms. It was a predecessor of the Grant type measuring engine.
An electronic type?
Yes. That’s right.
Tell me about it.
Well, Bill Liller helped me with that a little bit. A paper had been published. I had a mass of spectrograms to measure, and Bob Bless, who was a year or so ahead of me as a graduate student, called my attention to a paper that had recently been published, on a photoelectric measuring engine, by Tomkins and Fred. I remember it well, with this rotating prism in front of a slit and behind the slit a photocell. You could see the profile on an oscilloscope. You took the output from the photocell to the oscilloscope, and you’d see the profile of a section of the spectrogram, and its mirror image, and you’d move the spectrogram so that line profile and mirror image coincided, and there you had the setting. I thought that sounds like a great idea, a way I can keep myself from going mad, with these hundreds of spectrograms I’ve got to measure, so I said, what the heck? I’ll bet I save a lot of time if I just build one of these machines, rather than trying to measure these spectrograms in the old fashioned way.
You adapted an already existing manual machine?
Yes. I told Bill Liller about it and he thought it was a great idea. And he called my attention to an already existing prism on a shaft, with a slit behind it, which was used as a spectrohelioscope and the whole idea was to turn the prism slowly and to move the disc of the sun across the slit, behind which you had filters or something. At any rate, the whole thing was in pieces. And Bill said he thought that would work. So I took that and I cast some concrete for a table and I did a whole lot of things, down in a room in the basement of the observatory that we subsequently christened “The Crypt.” During the last year, or last year and a half of my graduate years there, the Crypt became my hangout. I would spend hours upon hours down there measuring the spectrograms with this photoelectric gadget. Well, Frank Edmondson happened to come through Michigan to pay a visit, just about the time he was looking for someone. Bob Kraft was at Indiana, and he was about to leave for Yerkes, and so they wanted someone to take his place. But it had to be a telescope user. So Frank saw this, and he decided that I was a telescope user; any guy who would get involved with several hundred spectrograms like this, measuring them up and building a machine to do it with. So, it was on that account, I later learned, that he called me up and asked me if I would be interested. So, I couldn’t make up my mind for a time. Frank had to call several times.
Well, that was when I had these other offers.
The other offers, sure. There was no spectroscopy at Wesleyan and certainly no spectroscopy at Holyoke.
— sure. There was just great teaching and class, real class!
Oh yes. I know the “class” that you speak of.
Yes, they have their ways. Anyway, I went on down to Indiana. George Preston, by the way, was another candidate for the job at Indiana. But George wasn’t about to leave California, apparently, so he left the field to me. So in ‘59, I went to Indiana and stayed there until this January, 1977.
Right. That was an enormous school that you were going to.
Oh, it was. I’ve seen the thing grow so dramatically, over those years. When I went, it really was a school that was ready, ripe for an explosive sort of growth. I don’t mean just in numbers, but in quality as well. There was a will to establish high quality. And there were the very humane sort of skills abundant on the campus, most especially in administration. They had a marvelous president, Herman Wells was the president, just one of the great characters I’ve know in my life.
How about the department itself?
Well, the department was terribly small. There were real characters there. John Irwin was there. And Cuffey, Jim Cuffey was there.
Oh, sure. He had not yet gone to New Mexico.
No, he had not yet gone.
You must have gotten along with him, with your instrumental work?
Well, our styles are so utterly different. Jim is the real hobbyist. I mean, he just loves to make things work. I don’t do any of that unless I just have to, unless there’s a purpose that it’s going to serve, by God.
Right. I see.
Then there was Marshall Wrubel. He really dominated the department in many ways.
Oh, could you talk about that for a few minutes?
Oh, well, he was a very, very highly educated person, and a very bright person, and a person of great style in the lab, a very elegant person. He was very theoretical, of course. He didn’t know a great deal about observational astronomy. That is to say, the problems of observational astronomy — I don’t mean just how to make a telescope work or how to change the filters and those things, but just translating observational parameters into theoretical terms was something that I didn’t feel he had a very good grasp of at the time I came there. Now, he subsequently improved, and improved very dramatically. Ten years later, I think he was all astronomer. But I had a very strong feeling when I came in that he was very rarified but a very elegant person and a very practical administratively talented person. And it is in this sense that he dominated the department; he proposed very wisely, whenever we had decisions to make. He had the lion’s share of the graduate students. He had far too many Graduate students. But observational circumstances were just not good at Indiana at that time. Well, then John Irwin left, we got Martin Burkhead, who was a very practical and down to earth person with the telescope and the observational fortunes of the place rose dramatically with his coming.
Edmondson had a few cooperative programs with Cincinnati and with McDonald. How was his role in department as director?
Well Frank was strictly a director when I got there. He was doing no research. He loved the course that he taught, an enormous course on astronomy.
Was it a television course then?
It wasn’t at the time. But it subsequently became such a course.
How large were his sections before they were on TV?
Oh, about 400.
Ok, that’s large.
It’s large, especially at that time.
You were talking about Martin Burkhead when I interrupted.
Wel1, the observational fortunes went up considerably.
Oh yes, yes. What I wanted to mention was when you mentioned McDonald. In 196?, perhaps or somewhere thereabouts, I went to McDonald Observatory for the first time. McDonald Observatory had a rule at that time being run jointly by Texas and Chicago, but really being dominated by Chicago, of course, with Kuiper and Morgan and Hiltner and so forth, versus a very very minimal observational interest that existed in Texas at the time, so Chicago really ran the show. Well, they had the rule that a new observer on the 82-inch must spend his initial two weeks with someone who was experienced in observing.
Yes. We had two week runs then. So you had to spend your first two weeks with someone who knew the ways of the telescope, before you could be entrusted alone to run it. Frank Edmondson went down with me, spent two weeks there, something I will never get out from his debt for having done. Well, of course, it was another era then. Life was somehow more leisurely then. A guy could actually absent himself for two weeks. Frank Edmondson could absent himself for two weeks in those days. Later, that became just an unrealistic thing. I remember well, when Frank and I first went down.
He must have enjoyed it.
Yes. He carried lots of work with him and he did lots of work. In those days, McDonald Observatory was a very isolated place. We stayed in cottages on the mountain. There were half a dozen cottages, and the person who was second in command actually lived up there, and a couple of other people, and it was a lovely existence. You could bring your family down. Finally, as a quaint note on that score, I have always been very unhappy about the fact that I saw my friends bring their families down, and yet, I could not bring my family down, for the following reasons. In those days — I’m talking about the very early sixties — airplane fare was pretty rough. Still is but I guess my pocket isn’t quite as flat today as it was then. As a matter of fact, I went to work making $6000 a year at Indiana.
Yes, that was ‘59-‘60. Yes. But, you see, airplane fare hasn’t changed as dramatically as my income has changed in the meantime, so back in those days, I and all others who went down there had only one way to bring their families down. That was, drive. But driving through the South was — in those days — people don’t remember how horrendous a proposition that was. Of course, you wanted to take the shortest route, and the best way for driving would be to perhaps drive down through Tennessee, Kentucky or Tennessee, Arkansas, into Texas and then across Texas, or you could go through Oklahoma and then through the Texas Panhandle. There were a variety of ways. But the point is that it took you through what was a stretch of what, to blacks was, at that time, very uncertain territory. Now, uncertain in this sense. You couldn’t, unless you were a mad man, and I know on mad man, you wouldn’t do it in one sitting, in a single stretch. You’d make a two day affair of the trip because it was about a thousand miles, and you have to be insane to drive that far, in a day, although as I say, I knew one astronomer who used to do it.
Who was that?
Do I dare say it? That was Tom Gehrels. Tom Gehrels used to drive for 24 hours; a 24 hour drive, without sleep. Oh, I think that’s a menace to everyone else on the highway!
He did it alone?
Sure. He did it alone.
Yes, He’s a madman.
Oh well, if you’ve got somebody to spell you off, that’s a different matter altogether. But the point, I do want to stress this point — now, west Texas of course was the really Wild West, while eastern Texas is South. It’s strictly Dixie, you know.
I wasn’t aware of that.
Oh yes. The spirit — the Wild West is in western Texas.
University of Texas is western?
Oh yes, sure. You see, Dallas, Houston — all this territory was strictly Southern in its style and its traditions as anywhere you could find in the South. And the point is that blacks could not get into motels in those days. You didn’t know where you were going to sleep. You didn’t know where you could eat, even. That was part of the viciousness of it all. If only there were a well-established set of guidelines, you could avoid the embarrassment and the frustration. But all these things were sort of regional. The practices were regional. Now, despite the fact that western Texas, where McDonald Observatory was, off El Paso way was really Wild West territory, nevertheless, there still was the possibility of ugliness if you went into a restaurant. As a matter of fact, in Van Horn, Texas which is midway between El Paso and McDonald’s.
Is that where you fly to?
You fly into El Paso. Then you drive from El Paso. That’s one way to do it. Or you take the bus from El Paso to a little place called Kent, Texas, which is really a ranch, a big ranch, one of the great ranches in Texas. Then someone from the observatory would drive down 40 miles to meet you. Then you drive up to the observatory with them. Well, even in Van Horn, I remember well, in those days, a restaurant across the street. We always had a bus stop in Van Horn, and across the street from the bus depot was this restaurant, with its little typically uniquely Southern sign, “No Negroes.” You see. Well, the thing is that blacks generally despised driving through the South, because of the uncertainty. And for this reason I never took my family there, until after the Civil Rights Act in 1964 which fairly well outlawed this kind of thing. And I remember so beautifully, in the winter of 67, I was observing over Christmas time, and so I took my family, my wife, my daughter who was then about three years old, — she was 2 ½ — and, my mother. And we had the most marvelous time. We were driving, stopping at restaurants. We spent two nights on the road on the way down, and we’d stop at these various places. We’d say, “By God, we’re going into this hotel” or “We’re going into this motel, wow! Isn’t this different from anything that’s ever gone on before?” I remember Sweetwater, Texas, was one place we stopped one night at a Holiday Inn. Sweetwater, Texas, is famous for a great lynching that occurred there a couple of generations ago, a long time ago. But the name of Sweetwater has lived in black memory for a long time because of this. So here we were stopping at this Holiday Inn, in Sweetwater, Texas, and we thought that was a lot of fun. We were treated just like anybody else, of course, with great courtesy and all. What I’m trying to say is that in that time, there was the sharpest break, in social practices in this country. And a consequence of that break, that discontinuity in social practice, was something that people other than blacks would not suspect followed. I mean just the idea of taking your family to a mountaintop, where you’d lived for a couple of weeks would seem like the most natural thing in the world to do. And yet, there was just too much unpleasantness involved for me to do that, until the late sixties. And that was just wonderful. Just wonderful, it was just a ball.
You went down there regularly?
I only drove twice. I usually couldn’t take the time to drive, the extra days. So my family went down twice. I used to go down twice a year.
That’s what I thought. Yes, go on. That really sounds quite interesting. So that was your primary observing area.
Yes. I did an enormous amount of observing down there.
You also must have come in contact with some men from Chicago and from other observatories. Were other observatories also participating there or just Indiana and Chicago?
No, just Indiana and Chicago.
That’s rather unique. This must’ve been one of the first operations.
Well, there was an agreement. We bought our time. Indiana bought its time, but at a pittance, a minimal amount. I think we paid $100 a night, whereas now you have to pay more like $1000 a night or something like that.
Edmonson must have been the one who set this up.
I don’t know the origin of that arrangement. It really went back to World War II. It went back to Struve’s time. That, I know. But I don’t know what the details of the origin of that arrangement were.
By that time of course Struve had gone.
Yes. He had long since gone to California, to Berkeley.
Ok. What were your teaching duties like? Did you teach graduate students?
Yes I taught. There was very little undergraduate astronomy there. There were essentially two courses really for undergrads. One was the general astronomy course for anybody who wanted to take it, and a course called Introductory Astrophysics for the astronomy majors. Now, there were a few other courses. There were some courses that Jim Cuffey taught in use of the telescope, and navigation, and a lot of courses that don’t really exist anymore.
What about computers? Wrubel brought them in?
Wrubel played a key role in getting the early computer activity started on the campus.
Did you react favorably to computers?
Not really. You know, I’m what I think Roger Lynds calls a member of the lost generation. We’re the last people to come through graduate school without having computers as our lingua franca. And so we’ve had to learn these things on our own, and because we had to learn them on our own, it’s taken longer. I still deal with computers only when I must, when I absolutely must, for the reduction of large quantities of data, and that is all. As a matter of fact, the only thing I’ve ever used computers for is data reduction. I’ve never done any theoretical work.
Without having recourse to your bibi1ography which is what we would do of course eventually, am I right in assuming that you’ve always maintained work in spectroscopic binaries or spectroscopic studies of stars?
No. Spectroscopic studies, yes. But by no means just binaries.
What were some of the, other areas?
Well, during the last several years, I’ve been primarily interested in observations that relate to nucleosynthesis. And it’s primarily nucleosynthesis within stars, and it turns out primarily to be S-process sort of thing. What can we discern, what can we deduce about the interior of a star, from the peculiar abundances that have been produced by that star, within that star? That sort of thing. So this has led me to primarily cool stars. As a matter of fact, at Indiana I first got into this thing in the early sixties. And I suppose it’s primarily because of my talking and living and breathing cool stars that cool stars became a tradition at Indiana. When we got new people in, they were seduced by the problems of cool stars, which at that time were, vastly more mysterious and intractable than they are today. Even today they’re a mystery and the intractability is there, but in those days it was awful. There were no atmospheres for stars much cooler than the sun in those days.
Opacities impossible to deal with.
Opacities — oh, yes, quite. And the vaguest ideas were afloat about the nature of an S-star, or a carbon star. But the tradition of concern for cool stars sort of evolved there at Indiana University, and we had quite a cool star group, in the early seventies Then it began to wither away because of diffusion of interest in other directions.
I really hesitate to get into your research, f or the reason that I haven’t seen your bibliography, but I would like to, just as the last topic on this tape, talk to you about your decision to leave Indiana and come to Howard.
Yes. I had a sabbatical leave at Kitt Peak, ‘75, ‘76, when actually I’d come to Howard a couple of times, to give colloquiums. The suggestion had been made to me. But I wasn’t about to leave Indiana. Not only was it a great place to be scientifically, but the music is just incredible at Indiana.
It must be the largest music department in the world.
And the productions were so fantastic, and I’ve always been an opera nut. Indiana is Mecca for the opera buff. So I wasn’t at all inclined to leave Indiana.
Your family was established and growing up in Indiana, right?
Sure. My daughter was very happy there, in the excellent school that she was in. So we were happy. My wife was working, teaching. She’s a special education teacher. Everybody was happy. But I began to think, when they began pulling at me, more and more,” gee whiz, I have been there after all, quite a bit of time.” It was 17 years. And gosh, I’ve never been 17 years any place else before. And I’ve always imagined myself to be the great explorer, the quester for the Holy Grail, and here I am, just snuggled in so comfortably, into this nest! It’ll sound mad to you, I realize. But I began to realize that here I was being asked, at my advanced age, to come and do something, to develop something my way, and it was probably the last time I’d ever be asked to do a damned thing of this magnitude.
What were you being asked to do?
Well, to start a graduate program in astrophysics at Howard. This was the thing. To come out here and get a graduate program going at Howard in astrophysics. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized: “Hey, one, this is a challenge; two, it’s something utterly different and three, the Washington area is a fantastic area.”
It’s my first time here. I love it.
Oh, it’s — “New York, watch out, because here comes Washington, on the cultural scene.” It’s really stunning.
Did you know that when you came out here?
Well, I began to pay attention to these things. And I didn’t realize that Washington was this way. I remembered Washington from war time, when I first came here in uniform, and actually got my head softened when I tried to buy a hamburger at the bus depot. The first time I ever came to Washington.
Things have changed now.
Yes. We were supposed to go out of the building and walk around to the rear, and go down the stairs into the little restaurant in the basement. Well, I remembered Washington!
Everybody goes down to the basement now. (laughter)
Yes. Everybody goes down. I remembered Washington as the cultural backwater, which it was, 35 years ago. Really, a town that people escaped from on weekends. It was hard to get a place on the train to New York on the weekends. That’s where you went. In Washington there was the Ford Theatre and there was Constitution Hall. If you couldn’t get into one of those or the other, there wasn’t anything. It was just a very very backward, underdeveloped town. Well, it’s not that, any more. It’s come to be a very elegant sophisticated place. I’m enormously impressed.
Well, how long had they been asking you at Howard?
Oh, with varying degrees of insistence, over perhaps two years until I said, “Why not.”
Was it always the graduate program that they wanted?
I see. Well, you’ve been here since January?
Yes, a semester and a half approximately.
How’s it going?
Well, Howard has enormous problems, which is good for two or three more tapes.
I’ve got at least two or three more.
Well, we ought to do that another time, really.
Ok. But the, fact is, you’re here and working.
The problem that any university faces in transition from of an undergraduate school of very high quality, devastated by the action of the late sixties and early seventies Howard perhaps suffered more than any other campus in the country.
Oh, classes were uncertain. Many of them were just cancelled.
Worse than San Francisco State?
Oh yes, yes I think. Well, I don’t know if it was? It probably was a little bit worse. Yes I think Howard actually must have caught it the hardest. Howard is only now coming out of that. Standard of excellence are only slowly being re-instituted. They had been destroyed in the name of some sort of egalitarianism earlier. And the whole concept of excellence had been lost, because excellence equals elitism, and elitism is the naughtiest of all words, of course.
We still need it. Oh boy.
Sure. Well, that’s only part of it. There are terrified people who aren’t very competent [on the faculty] whose own personal security naturally is dictating many of their styles, their attitudes about all this. Again, it’s not just unique to Howard. Howard is like all universities that are trying to make a transition upward. And so, I thought I could walk in and just have my way, and I finally had to accept the fact that that is not easily done. I’ve been trying to do this in the physics department.
It’s in the physics department that you’re doing it.
Yes, which I feel is the proper place for an astrophysics program. I feel that very strongly.
How many physicists are there on the staff?
There are about 15.
15. What kind of astrophysics? Your specialty, I would imagine?
It would be primarily observational, and I want to use Space Data. I want to establish a real program, a permanent sustained program of utilizing Space Data.
 Astronomy I, II (Ginn, 1927). It may well be U Cephei in RDS.