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Interview of James Stith by Will Thomas on 2009 August 14, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA, www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/33903
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This interview with Jim Stith was conducted following his retirement as Vice President of the AIP’s Physics Resource Center. It covers his childhood in rural Virginia, and how he became interested in science, attendance at segregated schools, and at Virginia State University, where he received a BS degree in physics 1963 and an MS in physics in 1964. It discusses his work in physics under John Hunter, the third African-American to receive a PhD in the subject. The interview then covers his drafting into the Army during the Vietnam War, and his work in air defense in Korea, as well as his brief and successful career as an associate engineer at RCA under Bob Pontz. His graduate education and obtaining of a D.Ed degree in physics in 1972 at Pennsylvania State University is discussed. The interview then focuses on his lengthy career as an instructor of physics at the United States Military Academy at West Point (1972-1993), his experiences as an African-American physicist, and his work in the field of physics education. The remainder of the interview concentrates on his move to teach and research physics education at The Ohio State University, his involvement with the American Association of Physics Teachers, and his work at AIP.
All right, this is Will Thomas. I’m at the American Institute of Physics in College Park, Maryland. I’m doing an interview with Jim Stith, who is the former Vice President of AIP and [former] head of the Physics Resource Center here. I’m going to be doing a life history interview. This is August 14, 2009. So in doing a life history interview we’re going to talk about your personal biography, presumably your time here at AIP, your work as a professor at West Point, and your experiences as an African-American physicist, and anything else that comes to mind. You’ve provided us with a very detailed CV here, so I think we’ll have a lot to talk about. Why don’t we start once again with your personal background at the tobacco farm?
Okay, yes. I was born in Brunswick County, Virginia. That is just about 15 miles from the North Carolina border in a little town called Alberta, Virginia. My family was tobacco farmers, so I grew up, my younger life, on a tobacco farm. In my earlier life I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do, but I did know what I didn’t want to do, and that was to be a tobacco farmer. So I worked hard to get off that farm. I was born to a single mom, Ruth Stith, and fortunately, even though she was a third grade graduate, she believed in education and pushed me to do well in school and made sure that I didn’t miss school. In that respect I was extremely fortunate. I went to a three-room school called Oak Grove, located in Cochran, Virginia. We were fortunate in many respects to go to a three-room school because in the three-room school, even though it was a poor neighborhood, because I excelled I could do my math, which whatever grade was the appropriate grade, I was always challenged. Up until I graduated from elementary school, I did an awful lot of things like I taught an awful lot of classes, and as an example, my job when I was in seventh grade was to teach the sixth and seventh grade mathematics, so that helped to shape the person that I am.
You mentioned that it was your grandfather’s tobacco farm? [Yes]. What was his name?
Martin Tillman Stith. Doing my genealogy, his father (Wiley Stith) was born in slavery and he married his wife (Anasia) in 1865, which was the year that the Civil War was over. One of the things that I haven’t quite found out yet and still working on that is how my grandfather amassed 200 acres of land, because it was unusual for an African-American to have that much land at that time. So I still don’t know the answer to that one. He died young (55), and so my grandmother [Dina Stith] raised the family. By the time I came along she had sold all the farm except 60 acres to pay the bills and do the things that one must do. So I grew up on a 60-acre farm.
So your grandfather wasn’t alive while you were growing?
He was not, no. As a matter of fact, my grandmother died in 1945, I was born in ’41. Grandfather died about 1938 or ’39, somewhere in there.
Okay, so we might as well continue on I guess with your schooling. First I should probably ask if you had siblings.
I was an only child, but my mother married when I was in the sixth grade, and so I inherited, through that marriage, three stepsisters. Then after my mom married, my half-sister was born, but we lost our family home in 1963 to a fire and she perished in that fire.
Yes, my half-sister. Then one of my stepsisters (Aldrena) died of the order of 20 years ago so I now have two stepsisters who are alive.
All right, so you went to Oak Grove Elementary, and did it continue to be the small school environment then as you were going along?
Yes, until I graduated from elementary school, then I went to high school. High school was a county school. Brunswick County had two county schools: one for whites and one for blacks. They were essentially identical schools built with the same floor plan. This was back in what we call the separate but equal days, and so I went to James Solomon Russell High School, but it turns out that James Solomon Russell High School was an excellent high school in the sense that St. Paul’s College — which was a small Episcopalian college, of the order of 600 students. It was located in Lawrenceville, Virginia, which is the county seat of Brunswick County — most of the teachers at James Solomon Russell were spouses of faculty at St. Paul’s College. As an example, my mathematics teacher received her Master’s in Mathematics from Columbia. My chemistry teacher received his Master’s in Chemistry from Michigan. So it was a very good school. Actually I spent five years there. When I was a freshman in high school I broke my ankle, and I told my mom a little fib. I went to see the doctor to set the ankle, and when I came back she asked, “What did the doctor say?” And I told her that the doctor had said that I should not go to school on a broken leg. So I sat at home for six months. If I look back upon that experience, it ended up being one of the better things that ever happened to me, because in those six months I grew up an awful lot. I was always small for my age, and a bit shy. So when I went to high school, I really didn’t do well my first year there. I was basically a C student. So when I broke my leg, with the opportunity to stay at home for six months and read and do those kinds of things, I matured an awful lot. So when I went back to high school at the end of that six-month hiatus, I was roughly half a year behind the rest of my class. I became a more serious student and I worked real hard. I went from being a C student to an A student and ended up being valedictorian of my class, largely due to the fact that I was trying to catch up with the rest of my class, and because of the need to take English every year, there was no way to catch up and know that. But as I said, it ended up being one of the better things that ever happened to me. In high school I did the usual things. I played basketball until I realized that all the people that I started ahead of in JV grew and I did not. I stopped playing basketball. I became a scout, so I was active in scouting. I was active in many of the clubs that we had. I had always wanted to be a musician, but didn’t have instruments. We couldn’t afford them. It turns out that because I had to work on a tobacco farm, I couldn’t stay after school and do those kinds of things, so that was one of the things that I always wanted to do that I never got around to doing. But, getting back to the high school bit, when I graduated, as I said I was the valedictorian of my class.
Just based on your birthday, was that ’59, or…?
I was born in ’41. This was in 1959 when I graduated. Yeah I graduated high school in 1959. In my family, there was an uncle that I really looked up to, and he was in the Air Force. My goal was to finish high school and join the Air Force.
Okay. What was your uncle’s name?
Theodore Stith. So that was my goal, because he was, in my view, a brilliant person. He could do almost anything. He was the guy I looked up to.
Was he a pilot?
No, he was an enlisted person, but for a young kid watching, he was one of the first persons that I knew who had a new car. He had a ’57 Ford Fairland, which if you’re a car buff, was a good looking car back in those days. So that was my goal. We were getting ready for the commencement ceremony, I had written my valedictory speech, and we were sitting in the room with the rest of my classmates who were the honor graduates. There was a teacher there named Johnny Thompson, and Johnny was really the person that was responsible for my being as good a student as I was. You could imagine that for those of us that lived out in the country, we always felt that those kids who were the siblings and kids of St. Paul faculty were the smart kids, and we were the country kids. When I was in my sophomore year, she pulled me aside and said that she wanted me to go to the math and science conference to represent our high school in the math algebra contest.
That is statewide?
A statewide competition. I had said to her, “I’m from Alberta. I’m not from St. Paul,” and she said, “So?” That confidence made me a better student. I worked harder. So anyway.
Beg your pardon, but are the teachers at the segregated school black?
They were all black back in those days. It’s no longer segregated, but then they were all black. She was going around the room and she was asking each of us where we were going to go to college. I was the last person that she asked, and she said, “Herman,” because that’s what they called me back in those days, my middle name, “Where are you going to go to school?” I said, “I’m not going to college.” She said, “Why not?” “Well, people in my family don’t go to college.” “What are you going to do?” “I’m going to go into the Air Force.” And she said, “You’re not going to go to the Air Force.” So I said, “What am I going to do?” She said, “You’re going to go to college.” I said, “I don’t have any money to go to college.” So she said, “You can live with me and go to St. Paul’s. My husband is on the faculty at St. Paul’s, and I know we can get you a scholarship.” My response was, “I don’t want to go to St. Paul’s. I want to get out of this town.” So then she said, “If I get you a scholarship to Virginia State,” which was about 40 miles away from where I lived, “Will you go there?” And I said yes, because I mean throughout my first — at that time, the further I had ever been away from Brunswick County was 60 miles and that was Richmond, Virginia. So 40 miles was far enough away from Lawrenceville for me. Somehow, well I was a good student, but she came back of the order of maybe three weeks to a month later and informed me that she had secured a full scholarship for me to Virginia State University. That’s really what changed my life in many respects. So I went there.
How well did you do in the math competition?
First or second. We were quite proud that we beat many of what we thought were the good schools. I was a good student. It sort of gave me a different perspective in terms of how I stacked up against many of the other students in the state. They were all black because they didn’t allow…
The competitions were segregated as well, right.
Segregated, yes. The high schools at the time that were the “elite high schools:” Maggie Walker High School in Richmond, Virginia; Armstrong High School in Richmond, Virginia; Booker T. Washington High School in Norfolk; Peabody High School in Petersburg; and then there was little old James Russell High School, and the fact that we could compete with them and walk away with many of the medals in the statewide competition made us feel quite good about ourselves back in those days.
Had you heard of physics when you graduated?
By the time I graduated I had. As I said, I was always a very, very curious kid. I had asked many questions of my relatives, but again they couldn’t answer any of those questions. Those six months that I spent sitting at home, I found access to many of them from reading many of the books that I could find.
Was there a library?
No library that I used, but I had a neighbor who was in college at the time, and so she brought me some books. We had books at home. For example, I read Beowulf. Now the last chapter was not in the book because it was an old book, so I never knew how it ended. I got up to the end. I read lots of magazines, so as I say it was an interesting experience from that point of view. Where were we?
Oh okay, so anyway, after commencement I went off to Virginia State. There again, I’ll keep it short, it was an interesting experience. It was my first time out of Lawrenceville, Virginia and I was out of my element and I knew I needed a C average to keep my scholarship. During my first year as a student at Virginia State, I tried to make sure that there wasn’t a party on campus that I didn’t go to. I worked just hard enough to get my C average so that I could keep my scholarship. One of the landmark experiences was that we had three faculty members at Virginia State at that time. Dr. T. Nelson Baker, I don’t know where Dr. Baker got his PhD from, but he was one of the few people back in those days that had a PhD in chemistry. Dr. Ruben R. McDaniel, who was a mathematician, PhD from Cornell. In physics we had Dr. John Hunter with a PhD from Cornell. He received his BS from MIT. It turns out that Dr. Hunter was the third African-American to get a PhD in physics, except at that time we didn’t know that. But getting back to Dr. Baker, I had gone in to see him because I had not been doing well in chemistry and I knew I needed a C average to keep my scholarship. I talked to Dr. Baker, and I said, “Dr. Baker, what do I need to make on the final examination to get a C in chemistry?” So he said, “You need an 82 on the final examination, but based on your performance, it’s highly unlikely that you will get it.” So I said, “That’s okay,” and I went back to work. As I remember this, on the day of the final examination, I went in to take the final exam, and a little bit before the final exam was over I got up to leave and handed my paper in because I had to go and get ready for another exam. He said, “Are you giving up?” And I said, “No, you said I need an 82, I think I have that.” He stopped me and he says, “Don’t go anywhere,” and he graded my paper on the spot. I made an 85, at which point he chewed me out. I mean he really laced into me about throwing away potential, and the fact that if I could go back and make an 85 on his final exam and still have time left that there was no reason I should not be doing better in school.
It seems to be sort of a theme with you so far, that you start out kind of easing back and then play catch up ball and then just kind of overshoot the mark.
So anyway, that conversation, and Dr. McDaniel, who became really my mentor in mathematics, had taken me aside and really chewed me out because he felt that I was not realizing my potential. I was in this group of “honor students” that would meet every now and then, and I was doing the worst of all the honor students. But I was doing enough to keep my scholarship. At the end of that year I had a soul searching and I thought about things and decided it’s time to go to work. For the rest of my college experience I worked hard and ended up being a reasonably good student, because I had said that I wanted to go to graduate school someday. I had now learned what school was all about. For me, graduate school was getting masters. The thought of getting a doctorate was not yet in the picture.
So you did get your BS in Physics, I see from your CV, in ’63.
Yeah I got my BS in ’63, so I finished in four years. I was an ROTC student. At Virginia State, back in those days, all land grant institutions, every male had to take ROTC for the first two years.
Now sorry, is this still a segregated campus?
Still a segregated school.
Did the Virginia State system have sort of parallel schools in the same areas, or was it just sort of a particular campus?
No, well Virginia State University and Virginia State College, Virginia State Normal, was started1882, as a school for African-Americans. That’s how it was started. If you go back and take a look at the African-American land grant schools in the south, they were all started to provide an education for blacks in that area. Basically all of the HBCUs, as we call them, are located in the southern part of the country, and basically every southern state had at least one. Virginia State was the land grant school in the state of Virginia. St. Paul’s college was also a black school, but it was financed by the Episcopalian Church. It had about 600 students. Then there was Virginia Union University, which was a Baptist school in Richmond, Virginia, black. And Hampton University, which I think was also Baptist but I’m not sure about that, but private school in Hampton, Virginia. Those were the black schools in the state of Virginia. Then later on, Norfolk State University was started as an adjunct to Virginia State University in Petersburg as a public school because of the huge African-American population in the Norfolk, Virginia area to afford them the opportunity. It is now bigger than Virginia State University and it is no longer an adjunct; it is a school in its own right.
Okay, that’s excellent. I had no idea how that system worked.
Right, so that’s how that system worked. At the end of my sophomore year the PMS, professor of military science, called me in said that I had been nominated by the military faculty to go into advanced ROTC and wanted to know if I would accept. After some questions were asked, what the implications were, what did it mean, he said, “Well, when you graduate you have to go into the Army.” But they were going to pay me of the order of $47 a month to be in advanced ROTC and that was the selling point, because in 1961, $47 was a lot of money. My room, board, and tuition at Virginia State College were $663 a year.
So you can get by and a little extra.
Right, so my comment to him was that I had been doing ROTC for nothing up to that point, and now they were going to pay me. Of course I said yes, and so I went into advanced ROTC.
Was the scholarship that you went in on just for the first year?
No it was renewed every year.
Okay so you had that on top of….
I had that on top of that, yes. So basically, my education was essentially paid for. I took out student loans, and when I graduated I had a $2000 student loan, which by today’s standards is nothing. Then it was a NSF student loan, which meant that if I taught every year, they would reduce 10% of the loan up to a max of 50% reduction. So after 5 years of teaching half of the loan was paid off. I ended up paying back roughly $1000, and I paid that back much later. The dollar had changed, so that was a good investment basically. So anyway, when I graduated from Virginia State and I was scheduled to go into the…
Can I stop you and ask kind of how you got on the physics track in particular?
Oh yeah, I meant to say this. When I was in high school and I took my first course in physics, all of the questions that I had been asking over the years, I started getting answers to.
So what are these questions? We didn’t really get into them.
As an example, when I was a kid growing up I had a bicycle. There was a country store, and I’d take my bicycle down to the country store to put air in the tires. I had to put in “80 pounds of air” for the tire. When I went to the same store with my Uncle to put air in his car tires, we only put in 28 to 32 pounds of air. My question that I had been why was it that my bicycle tire could hold 80 pounds of air, whereas a car tire could only hold 32 pounds of air, given that the car tire was much bigger than a bicycle tire? This was a question that I kept asking and I couldn’t get an answer to. What I learned when I took physics, was that it wasn’t pounds of air that we were putting in, it was “pounds of pressure.” So it was a pressure reading instead of a weight reading, so that finally answered that question. Every person, every farm, every house that I knew of in that area had a screened in back porch, and that’s where you spent your evening, in the screened in back porch because of things like mosquitoes and all the good kinds of things that are outside. You could sit outside in the evening in the cool, because there was no air conditioning back in those days; we did not get electricity until I was in the third grade. So we would sit outside on the porch until it was time to go inside and go to bed. Well what did I notice? On a full moon, if I looked at the full moon through the screen, I could see what I called a cross superimposed upon the moon. If I walked outside, it disappeared. So the question was what caused this cross to be superimposed upon the moon when I was sitting inside the back porch looking through the screen? But I didn’t see it when I walked outside. It turns out that a screen is nothing more than a cheap diffraction grating. So because of the bending of the light around the screen and the wire mesh, you would get a diffraction pattern. So when I took physics in high school I learned something about diffraction and that knowledge allowed me to understand what happened. You would be walking around and you would see oil slicks and you would see colors of the oil slick. The question was what caused those various colors? No one could answer that question for me. When I took my first course in physics, I learned that. On the farm we did things like, well we were always fixing things. We learned that if you got a long pole, I could lift an object that was much heavier than I could lift if I tried to do it by hand or using a short pole. So we all knew about the lever principle, and we learned about gears and all those good kinds of things on the farm. I was curious as to why did it work this way. Again, no one could give me a satisfactory answer until I took my course in physics in high school. Once I started taking that course, I was basically hooked on physics because it was just in my view…
Getting all kinds of answers.
I was getting all kinds of answers. So that’s the reason. I made that decision in high school. So when I left high school and I was going off to Virginia State and I was asked what I was going to major in, and I said, “I’m going to major in physics.” I was taken aside and told that I should pick something else because African-Americans didn’t do physics. I asked why not, and I couldn’t get a satisfactory answer. My comment was, “Well, it’s about time so I’m going to go ahead and do that.”
So I suppose the experience in high school and being pushed forward, and I suppose from your family’s emphasis on education as well that maybe kind of gives you that attitude if you can’t get a good reason why not you just sort of go forward?
Yes and my mother was a very, very stubborn woman, and in that respect I inherited that gene, and one of the easiest ways to make sure that I did something was to tell me that I couldn’t do it. That has been something which has sort of — many of the things that I was told I could not do, I ended up doing it. As an example, during the period when I had decided that I was going to go to college, it was late so there were lots of things against me. I had said, “Okay, I’m going to go to West Point.” I was told, “You’re wasting your time,” because who was it at the time, Byrd from Virginia, Harry Byrd, and teachers said that there was no way Byrd’s going to give you a nomination to go to West Point. So I put it out of my mind, but it stayed back there. I think it had something to do with my eventually going there on the faculty years later.
Okay, so you get into physics.
I get into physics and then I graduate. Now I’ll pick up and do one more anecdote. Dr. Hunter, who was my physics professor, had very low tolerance for mediocrity. He was my major professor, but was never my mentor. He basically gave up on me during my freshman year because I was…
You were trying to get your C.
I was trying to get my C, and that was not something he was interested in. At the end of the year when I decided I was going to really go to work — it was a small department, so Dr. Hunter taught most of the courses, and so he was teaching me classical mechanics. I have now turned a corner and I have become a good student. I worked hard in his classical mechanics course. Another student there, Clinton Richmond, who in my view was one of the brightest people I have ever met in my life, and that’s another story. As a matter of fact he lives in this area. But Clinton and I did all of our studying together. We had small classes. I mean my major classes were of the order of six or seven students. We were working hard on classical mechanics and we’re going to the library. We are looking up other classical mechanics textbooks, going through and finding sample problems that illustrate the principles that we are studying in classical mechanics. We are reading those example problems; we are working them out, and using them to sort of reinforce our own thinking and learning. So in getting ready for the final examination, we had selected of the order of 10 to 20 problems that we thought would make very good final examination problems, because they pulled everything together. We discussed them and we worked them through. I go in to take my final examination in classical mechanics, and Dr. Hunter has ten questions on the final exam, and we were to work any five of them. Six of those problems were problems that Clinton and I had identified as good classical mechanics problems. So I sit down and very quickly pick the five I want to do. I complete the five and I hand in my paper, and I’m standing outside waiting for Clinton. I’m waiting and I’m waiting and I’m waiting. He finally comes out and I said, “What took you so long? Didn’t you recognize that six of those problems were problems that we had worked out?” He said, “Yes, I did. But the other four looked interesting, so I decided to do those.” Well anyway, grades come out and I get my grade in classical mechanics. What grade do I have? I have a C. I was expecting to get an A. Dr. Hunter did not hand papers back, which was not his style, so you never knew what you had done. But I always felt when I walked out of an exam; I knew what I had done. So I go in to see Dr. Hunter and I said, “Dr. Hunter, there’s been a mistake.” He says, “What’s the mistake?” I said, “I have a C in classical mechanics.” He says, “Stith, you’re a C student.” I said, “What are you talking about, Dr. Hunter? I didn’t make less than a B on any homework set that we had all semester. You don’t hand the exams back, but I know I did well on every one of your examinations. So I don’t understand. I was expecting to get an A out of this course. I really don’t understand how I could get a C.” He said, “Well Stith, in my view, you’re a C student.” At which point I said, “Dr. Hunter, if it makes you feel good to give me a C go ahead and do so, but I know that I know more than C work in your course, and I know I deserve better than a C in this course,” and I turned and I walked out of his office. He never changed that grade, but I never made less than an A in any other course I ever took from him. At the end of that semester he called me and said, “I’m going to go to Europe for summer vacation. Are you going to be on campus?” “Yes I am.” “Would you consider staying in my house and keeping my house for me while I’m in Europe? I’ll pay you for it.” So instead of staying on campus, I was working on campus, so I stayed in his house. He lived on the edge of campus and I could walk in. Again, it was the first time I had ever lived in a house that was as modern as his house was. It sort of showed me how other people could live. The next year when he got back, his mother was a retired faculty member. Ms. Hunter was of the order 90 years old. He said, “My mom needs someone to stay with her. Would you stay with my mom?” So I lived with his mother during my senior year, which meant that I could then save all the money that I would have paid for room and board. I lived with her. At the end when I graduate and I am now going off to the Army, I’m walking through the department and he calls me, and he says, “Stith, do you want to go to graduate school?” I said, “Can’t go to graduate school. I have to go into the Army.” He says, “I didn’t ask if you had to go into the Army, do you want to go to graduate school?” And I said, “Can’t go to graduate school. I don’t have any money.” “I didn’t ask if you had any money. Do you want to go to graduate school?” I said, “Well yes I do.” “Come into my office.” So he sits me down and says, “I just received a grant from the NSF, which means that if you stay here and get a masters, I can pay for it.” I say, “But Dr. Hunter, I can’t.” He picked up the phone and called second Army and has a discussion with the person on the phone about this young man who is supposed to go into the Army, but he would like to stay in graduate school and asked if he could have me for a year. They said yes, so I stayed there and worked for him for a year and got my masters. So whereas he never changed that grade, and even though I worked very closely with him, I never got to really know him. He was…how should I describe him? Well Dr. McDaniel, who was the mathematics professor, was really my mentor and I would go to see him. If I ever had a life problem or wanted to talk about anything I would go see Dr. Mac. I recall later on when I would talk to Dr. McDaniel, and I would say one day, “Dr. Mac, what’s with Dr. Hunter? He’s a really hard person to get to know.” Dr. Mac said, “John does not understand how good he really is and he is always trying to prove it.” Whether it was his experience at MIT and Cornell as an African-American physics major back in those days, sort of…
How old were these professors you were working with?
I’m going to say at that time they were in their maybe late 40s, early 50s.
Okay, so they would have been in graduate school themselves before that.
They had already finished. They all had their PhD when I knew them.
Right, I’m just wondering when they would have been in graduate school.
Oh, well Dr. Hunter got his PhD in ’36 or ’37.
Okay, sounds about right.
Yeah, Dr. Hunter must have been in his 60s when I was in school. I can go back and look that up, but he must have been in his 60s. But he was insecure in many respects. I did not learn until I was a working adult that he was the third African-American to get a PhD in physics. Hans von Baeyer, you probably know Hans, on the faculty at the College of William and Mary, who sent me a letter one day congratulating me about something, and mentioned Dr. Hunter and the fact that he had done some writing on Dr. Hunter and told me that he was the third and that’s how I learned that.
Do you know the names of the first two off the top of your head, by any chance?
Yes. [Edward] Bouchet was number one. He got his PhD from Yale I think in 1876. He was number one, followed by Elmer Imes with a PhD from Michigan of the order of 1918 or 1919, somewhere in there . A long period, and then Hunter.
So just sporadically.
Right. Bouchet’s father was a slave and he was the house servant of this person at Yale. So Bouchet grew up with his father’s master’s son. When the son went off to high school, Bouchet went off to high school with him. When his son went off to college, Bouchet went off to college with him. He was the first African-American to be nominated for Phi Beta Kappa. He was not the first inducted because they lost the nominations for that year group. He was inducted of the order of ten years later, and by that time someone else had been. He then finished his undergraduate school at Yale and went on and got his PhD at Yale and did spectroscopy; measuring indices of refraction was his PhD thesis. Then after that he had to come into the real world, and of course as an African-American physicist, could not find a job. He went to work for the School for Colored Youth in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and he worked at the School for Colored Youth of the order of 20 years. About this time, Booker T. Washington was becoming a well-known figure and was advocating that it was a waste of talent to educate colored youth for the classics, that what you should do is educate them for trades and those kinds of things. The School for Colored Youth decided to stop teaching the classics. When they did that, Bouchet left the School for Colored Youth and worked on the college level for a while. I think his next job was at St. Paul’s College, and again in the town in which I grew up. He taught at St. Paul’s for about five or six years, and the story as I understand it was that he was a bit absentminded. He was walking down the street one day, and the custom at the time was that if you met a white person that you were supposed to step off the street and let the white person pass. Bouchet was in his own zone, did not notice the white person, did not step off the street, and as a result of that he was beaten very severely. He then left there, and I forget where he went after that. He ended up at Wilberforce University, in Ohio. Out there he became ill and then died a few years later. That’s his story.
Okay, so I suppose we should get back to just wrapping up with Dr. Hunter.
So at the end of that year, when I got my masters, again I’m scheduled to go into the Army. Dr. Hunter was Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and Head of the Department of Physics. There was a need for a person to teach physics. He recommended to Dr. Daniel, who was the president, that I would be a good person to be on the physics faculty at Virginia State. Dr. Daniel called me in and asked if I would take the job. I told him I couldn’t because I had to go into the Army. He then called the Army, and they released me for a year, but then asked to speak with me and told me not to call them back the next year, to go into the Army. So I taught at Virginia State for ’64, ’65, and then went into the Army in June of ’65. Let me mention one other thing that happened that’s not on the résumé. Following the Brown v. Board of Education decision, Prince Edward County, Virginia closed all of the schools. From ’59 through ’64, there were no schools in the county of Prince Edward, in Virginia because rather than having integrated schools, the county made the decision to close all schools. In 1964, the Ford Foundation appropriated money to open up a private school in Prince Edward County to which all kids in the county could go. They made the decision somewhat late and didn’t have faculty because teachers who were inclined to come were under contract all over the country, so they had this period where they knew they were coming but teachers weren’t there yet. So Prince Edward school administrators came to Virginia State and asked for some students to go up there to help get things started. I was in graduate school at the time, but wanted to go. Dr. Hunter said, “You can afford to be gone for one month and still get your work done if you work hard when you come back.” So I was with a group of about 15 students from Va. State who went to Prince Edward County, Virginia in 1964 to open up the school that was to be for all kids. It was one of those experiences that sort of leave a mark, because what we saw was all of these kids who had had no schooling at all. As an example, there were those kids who were in the third grade when schools were closed had not gone to school a day in the last four years. They had regressed back to kindergarten. What we were trying to do — I called it sorting and mining, trying to figure out where kids were and how to put them at the right level. Whereas you have the 15-year-old kid who was basically at the level of a second grade kid, but how do you put a 15-year-old kid and a 7-year-old kid in the same class? So that was the experience. It was basically a lost generation. Now I, within the last year, have gotten in touch with a group at that school that’s trying to find all of those kids from VA State who were there and sort of have a discussion with them about the experience and the impact. But we can now get back to your story.
Okay, well yeah so we have you in graduate school. Did you do research?
Yes, a master’s thesis. My research was on the sputtering of thin films of copper: what was the physics behind the sputtering, how do you lay down layers. As I look back, realistically the experimental work wasn’t very good, because we just didn’t have the equipment. I was building it as we went. But I did get enough done to get a masters out of it and learned the theory behind the sputtering process. It turns out that years later that research came in quite handy when I went to work for RCA. Now the Army says, “You’ve played around long enough. Vietnam War has broken out hot and heavy.” Now the serendipity, when I had been asked what my branch was, I said artillery. I was asked what kind of artillery, and I didn’t know that there were various kinds of artillery. I was asked, “Are you a bird watcher or the cannon cocker? Are you field artillery or air defense artillery?” Air defense was a new branch at the time. I knew nothing about it but it sounded exciting. I knew what field artillery was, so I said, “I’m air defense.” So I went to Fort Bliss, Texas to be trained on the Hercules guided missile and Hawk guided missile. Again, it was one of those fortuitous decisions that I made, because the North Vietnamese did not have an Air Force, which meant that there was no need for air defense artillery in Vietnam. So I missed the Vietnam experience because I was an air defender, as opposed to had I been a field artillery person, I would have been in the midst of Vietnam. Anyway, when I left Ford Bliss, Texas, my first assignment was to go to Korea. In Korea, because of my physics training, and at the time they were trying to field a new system that would assign targets to missile batteries. It was a missile monitor system, so they assigned me there because of my physics background to try to get that up and running.
Yes, because I know from some other research that I’ve done that fire control is very physics and mathematics oriented.
Right, so this was an electronic fire control system. I spent a year in that fire control system, whereas I thought I should have been either at Hawk battery or Herc battery learning how those systems operated. When I left Korea, I asked to go to a battery and I asked for a Hawk battery outside of Washington D.C. At the time, they had Hawk batteries surrounding all the major cities in this country because of the Cold War, etcetera. I was assigned to Fort Louis, Washington, as an infantry AIT, Advanced Individual Training, company commander, which had nothing to do with air defense artillery. So at the end of that one year, I’m asking what to do and I have now made captain. Here I am, a young captain, and I have never served a day in air defense. I ask my battalion commander, “What should I do? Because my career is not looking very good, because I’m going to make major and I know nothing about what a battery does and that’s just a kiss of death.” What he said was, “Stith, if I were you, I would get out.”
Of the military?
Of the military. So I got out of the military and went to work for RCA as an engineer.
So I have on your CV here that that’s 1967 to ’69 that you’re in RCA.
Right, in RCA. When I went to work for RCA, I went to work for a guy named Bob Pontz. Bob was an impressive fellow. When I interviewed at RCA, and I had interviewed at IBM before I went to RCA, and I was pretty sure that I was going to get a job offer. Then I go to RCA and I interviewed with Bob, and we hit it off immediately. At the end of the interview I made the comment, “If Bob Pontz wants me to come to work for him, call me. If anybody else does, don’t bother.” So I went to work for Bob Pontz. Actually, I went to work in his group. He was the senior guy. I went to work for the guy that worked for Bob.
But you had also interviewed at IBM you mentioned?
Yes. I was offered a job at IBM at the development lab in Poughkeepsie, NY.
Yeah, you know I interviewed Marc Brodsky as well, and that’s right around the time he joined IBM.
Right, yes. Now the interview at IBM was an interesting interview because the person that interviewed me, as I’m leaving, said, “Jim, you will probably get a job offer at IBM. I’m going to strongly advise you not to take it, because if you get here,” and I told him, “I want to go back to graduate school and the whole nine yards.” He said, “If you get here, you probably will not leave. So don’t come.” So I didn’t accept the job offer. I went to work for Bob Pontz.
Right, because at this point you still just have the masters in physics.
Right, I just have a masters. So I go to work for Bob Pontz as an engineer making photomultipliers, photodiodes. I was assigned the 922, which is an S1 diode, as my major tube type. When I came there, the 922 had a massive problem. Of every 100 tubes that they made, they had to throw away a significant number of them because they were bad and they couldn’t solve the problem. I was hired because I had a physics background. I asked Bob why he hired me and he said, “Well, I’ve had two engineers work on this problem and they have not been able to solve it.” They were losing of the order of $30,000 a month on the tube type and he said, “We can’t afford that. So I decided to hire a physicist to see if the physicists could solve the problem.” I knew nothing about making photo tubes, so it took me about three months to learn how to make them, to learn enough about making them to actually start working on the problem. Fortunately, I was able to solve it. My studying experience in getting my masters was what helped me to solve that particular problem. I got the problem solved and went from throwing away a large number that we made to throwing away only a few. So I basically became the golden boy at RCA. My first year there I got a 15% raise; my second year there I got another 12 to 15% raise. At about the same time my first daughter was born and I made the decision that if I stayed one more year I would never leave. Again, the echoes of the IBM guy in my head and because I was making more money than I had ever seen before in my life, I decided that if I had one more child and bought a house, I would be stuck in Lancaster for “the rest of my life.”
When had you gotten married?
I got married in ’65.
This was before you went to Korea?
Before I went to Korea. I was married thirteen days before I went to Korea.
Where did you meet your wife, and what’s her name?
I met my wife — she was a student at Virginia State the year that I taught there. She was a junior when I met her. She was a biology major, and I started dating her. When I was asked to be on the faculty I said to the president, “I’m dating an undergraduate, so maybe I should not be on the faculty.” He said, “Are you teaching her?” And I said no, so he said, “Then we don’t have a problem.” But the year that I taught there she was supposed to take physics, but she decided not to take it that year because I was teaching it, so it didn’t cause a problem. I proposed to her and we were going to get married when I got back from Korea, and then we decided why wait until we got back? So we got married and I had a 13 day honeymoon and then I went to Korea. Basically the first year we didn’t know what marriage was all about. Okay, where were we?
We were at RCA. Before you continue on with the story at RCA, can I just ask about in what way the sputtering experience helped you solve the photo-diode problem?
The process of making the 922 photo tube is that you have a silver cathode and a cesium pellet mounted inside the diode. The diode (roughly 50 at a time) is mounted on a vacuum system that is placed in an oven and heated. Once the system is under Vac, using an R-F wand, the cesium pellet is heated until it vaporizes. The cesium vapor then disperses itself, you hope uniformly, over the cathode. While still under vacuum, the assembly is baked, therefore activating it, and making it sensitive to light (a cesium-silver oxide is formed). It is baked under vacuum so that any excess cesium is removed from the tube prior to sealing it. The problem with the phototubes they were making, was they had a very, very high leakage current meaning that — typically what you wanted was you put a small voltage across the cathode and the anode, but you should only get a current if there’s a light on the cathode. If you get a current when there is no light it’s because of ohmic conduction in the tube, and that’s bad. So you want to have very, very low, what we call leakage current. Based upon my sputtering experience, I surmised that the reason that we had a high leakage current was because cesium was being deposited all over the inside of the tube. Even without a light on the cathode, when I put a voltage across it this conduction path caused a small current to flow. The question was: how do you get rid of that? So I theorize that if I could cut down the mean free path of the cesium ion in the tube…
When you’re exploding it?
When I’m exploding it. I could significantly reduce the leakage current. So how do you do that? I made a decision that if I were to backfill the tube with argon, I could get argon that was 99.9% pure, I would backfill the tube with argon and then explode the cesium pellet… Well if the pressure inside is too high, then I can’t get enough cesium to the cathode to activate it. It was a question of what is the correct pressure inside the tube to allow enough cesium to get to the cathode to activate it, but high enough that it doesn’t get any place else and cause the high leakage current. So that was the experiment.
The cesium pellet is on the anode?
Yes. Actually what happens is if you take a look at a tube, the cathode within it is curved.. Let’s look at it from a top view [writing on paper] and you have a little pellet sitting about here. At the focus of the curvature of the silver cathode you place a cesium pellet. When the pellet is vaporized, the vapor goes preferentially toward the cathode. . But obviously it was getting places other than on the cathode. Anyway, I started doing that experiment. Of course when I first started I wasn’t getting enough, so I wasn’t activating it. I finally got the right set of conditions, and I was being a typical scientist working through and doing the calculations and so forth, and I recall walking into Bob’s office. He says, “How are you doing?” I said, “Well I think I’m onto something.” And I told him about what I was doing. About two weeks later I came back into his office. He says, “How are you doing?” I said, “Well, I made a batch of tubes today and of the 100 tubes that we made, 95 are within spec.” So he said, “Well what are you going to do?” I said, “Well, when I come back in on Monday, I’m going to repeat the experiment to see if I get similar results and make sure that it, because there are lots of reasons that that could have happened.” And he said, “You got 95 out of 100?” I said yes. He says, “On Monday, start production.” I said, “Bob, I have no idea that this is going to repeat itself.” He says, “When was the last time you made a batch of tubes and you got 95 out of 100?” I said, “This is the first time.” He says, “Go into production.” Fortunately it held up. As I say, we went from losing money to making significant money. We were producing on the order of 20,000 of these things a month. So as I say I became the golden boy there. Also on a second tube type that was an S1 dormer window photomultiplier and that I produced some of the higher sensitivity that they had seen. We cornered the market on that particular tube type.
And what are these tubes generally used for?
Well for people who were steel plants, when they were dipping steel, counting the bars coming out of the molten lava. At electric eyes on doors. You name it. In the nuclear physics industry, they counted photons that were being emitted, so it was the beginning of a new industry. Anyway, so at the end of two years my wife and I decided that it was time to go back to graduate school. I applied to the Penn State University, thinking I was applying to the University of Pennsylvania, frankly. I was accepted to Penn State University and I went there. When I walked into Bob’s office to tell him that I was leaving RCA and that I was resigning, he said, “No you’re not. You’re not going to resign. I’m going to put you on leave of absence, because just in case graduate school doesn’t work out I want you back here. While you’re on leave of absence, you can keep your RCA insurance.” So that was the thing that, and as I say he was a great guy. I learned most of my managerial techniques from Bob, because he had a habit of listening carefully to all of his direct reports, and he always tried to get people who were on various sides of the issue and then he would then make a decision based upon all the things that he heard. I was always impressed with him. Okay, so then I go off to Penn State. I go up to Penn State, and again I was a country kid, basically still at heart, and I thought that getting a PhD meant that you go some place, spend three years, because I already had a masters and I thought that PhDs came four years after a BS. So I went off to Penn State thinking that in three years I’m going to be done and I’m going to go off and get a job. My fellow graduate students laughed at me, because they said, “No one gets their degree in three years.” I said, “Why not?” To be frank with you, the first quarter at Penn State was holy hell. I had not realized how much I had forgotten. I frankly struggled. I was taking three courses, made two Bs and a C. For a graduate student, a C is the kiss of death. Second semester, second quarter, things came back into focus and then I started making As. I was okay after that, but the first quarter was pure hell. I then decided that there was no need to take all the courses that were required for the PhD because I had taught thermodynamics at Virginia State when I was there, I had taught modern physics at Virginia State when I was there, and as I said all the things were beginning to come back. I thought I knew those subjects. I petitioned to validate those courses. I first validated modern physics. That went well. Validation for thermodynamics did not go as well.
Did this involve an exam, or was this just…?
This was an exam. You had to prove that you knew the material. The modern physics guy, Dr. Wiggins, gave me an oral examination. I walked into his office and he just asked questions. I answered them, and at the end of roughly a couple of hours he says, “You are competent in modern physics,” so validated. I forgot the name of the person that I went to see for thermodynamics. I walk into his office and ask to validate. He says come back, he told me when, and he would give me an examination. He would give me two hours to take the examination. If I passed it he would validate me, if I didn’t I wouldn’t get validated. I arrived at the appointed hour to take the examination. He left the room and I started working. What seemed like ten minutes later he walked in and says, “You’ve got ten minutes left.” I looked up at the clock and I said, “You’ve got to be kidding! I’ve been here for an hour and 50 minutes!” There were ten multi-part problems on the exam. I was only on problem three. So I said to him, “Should I have been able to finish this examination in two hours?” Because all that I had been doing was writing, and what I call doing a brain dump because there was nothing on there that I didn’t think I knew, but it just took forever to get it down. He said, “Most people finish this in two hours.” So I walked out of his office very discouraged. I walked into my office, and my officemate says, “Jim, what’s the problem?” I said, “I have just failed a validation examination in thermodynamics and I think I know thermodynamics.” He says, “What’s on the examination?” And I told him all the problems that were on the exam. I have a habit of reading through the exam before starting to work. Mike said, “I took thermo from that guy. That was the open book, take home examination he gave us that year,” at which point I was livid. So I walked into the department chair’s office, his name was Dr. Rank, and I said, “Dr. Rank, you’ve got a problem.” So he says, “Well tell me Stith, what problem do I have?” I outlined what had just happened to me, and I said, “There’s no way that that could be a fair situation.” So he looked at me and he said, “Stith, there are issues you fight and there are issues you don’t. This is not an issue you want to fight. Go see Strother (who was another professor in the department) and tell him that I said to give you a validation examination.” I went to see Dr. Strother, he gave me a validation exam, I passed it, and the rest is history. The interesting thing is that my dislike for this person was so great I have frankly forgotten his name. That was one of my experiences at Penn State when I was there. I finished all of my course work, and in the process I know that I want to teach when I get my degree, and I want to teach at a small college. I didn’t want to teach at a large university. I went to my committee and asked if I could go over to the School of Education and take some courses, because I know I want to teach so let me learn something about education. They allowed me to do so. When I started taking courses in the School of Education, one of my advisors says to me, “Um, you know, what you’re doing instead of getting a PhD, there’s this new degree that we are offering at Penn State called a D.Ed, Doctorate of Education.” I said, well what’s the difference between a PhD and a D.Ed and an EdD?” “EdD is an education degree. D.Ed is a degree which we are designing for people who want to teach. So what you do is you take this set of courses in education that teaches you enough education theory to become an effective instructor. You do the same coursework in your subject field as you do for a PhD, but because we ask you to take those set of courses in education, your research that you do, we back off on the length of time that you spend doing that particular research.” So I said, “That’s what I want to do.” So I shifted from the PhD program to the D.Ed program and I got my degree. So my degree is a D.Ed. Your research has to be in the subject matter. So now I’ve got about a year and a half left to go. I’m on my three-year track. So I start going around talking to people about research, and the question which I ask is do you let people leave when they’re done or is there a certain period of time that you want them to spend working with you before you allow them to go to work? What I saw was most of my colleagues who were in the PhD program, the first year of research they didn’t spend on their own research; they spent it helping out another graduate student who was finishing up his or her work. I didn’t want to spend a year working on somebody else’s research; I want to spend time working on my own research, so I was interviewing people to do that. I finally found a professor, Dr. Vedam. Dr. Vedam said, “Yes, I can do that, but I don’t have any money.” Research grants were tough to come by. But he said, “I’ve got some colleagues in the School of Engineering who want to bring in a significant number of underrepresented students to Penn State.” This was just the beginning of the time when they were increasing the underrepresented population at Penn State. “Many of these students need tutoring. If you would agree to tutor them, they will fund your research. But they want to have a representation on your dissertation committee. You need to get that okayed by Dr. Rank.” Then he said, “Do you want me to do that, or do you want to have that conversation?” I said, “It’s my butt that it’s in the sling, so I will have the conversation with Dr. Rank.” I go to see Dr. Rank and explain to him what it is that I want to do.
This is the Chair?
He’s the Chair of the department. Dr. Rank says, “Stith, I like your style. I will allow you to do that. But there’s something I want you to think about. I have money. I have a research project that I think you would love. I would love to have you work on it, so I will agree to what you want to do, but I will make you this offer.” I said, “I can’t accept it, because I had promised Dr. Vedam that if you agree with me with this process that I will work for him.” He said, “Okay.” So I go back and I tell Dr. Vedam what has happened, and he says, “You’re nuts. There’s no way you should accept my offer. You should go back to Dr. Rank and accept his offer.” So I went back to Dr. Rank and I said, “Dr. Vedam says I should accept your offer. Is it open?” He says, “Yes it is.” So I went to work for Dr. Rank. Now I should back up and say that I had gotten to know Dr. Rank because he was a very early riser. I was typically in the department by 7:30 every morning, and that early in the morning there are very few people there. Dr. Rank was a person who was gruff and basically didn’t speak much. I was from Virginia, and where I grew up, whether you knew people or not you spoke with them. Every morning I would speak to Dr. Rank and he never said anything. Each morning when I spoke with him, I raised the octave just a little bit so he could no longer ignore me, so he started speaking to me. So I would see him in the morning when I would come in and we would speak. That’s why I went to see him too, to talk with him. Roll the clock. We are working on the project and I am trying to do a whole bunch of things. I’ve got a laser that is just temperamental. I’ve got to do an awful lot of work on it, but I make the blooming thing work. I’m doing stimulated Brillouin scattering at high pressures, which is where you send a laser pulse through a liquid at high pressure. I was working on some nasty stuff, carbon disulphide, benzene; stuff that we now know is very carcinogenic. Even though I didn’t know what I know now, I tried to be very, very careful. But I was setting up to do some runs. The laser was working beautifully. Dr. Rank was out of town, and so I took test runs from roughly 2:00 one afternoon until about 4:00 in the morning. When the laser was working well, you just fire. I just took data point after data point after data point after data point until I became so fatigued that I didn’t trust myself being in there with the system so I go home and went to bed. I came back the next day, saw what I had and Dr. Rank says, “Start analyzing, because you have an awful lot of good data here.” After about three or four months, it took that long to analyze all the spectrographic plates that I had taken. Dr. Rank walked into the office and said, “Stith, have you started writing yet?” I said, “No sir, I haven’t.” “Why haven’t you?” “Well I don’t have enough for a thesis here.” He says, “You have more than enough for a thesis. What you don’t have is enough for a first-class research paper, so get the thesis written.” I stayed at home working on a manual typewriter and I wrote the first draft of my thesis, about 80 pages. I brought it into him and he said, “Stith, my PhD thesis was 28 pages long. You don’t know this much more than I do. Cut. Condense.” So I took it back and went back and rewrote it, gave it to him, and he said, “Okay.” He went through it, marked it up, the whole nine yards. I took it back, and this is all in less than a month, I took it back and I cleaned up all of the stuff that he had suggested, rewrote it, and gave it to him. He said, “Okay, take it to Wiggins,” who was another professor in the laboratory. I gave it to Tom. Tom went through it, gave it back to me, I again made corrections. I gave it back to Rank. He says, “Give it to his secretary. She knows all of the rules of the graduate school. She’ll type it.” Fran was her name. Therefore you won’t have to worry about passing all the idiotic graduate school requirements as to the margins and the whole nine yards because she knows that stuff. Once that was done, I gave it to him and he says, “Well, no one hires anybody in January. Let’s put this dissertation in my desk drawer, miss the deadline for December graduation, and then you can go to work on putting together a first class research paper.” So that’s what we did, and I ended up graduating in May. I did finish in three years.
Two and a half almost.
Yes, but as I say, Penn State was a good place for me.
So you have the D.Ed degree?
I have a D.Ed in physics. So now, if you go back and take a look at rolling statistics, 1972 was not a good year for doctorates in physics.
There was sort of a fall off…
A huge peak.
Yeah, right before was the peak. I actually know a professor who’s writing about what he calls the “physics bubble.” David Kaiser at MIT, so that’s interesting.
Okay. So I start looking for a job, and I probably send out 200 résumés. I’m getting absolutely nothing. Dave, Dr. Rank, stops me one day and he says, “How’s the job hunting coming?” “Not good.” “What do you mean not good?” I said, “Well, I’m sending out all these résumés and I’ve heard absolutely nothing back.” So he says, “Have you put your photo on them?” I said, “No. Everything that the career division tells me is that you never put a photo on a résumé.” So he said, “That applies to everybody else. That doesn’t apply to you. Go out and get a photo, put it on your résumé, and send it out.” Well I still believe in what the people in the career placement office is telling me, so I go out and I have ten résumés done, and I send out ten résumés. Out of those ten résumés, I got eight requests for an interview. Out of those eight requests for an interview, I had five job offers. So, evidently it worked. But, it was about that time that I’m sitting at home one evening and my telephone rings. A person from West Point, Wendell Childs, says, “Captain Stith”— I hadn’t been called captain in six years. I said, “Yes?” He says, “This is Wendell Childs, Colonel Childs from West Point. How would you like to come back into the Army?” I said, “Why would I want to do something dumb like that?” “Well listen to me.” And he talked about my coming back into the military, coming to the military academy, and teaching physics.
Had you sent them a résumé? [No]. How had he heard about you?
My officemate was — West Point sends people to graduate schools around the country to get a masters in physics. After they get their masters they come to West Point. They teach for three years and then they go back out into the Army. Bob Frye, who was a master’s student at Penn State preparing to go to West Point to teach. He’s sitting in the conference room at West Point and Colonel Saunders, who was the department chair, was talking about the fact that they’re bringing in all of these African-American students to West Point and there was no African-American faculty. They sure wished they could find an African-American who would come in to teach physics. Bob says, “Well, I know this guy at Penn State who used to be in the Army. He’s not now, but he might come back in.” So they called me.
Had you been considering renewing your ties with RCA or had you decided to move on?
I had decided not to go back to RCA. I wanted to go teach. I really wanted to teach. One of the reasons that I left RCA was that I realized that while I enjoyed my experience at RCA, I didn’t get the satisfaction that I got when I was teaching physics at Virginia State. I really enjoyed being a teacher, so I wanted to teach. And I knew I didn’t want to teach at a large university; I wanted to teach at a small place where I could really get to know my students. West Point fit that bill, but it meant going back into the military, and I wasn’t quite sure that I really wanted to do that. The other piece of it though was that when I left RCA, I was making at that time about $14,000 a year. This was in 1967, ’69 when I left RCA. Of the five job offers that I received, the most anybody was willing to pay me was $13,000. I’m saying, okay, I left RCA, I was making $14,000. I spent three years working my butt off, got myself a doctorate, and I’m making less money than when I made when I left. This makes no sense. West Point said, “What we will do is bring you back as a captain, but we will count all the time since you were commissioned,” which meant that my previous time counted, that six year break where I had been in school and working at RCA would count. So, the Army pays by time and service. When I looked at the range, I would have been making $21,000 a year. Not only would I be making $21,000 a year, but they provided housing. I said, “This is an offer which I can’t turn down.” I’m making a lot more than I would make at any other, and housing comes with it. I went in to the Penn State department deputy chair, and told Wayne Webb that I had decided to accept the West Point offer. He says, “Jim, you shouldn’t go there. By accepting the West Point job, you are ruining what might be a good career, because they don’t do real physics there.” That gave me real cause for pause, and I ended up really struggling with that decision, and finally decided that I owed it to my family to accept the West Point position.
Now when he says they don’t do physics there, he means research? [Yes, that’s what he meant]. But you were interested in teaching anyway?
Right. But what I then decided was that I would go to West Point, I would stay three years, and then I would go out and get a real job. The deal with West Point was that I would come there; they would not guarantee me an assignment at West Point, because the Army never guarantees you anything, but they would guarantee me that I report at West Point and they would move me there, which meant they were unlikely to move me anywhere else. So I said I would do that. So I arrive at the academy, and I teach there for my three years. I start looking for other things to do for my follow-on assignment, and I’m not finding the things I’m looking for because they are not interested. As a matter of fact, one of the comments that was made to me by one of the recruiting people in the branch, as I’m talking to them about what I should be doing, this guy says, “Stith, I know you think that because you have a PhD in physics,” pardon the French, “you think you’re hot shit. But as far as we are concerned, you’re just another captain. These are the things that you need to do to have a successful Army career.” I said, “Sir, with all due respect, I’m not just another captain. I worked hard to get my degree, and I’m not going to get dumb again to go out and do all the other things and forget all the physics I ever knew. Therefore, I enjoy the Army, but if I can’t find something that I really want to do or that’s career rewarding, I’ll just get out and go to work.” At which point he said, “West Point has just — just being within the last five years — established a new class of professors at West Point called PAPs: Permanent Associate Professors.” They had had an investigation that said that one of the things that were wrong with the West Point education was that there were not enough people there to provide continuity. The typical person would come to West Point, teach for three years, and go back to the Army.
Yeah, I suppose mainly its education on military topics.
No, you get a basically…
Or that would be the original model?
Well, yes but everyone had to take at least three semesters of physics. Everyone took mathematics through differential equations. Everyone took a six course engineering sequence in mechanical, civil, or electrical. Everyone took law. Everyone took two years of a foreign language. So the idea was that you ended up with a BS, and it was called an engineering degree because of all the engineering topics that were there. But you also took history, military art, social science, the whole nine yards. It was a heavy load, but a West Point graduate could go to almost any graduate school in the country in almost any major they wanted to take because of that strong background. It was a very, very strong engineering-oriented education. The physics I taught, the three semesters of physics that was a calculus based introductory course that included mechanics, electricity and magnetism, optics, and contemporary physics at the Halliday and Resnick level. Every single graduate had mathematics through differential equations, which is unlike any other school in the country.
Yeah, I think that’s true.
But, they felt there was not enough continuity. So 10% of the faculty were going to be permanent, i.e. you will spend your entire career there. So one day I was asked if I were offered one of those permanent positions, would I accept it. I said, “Well, I’d be a fool not to. I like what I’m doing.” I’ll digress: Gen. Sid (Sidney) Berry was the superintendent at the time. He would invite people, officers, to his house for dinner in the evening when he had cadets over. So he would want faculty and cadets to come to his house, on the order of 12 or 13 people, and have a dinner; that was his way of getting to know cadets and getting to know officers. I received an invitation to the General’s house one evening for dinner. I looked at it, thought well okay, and I showed up in my dress blues. I arrive at the door, and military protocol says that you arrive at dinner when you’re invited by a general officer, within a window: five minutes early or five minutes late. That’s the window. You don’t get there more than five minutes early and you don’t get there later than five minutes late. So, the evening of the dinner, I step on the General’s porch, and I look around and no one is coming. I’m looking around and said, “Wait a minute, where is everybody?” I reach in my pocket, pull out the invitation, and it has the right date and has the right time. I’m going well where is everybody? Well it’s two minutes after 7:00. I ring the doorbell. The general’s aide comes to the door, “Captain Stith, the general is expecting you.” I walk in, walk into the parlor, the general comes down, and for the next 30-45 minutes we stand in front of his fireplace and we talk, and we talk, and we talk. Then the doorbell starts ringing and everybody else starts to arrive. Then I realize, and I’m not quite sure why, but I have just an interview for something.
He had made the invitation specifically for you, that one.
Yes, right. So then, two days later, my boss walks in and says, “General Berry wants to nominate you to be a permanent professor at West Point. Will you accept?” So we started that process, and it had to be nominations by the Secretary of the Army, and I was appointed as a permanent professor at West Point. That started the second part of my career.
[Break] After a brief break we’re back. I was wondering if I could just ask you a couple of questions. First off, I see on your CV that there was such a thing as University of Maryland, Far East division which you were involved with for about a year: ’65 to ’66. Could you tell me what that is?
University of Maryland had a program for service persons that were stationed overseas. In Asia, it was the University of Maryland Far East division, and soldiers there could take courses toward a BS degree while they were stationed in other countries. There was also a European division. When I was in Korea, I was in an AADCP [Army Air Defense Command Post] which meant that I worked two days, I was off two days, and every other weekend I worked a three-day weekend. So during those two days off, I mean what do you do with yourself? So I applied to and was accepted as a faculty member at the University of Maryland Far East Division, which meant that I taught mathematics to soldiers at a base called Osan, which was roughly 45 minutes to an hour over from the base where I was stationed, on the days when I was off.
Was the institution in different camps and different parts of the Far East, or was that just the one place?
There were different places in the Far East. I know that it’s still in existence because every now and then I run into people from the University of Maryland’s European Division of the University of Maryland’s Far East Division. So it was a way of keeping myself busy, and also, they didn’t pay you much but it pays you a little bit. I got a stipend for teaching that course. I taught algebra and mathematics to soldiers and airmen.
Okay, so the second thing I was wondering about in terms of the experience of being an African-American. You’re at the segregated Virginia State University. Of course Brown v. Board of Education is in ’54, but as we know segregation persists. So entering the military then would be kind of your first environment at that time that would be de-segregated in Korea I believe. Could you explain a little bit about your experiences going into the military, if it was different?
What should I say? The military was committed, but you still ran into pockets. Our ROTC summer camp was the first time that I had ever really worked with whites on par, and it was an adjustment, I think, for both of us, for all of us. But you had NCOs, non-commissioned officers, who really pushed you. The Army leadership experience was what says, “Okay, you’re white, I’m black. But, I’m in charge.” Even with that, I mean I’ll never forget in Korea and we have an inspection coming up, and we have a lot of work to get done. The soldiers were really stretched in terms of getting everything done. So I walk up to one of the lieutenants and I said, “Would you go and do this?” because I was the senior officer on the base. He says, “I don’t do that kind of work.” And I said, “You do now.” And we had a discussion. He refused to do it. So when our boss came in and we had a conversation, from that point on he was a different soldier. Frankly, he just did not want to take an order from an African-American. In its support, the military was serious about what it was trying to do. One of the reasons that I stayed when I went back was that there were certain things that you didn’t have to put up with. On the other hand, well, the story I will tell, is that I get to Korea and I get my first evaluation report. At the time (and these numbers are approximate because I don’t remember the exact numbers), but the highest rating you could get was 200 when you add up all the scores. I go in for my first evaluation, and my rating officer tells me that I’m doing a good job. He’s proud of what I’m doing, and that he has given me a good report. I got something like 175 or 180 points out of 200, which were all goods and etcetera. He says, “This is a good report,” and nine yards. As I told you, I got married and then went to Korea 13 days later. My wife was graduating from college, so I decided to fly back from Korea to see her graduate. I’d always been told by the military leaders at Virginia State when I was in ROTC was that one thing an officer had to do was always stop by the Pentagon and take a look at your official record to make sure that it was up to date. I said, “Well, I’m going to be in Virginia, I’m flying in and out of D.C., so I’ll take a day and stop by the Pentagon and look at my official jacket to make sure that everything that’s supposed to be in there is in there.” So I stopped by the Pentagon, and I go in and ask for my file. They give me the official file and I go over to the cubicle and I started reading it. My first OER, officer evaluation report, is in there and I read it. Keep in mind that it’s a report that I think is a good report, and I have been told by the person who wrote it that it was a good evaluation. I read it, and in the margin, someone had written, “If this officer continues to get these mediocre reports, his career will not be long.” I look at it, and I’m going okay, what’s wrong with this report? I look at the words, and the words are what I think are good words. I’m saying, okay, 180 and something out of 200, that’s not a bad score. What I did not know was that there was great inflation, and that if you didn’t get between 196 and 200 you weren’t competitive, that if they used words like “good”…
You have to be superb to measure up.
There you go. So that’s when I stepped back and I had a conversation with other folks. Now, keep in mind that I didn’t see my first African-American officer, I didn’t see one my first two years on active duty.
Any officer or senior officer?
A senior officer. There were a couple of African American lieutenants in my battalion. When I went to OBC, Officer’s Basic Course, [Fort Bliss, Texas] there were on the order of maybe six African-Americans in my class. When I got to Korea, there was one in my battalion other than myself. When I got to Fort Lewis, Washington, there was one in my brigade…
One other than me. He was not one that felt that we should be seen together. So getting advice from other African-American officers was not something that I got. Frankly, I got very little from the white officers that I reported to [with the exception of the battalion commander that advised me to get out of the army in 1967]. Basically, I was trying just to do my job. When I got to West Point, when I came back on active duty again — when I arrived at West Point there were on the order of 13 or 14 of us who were there. Of those, 4 or 5 were on the faculty and 3 or 4 of the 13 were senior (Lieutenant Colonels]. The fact that they were there, indicated they were very good, because you didn’t get there if you weren’t very good. So we started meeting about once a month for career advice. That’s when I learned about the inflation. That’s when I learned about the words. That’s when I learned about the kinds of things that one had to do if one expected to survive in the military. I did not see my first [African-American] Army colonel until I was at West Point. Most African-Americans are retired as either Major or Lieutenant Colonel back in those days; they just didn’t make it above. It was during the time that I was at West Point that the Army started saying, okay. I mean, the Vietnam experience taught the military that they needed to do something about the race problem. We have a significant military African-American enlisted force, but very few African-American officers. That was a recipe for a morale problem, and it really showed itself in Vietnam with fragging, where people were throwing grenades in tents and those kinds of things. It was just not pretty. So the Army decided to do something about it. One of the things that the Army did was, when there was a promotion board, they would ask, “Okay, why aren’t there more African-Americans who were selected?” And people had to start asking the question: why aren’t there? They didn’t tell them to promote anybody, but they asked the question, “Why aren’t they?” We started getting counseling on what kinds of things we needed to do if we wanted to move up in the military. Then you started seeing the promotions starting to go out. When I made colonel, you’d be walking anywhere in your uniform and you would get stopped by old enlisted soldiers, former, and said, “Sir, it’s so good to see you.” Because these guys just did not see African-Americans who were getting promoted, and now there is a significant number who are general officers. The military made great strides.
Let me ask you as a physicist. I know a decade or so before, I’m familiar with the case of Mena Rees as a woman. She was head of mathematics at the Office of Naval Research. She felt that working with the military, she was taken more seriously as a female mathematician than she was in the general profession. I’m wondering if you have a comparison or a contrast to draw with a case like that.
My feeling was that my 20 plus years at West Point were fantastic years. I was evaluated based upon the work that I did and not based upon the color of my skin, to a point. To a point, meaning that whenever there was a race question, I generally got called.
Let me stop you for just a second. I forgot to ask, before when you got the evaluation that was about 180, did you feel that that was a racially motivated evaluation?
I don’t know. I can’t say that it was. But it was consistent with the kinds of evaluations that African-American officers got. So when you went back and looked at the ratings of African-American officers, they would often be a file or so below the white officers in the group. I would not say that it was overt racism, but it was certainly subtle racism. As an example, when I was at West Point, I was on the admissions committee. I looked at the files of all the kids who were admitted to West Point. One of the things that I noticed was that — Let me back up. What I started doing was I was putting into my computer database the names of African-American cadets who had the same kinds of board scores as good white cadets. I had a file white cadets and them. Not large: 10 or 15 or so. I just put their names in the file, these are African-American cadets, these are white cadets — same basic SAT scores. Then I wrote a small computer program that would every now and then go into a database and pull up the grades of the white cadets and the African-American cadets. What I noticed was even for those kids who had very, very similar board scores, in terms of their grades, you would see something like this…
They were uneven, for the sake of the tape. You’re holding your hands up like that.
They were uneven, and they were about a file or two below the averages for the white cadet. I was an avid bowler back in those days. I bowled a couple of times a week. We had departmental bowling teams. What I started doing, while I’m sitting in the bowling alley talking to faculty — Let’s go back and take a look at the West Point education. During their freshman year, they took a double dose of mathematics and they took chemistry. That was the bulk of their courses they took. They took English and other things. When I bowled with the chemistry bowling team or we were bowling with the mathematics bowling team. We were sitting there and I would say, “You’ve got John Jones in your class?” “Yes I do.” “How is John doing?” “John’s doing well. John has a solid C.” “I would say I find it strange that with an SAT Math of 730 that John can only do C work in mathematics.” Invariably, the next time I would pull up the file, John had moved up and now there was no significant difference between the white kids and John Jones. And so I said, “Hmm, that’s interesting.” So I would then look at other kids and simply just sitting there having a conversation, I would simply ask the question. I mean I knew who the instructor was because I could look it up, and say something to that instructor. Invariably, the next time we look, they were here. [At the same level as comparable white cadets]
So once they knew what their scores were and what they were capable of, their sort of subconscious lowering of…
I never say why…
Exactly, what the data speaks for.
That’s just what the data speaks for the next time I would look. At that point I said, “Okay, this is more than I could do.” There was another African-American faculty member, Fred Black, good friend of mine. I said, “Fred, I’ve been doing this for a while. Help me out. I don’t want to make any accusations of anyone; I just want to state the facts. I will take this list of people; you take this list of people. What I want you to do is just to ask the question of the faculty member and then see what happens.” After about a month he came back and he says, “It’s interesting.” Right after I have this conversation, they move up. I said, “Okay, I think we should ask for a study.” So we then ask the Academy to do a study.
May I ask what time frame we’re in here?
Now we’re talking about, this is the mid-’80s. There was always a reason why we couldn’t get the study done, but I became convinced that people would rise to the expectation of the faculty member that was there. As soon as the faculty member learned about it, “What they said was this was solid.” What really bothered me was that when I go to graduation, there were never any African-American cadets in the upper, called-star people because they wore a star on their uniforms, i.e. the distinguished cadets.
They were all seated together?
Right, but what I’m saying is the first 60 people that walk across the stage are the best 60 in the class. I’m saying, “Based upon the scores that I see of these kids coming in, there should be some up there; there aren’t.” I’m still convinced that we see a lot of that in our school system today, in terms of what kids do. When I go back and take a look at my own kids, they did well, but they did well because I was always there. I always had conversations with my kids’ teachers. I had the experience once of one of my kids’ teachers saying, “Dr. Stith, why do you want an appointment? Your child is doing well. She’s got a solid B.” I said, “Yes, but the question is, why doesn’t she have an A if she’s capable of that?” I’m now digressing, but when my oldest daughter went to high school, she graduated from the West Point school system. We had our own DoD (Department of Defense) school, and I happened to have been the chairman of the School Board. When she was in the seventh grade, I took her with me to graduation. We get back home and I said, “Hey hon, what did you notice?” She talked about what she saw. I said, “Okay, how many students that look like you did you see walking across the stage being honored for something, academic honors?” “No one.” I said, “Oh, okay,” and I didn’t say anything else. It turns out that she made a commitment to herself that she was going to get academic honors next year when she graduated. When she graduated, she received slightly more than half — they gave out 13 academic honors and she got 7 of them. So we were quite proud of her. Except that when she goes to high school and she gets pre-placed, I learn that she is not in any honors classes, and all of her friends — and she was the only black kid in her class — all of her friends were in honors English, honors mathematics, the whole nine yards. So I called the school and said, “I would like to know your criteria for assigning people to honors classes.” And I left it there. They said, “Well…” and they hemmed and hawed. And so then I was more and more straightforward. I said, “My daughter is coming in. I know her Iowa Skills we took the Iowa Skiils — and in her Iowa Skills she’s in the 95th percentile. She was at the top of her class coming from West Point Elementary School, but yet, her classmates who were below her in the class are all in honors classes and she is not. Why not?” They said, “Well we will evaluate her when she comes in, and if she is qualified we will make the change.” I said, “No we aren’t going to do that, because when she comes in in September and sees that she is in none of her classes with her friends from West Point, it’s going to send a subtle message that it is because she is not as good as they are. We’re going to do this now.” I’ll make the story short and say that we made that change, but it was something we had to push for. When my daughter goes off to school, and when each of my kids went off to school, as an active parent I laid out the courses that they were going to take in her, they’re all “hers”, I have all daughters, in their high school education. My daughter goes off to school, comes back the first day and says, “Dad, Mr. Heffernan [?],” who was the guidance counselor, “wants you to call him.” I said, “What’s the problem?” She said, “There’s a problem with my courses.” And I thought, okay, what did I do wrong? So I called him and he said, “Well, Colonel Stith, I looked at what you have your daughter taking during her four years here at O’Neal. Do you want to push her that hard?” So I said, “Have I done something wrong? Is there something in her file that says I have given her things that are above her level of capability? Parents, I know, sometimes overestimate what their kids can do. Have I done that?” His answer said to me that he had never looked at her file, at which point I said, “Mr. Heffernan, let’s agree to be friends. To do that, I will decide what courses my daughter takes. You certify that they meet the requirements for graduation in the state of New York. My daughters are there to be challenged and to get a good education. I intend to see that they do.” My strategy was that they would take all the “difficult” courses so that when they graduated from high school, they could go and do any major that they wanted to, not those at the time that had the — I didn’t care what they were, but I wanted to make sure that they took the full, all the math, all the chemistry, all the science that they needed if they wanted to go that way. So my daughter went through high school and did well. She graduates, and when my second daughter is in the seventh grade, we make a decision that I’m going to take a sabbatical and go out to Lawrence Livermore for a year. So I pulled her out of school.
I have that on your CV as ’86-’87.
Yes, ’86-’87. So we go out to California and when we come back, she has missed the eighth grade and she’s going into high school, so therefore the New York curriculum no longer fits with the courses she has taken because she was gone for a year. New York had just instituted a math sequence that they called sequential 1, sequential 2, sequential 3 mathematics instead of algebra, geometry, and trigonometry. The goal was that they’d teach them, what I call “just in time”. You teach them trigonometry, geometry, algebra, sort of sequentially, in parallel, but she had not had sequential 1. When I look at what was in sequential 1, I said, “My daughter has had all of this.” So I put her in sequential 2. Instead of putting her in earth science, I put her in biology. So I get a phone call to come over to the school and the guidance counselor says, “You can’t do this. She has to take sequential 1.” I said, “Why would she want to do that? She has had all of this material,” so I’m having a discussion with the teacher, and I say, “Is Mr. Heffernan still here?” “Yes.” He comes in, looks at me, “How are you doing, Colonel Stith?” And then very quickly says to the guidance counselor, “Whatever he says she takes, she takes.” I didn’t try to be overbearing, but they allowed me to be in charge of my kids’ education and they did well.
I’m kind of curious. You have a very kind of deft way of putting things in all of these scenarios wherein there’s never sort of an accusatory notion that you put forward, but you sort of tease it out in interesting ways to bring things back in. I’m wondering where you picked that up originally?
Well, maybe it’s because it’s because of the way we group up. We learned not to be accusatory, but to try to let the facts speak for themselves. I learned that I could get more done if I gave people a place to stand, because I learned that once I made an accusation, then all of a sudden we were no longer talking about the issue but about the accusation. My goal was always to try to get the problem solved and to get the right thing done for those who were involved without becoming accusatory.
Give people a recourse to correct themselves without feeling like they’re giving anything up.
Yes, yes. So that became my style.
Nice. Okay, so going back to kind of a question I had before in terms of your experience in physics, did you ever sense that there was — I mean obviously minorities have been underrepresented in the physics profession, but you’ve also said that when you attach your photograph to the applications in the early 1970s you had more success statistically, so I’m wondering about your experience in the physics profession as a whole coming up in the 1960s, ’70s, or even later, and contrasting that with the military experience and being a physicist in the military. You can take that in whole or in part.
Well, I mean the two aren’t really separated. As a faculty member at the military academy, and again I’ll go back to my experience at Virginia State. The piece that I did not put in was that Dr. Hunter had always said that if you go to be in a profession, you had to be active in your profession. He would always stop classes and would bring all of the physics majors to the APS meeting in Washington every spring. The Sheraton Hotel, the APS April meeting was always held at the Sheraton Hotel in Washington D.C., and we were always there. I didn’t understand what was going on, it was well above my head in terms of the papers, but you could feel the energy. When I made the decision to be a physicist, going to professional meetings was part of what I did. So I went to meetings as a graduate student, so when I became a faculty member at West Point, I decided to attend AAPT meetings. At that time that was a New York meeting, the APS had a New York meeting. As a matter of fact it was a joint meeting of AAPT, American Association of Physics Teachers and the APS, and it was always held in New York back in those days. I’m at West Point, so I ask to go to a New York meeting and my department chair says, “Why do you want to do that?” I tell him why I want to do that. So for the first 15 years of my time at West Point, I used two-thirds of the department’s travel budget because I was the only person who went to professional meetings. I chose to go to the AAPT meeting because I felt that, since I was a teacher, that that’s where I would learn the most. So I became AAPT active. Now my observation was that there were very few African-Americans that came to the AAPT meetings. I had what I called the “rule of five.” If I saw more than five physicists at any of the APS or AAPT meetings, it was going to be a good meeting. That’s where I met the other African-Americans who were in physics. But there was always very few of us. In the committee structure, in late ’60s, early ’70s, Warren Henry, Julius Taylor a couple of the older African-American physicists pushed APS to start a committee on minorities, and APS started a committee on minorities in physics. I didn’t go to the APS (except for the April) meetings, but one of the spillovers was that AAPT started a similar committee. Jules Taylor from Morgan State, Dr. Hunter, other African-Americans, Carl Clark were on this committee on minorities in the AAPT. But I never joined their committee because for some reason I had the perception that you should be at a minority institution to be on the committee, and I was at West Point. But I would go to all the meetings, until one day I was asked why I wasn’t on the committee. I said, “Because I’m not at a minority institution.” They said, “What makes you think you have to be at a minority institution?” So I was appointed to the committee on minorities in AAPT. After a year I was asked to serve as chair of that committee, so I served as Chair on the Committee on Minorities, and became more active in the AAPT. Bob Resnick was the President of AAPT at the time. Bob came to me and said, “Jim would you serve a second term as Chair of the AAPT Committee on Minorities?” At the time, as I said, I was becoming politically active. So I said, “Sorry Bob, I can’t do that.” He said, “Why not?” I said, “Well, my observation has been that the only place that minorities serve in AAPT is on the minority committee. The only place that women serve in the AAPT is on the committee on women. Frankly, I think that’s wrong. I will not enable behavior, which I think is incorrect. Therefore I will decline your offer to serve a second term.” Bob came back — about a week later or so I receive a letter from Bob and it says, “Okay, I’ve thought about what you said. Would you send me a list of minorities in physics that you think ought to serve on other committees, and what committees you think they should serve on, and I will make the appointment.” So I sent Bob the list and he made the appointments, and he came back and said, “You left your name off your list.” I said, “Well I’ve never nominated myself for anything.” He said, “Well, would you serve on the committee on public policy?” I said yes and after serving on the committee on public policy for about a year, I was appointed Chair. I had been chair for about six months, and I got a phone call at home one night. She said, “Jim, are you standing or sitting?” I said, “I’m standing.” She said, “Please sit. The nomination committee would like to nominate you to run for the vice-presidency of AAPT.” I said, “I don’t want the job.” Donna said, “It is time for you to put your money where your mouth is. You have said that you think…”
I beg your pardon, Donna?
Donna Berry. She’s no longer active. I haven’t seen her in 20 years. She was from Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Dr. Berry from Chattanooga, okay.
Yeah was not a Dr. — but a high school teacher that was really active. Anyway, she said, “You have said that minorities should be used throughout the association. We want you to run for vice president. If you believe in what you say you believe in, you’ll run.” So I said, “Who am I running against?” She told me. I said, “Okay that’s a fair fight.” So I allowed them to put my name in the nomination. To myself I thought: I’m not going to get elected anyway because I would never get elected by this body. I was wrong and I was elected — the rest is history. So I became active in the AAPT in all of the things that I’ve done since then.
So now I guess we’ll reel ourselves back to West Point, although I would note that I was looking during our little break at your CV and I noticed that you initially had become part of the AAPT in ’62? [Yes]. Okay, but then the APS only in ’76. [Yes]. So you had long had a commitment to the AAPT.
Right. I joined AAPT while a student at Virginia State. While in graduate school at Penn State, I was doing my work on optics so I became an OSA member.
Optical Society of America?
Optical Society of America, yes. But when I went to West Point and I realized that I was no longer going to be doing optical research and I was looking for what organization that did physics. I saw AAPT as doing primarily education things, but I wanted to keep my hands in the physics piece. I decided that since I was going to the joint APS/AAPT meeting that I should become an APS member, so I joined APS in 1976. So that’s the reason for that.
So what should we talk about as regards to your career at West Point, which is, we covered the first three years, which starts in ’72. Then you were appointed to the permanent position in ’76. And you stayed there through 1993.
Right, and at West Point, I did all the things that one does as a professor. I taught basically all the courses that were in the major. I was in charge of the core division at West Point. I was also in charge of…
Core division, that’s…?
That’s the courses that everybody had to take. We had three semesters of physics that everyone had to take and so I was responsible for the core.
As far as physics is concerned or the whole core?
As far as all the core courses, it was all the physics that all of the cadets had to take.
So that includes the chemistry?
No, only the required physics, in the physics department. Which meant that I also had the responsibility for identifying those military officers who were on active duty with a physics/physical science background, working with the Department Head to select and get them into graduate school, bringing them to West Point, putting them through new instructor orientation. We had a one-month orientation for all new instructors that came to West Point. Then, for those teaching in the Core, I was their supervisor.
So just to be clear, you would identify undergraduates you thought would later become…?
While we tried to identify cadets that might become good faculty, we mostly tried to identify officers on active duty who had a BS in physics or a related field, some from West Point and other places, get them into graduate school somewhere in the country. There were a number of schools we used: University of Virginia, Penn State, MIT, the University of Washington, etc., where after getting a Masters, would bring them back to West Point, teach for three years, and then they would back into the Army. When they were at West Point, decide who would be the director for the core course, and we had three core courses, who would be the director for each of them. Supervise the writing of all the major exams that we gave. We gave common exams across the board. I was responsible for deciding what an A, B, C, D, failure was — all of those things that went with teaching cadets at West Point. That was my primary responsibility, which meant that because I did all of that I had a half teaching load. I spent half my time sitting in on classes, observing faculty teaching, and then having discussions with those faculty after they taught about what I saw and how they could become more effective teachers. I was no longer doing “physics research” due to what I was doing at West Point.
I take it there’s just no research done [at West Point].
Correct, that was true in the early years but in the mid 80’s West Point established a Photonics Laboratory where faculty started to do research. With regards to my own work, in the mid-70s, a group of people in AAPT formed the committee on research in physics education and started looking at how people learn. I started doing work with that group within AAPT. The research that I started doing had to do with how people learn and how to use that knowledge to more effectively teach. So that’s the research I did until I left West Point. It was because of that experience that Ohio State approached me. They wanted to start a research in physics education group at Ohio State. I was asked to come to Ohio State and help run that group. It became attractive to me, because again going back to 20 years earlier when Wayne Webb (associate chair of the physics department at Penn State) had said, “If you go to West Point, you are ruining what might be a good career. They don’t do real physics at the military academy.” In the back of my head, I had always had this nagging thought about could I have been successful at a research university? Could I supervise PhD students? Could I design and teach graduate courses? So when Ohio State called me, I said, “This is the opportunity to see if I can do this.” So I left West Point and took the position at Ohio State as a professor of physics. I did that for the time that I was there. I was successful in helping to put that group on a sound research footing. We had roughly $2 million in external grants. We had something on the order of seven to eight graduate students getting a PhD in physics. I, with the help of my colleague, but I was the point person, put together the curriculum for those students who got their PhD in physics with a specialty in how people learn. I should back up and say that the degree, which I got, D.Ed, never really caught on. It wasn’t a PhD. But, fortunately, once you start working, no one asks what degree you got. It’s based on the kind of work you do. So when I went to Ohio State, I really modeled the curriculum that we use for graduate students based upon what I went through at Penn State. I thought that it was the right thing to do. We made sure that every student passed the qualifying exam in physics, as I had done — I passed the qualifying exam in physics — that they took a group of courses outside the physics department. I did not have my students at Ohio State take their courses in education, but I had them take some courses in other departments. They took some psychology courses and some sociology courses. The reason for that was that what I had learned doing my research, the statistics that I use for evaluating data that had to do with people was different than the statistics that I use in evaluating physics data. Human samples are not well behaved. You have to use many of the techniques for teasing out what was there. So I said why have my students learn that as I had had to? Why not simply take statistics from the psychology department? Because that taught you how to handle all that. So that was the course that we set up. The other thing was that we would not talk to a student about doing physics education research until such time as they had passed the qualifying exam in physics, because I had learned that physicists were a snobby bunch. They liked to talk to physicists, and so I wanted it well known that these people who got their degrees in PER were physicists first, but they were physicists who also knew something about education and education statistics and how people learn, and how to do that kind of research. That’s basically what we set up and that is still what’s there now.
There are still some questions that I want to ask about West Point, I guess. I’m prompted to ask a question about Ohio State, which is was there any recruiting people that went into the PER program if you’d only tell them or bring them in after they took their qualifying exams?
When OSU started its program, the PER subspecialty was beginning to mature. It turns out that we had as many students trying to get into the program as we could comfortably handle. We did recruit but could afford to be choosey. The other reason is that it was a new program, so Alan Van Heuvelan and I were the two people who both came in as full professors to start the program. He came in from New Mexico State. But we wanted to be sure that we did not have the reputation of having students in PER who couldn’t do physics — they were physicists who understood how people learned. So we were a little bit choosey. One of the things that we were very proud of is that the first year that students who wanted to be PER took the qualifying exam, the highest grade on the qualifying exam was made by a student who came to PER. When that happened, my colleagues at Ohio State started thinking of us as being first-rate physics students. They did well in all their courses. While that may not have been by design, it was something that we were concerned about and very proud of as an outcome as we started this new program. There is still a lot of discussion in the physics community as to where PER groups belong. There are many who would argue that physics education research is something that’s important, but they don’t belong in departments of physics. They belong in the schools of education. I always argue that they belong in departments of physics, because they need to be in a place where they have discussion with other physicists. Because if we’re going to change the way that physics is taught, then we must have our conversations with people in physics. And we have to publish in places that traditional physicists read. The PER persuaded APS to publish the journal of physics education research, which is Physical Review Special Topics-Physics Education Research which is a journal which is designed for those who are doing research in how people learn. We wanted the APS staff on it because traditional physicists look at APS as the real physics organization. That was the politics of it.
When was Physical Review Special Topics — Physics Education Research established?
It was established of the order of… let’s see, I came to AIP in ’98. We were having the discussion when I came here. It was started in May 2005.
Okay, so now going back to West Point. Are the goals of teaching physics at West Point different from the goals of teaching physics elsewhere?
No, not at all. We believe that every officer from West Point — well, let me back up. The West Point mission is to produce a group of graduates who would serve the nation. When I first got to West Point, the mission was to produce a group of graduates who would serve the military for a career. Very soon after I got there the mission was changed to produce a set of graduates who would serve their nation for a lifetime, recognizing that graduates of West Point got out of the military, but they continued to serve the nation. If you step back and take a look at your graduates, you ask yourself what must be their characteristics so that they can serve the nation? Which means that you want a group of graduates that give the nation the flexibility that the nation needs? So, I could take a look at a West Point graduate and say, “Okay, what I need is a person who has a graduate degree in the sciences.” I could take any West Point graduate and send him or her back to graduate school in the sciences.
Just so that I can clarify in my own mind, West Point doesn’t have any sort of graduate program?
No it does not. It’s totally an undergraduate institution. The Army does not have a graduate school.
OK, unlike, say, the Navy.
Unlike the Navy, unlike the Air Force. The Army made a decision that it was best served by using traditional institutions to give their Army officers a graduate education as opposed to having a graduate school of its own. As I told you, one of my jobs was to find instructors for West Point. One year, of the order of 1985 or ’86 somewhere in there. No, it had to be later than that. Let’s call it ’87, ’88. I was back from Livermore and I had an unforeseen vacancy, meaning I needed more instructors than I had coming in. So I called Army headquarters and said, “Is there an Army officer on active duty that has a graduate degree in physics or some related subject?” meaning chemistry, engineering, etc. The person I’m talking to after a few moments says, “Yes, there is a Captain Reid that just got his masters in physics from the Naval Postgraduate School.” Okay, memory is coming back. “He was the graduating class of ’85. I don’t have an assignment for him. If you want him, you can have him.” I said, “West Point graduate, ’85?” “Yeah.” He says, I could not recall having a physics major with that name, but I did know a Carl Reid, one of my mentees who was an Arabic major. I should say that by that time we had a physics major at West Point.
That’s kind of part of my question of whether or not it’s different, so the question of having majors in physics.
When I arrived at West Point, they did not have majors. Everybody had exactly the same curriculum, except for a few elective courses. There was pressure to establish majors, so in the late ’70s we identified chemistry, physics, engineering, English, foreign languages etc. We established 15 majors at the academy, of which physics was one. Then it became more like another civilian school, except that you couldn’t start your physics major until your junior year, because you didn’t take physics until your sophomore year. We had to put together a major using junior and senior year. It was tough, but we worked them hard so we could get it done. But getting back to Carl, I said, “We didn’t have physics major in ’85 named Carl Reid. As a matter of fact, the only Carl Reid I knew was not a physics major.” The person I was talking to says, “Sir, I don’t know who he is, but his name is Carl Reid; he’s class of ’85. He has a masters in physics. If you want him, you can have him.” So I said, “Give me his contact information and let me talk to him.” I called Carl, left a message. He called back and said, “Colonel Stith, how are you doing, sir?” I said, “Carl, you have a masters in physics?” “Yes sir, I do.” “How’d you do that?” I knew Carl well, because Carl was one of my mentees. I had a group of students, cadets that I always had over to my house. We talked about this, that, and the other in every class, and almost every officer did. I would have between four to fifteen students, given the three classes, who would spend time at my house and I got to know them well. Carl was one of these, and Carl was an Arabic major at West Point. When Carl left West Point, when he graduated, as I did with every one of my mentees, I sat down and had a discussion. Carl happened to have been African-American.
Okay, but your mentees were of all [races]? [Of all]. How did you choose them?
Basically, I would talk to kids in class and kids would just sort of gravitate to my house. I used to do it by assignment, but I learned that that didn’t work. They were friends of friends, they started coming over. Because I had daughters, many of them happened to have been women, because I had all daughters so they would come for that. But it was just a group of kids who would come over. My rule was, when you come to my house, you do whatever we’re doing. If I’m raking the yard, we rake the yard. You can come and go as you please. You must come in uniform, because that was the rule of the day, but if you want to bring a change of clothes and change while you’re here and just relax it was your haven away from the rigors of West Point. It was a place for you to relax and let your hair down and just talk, and then go back and get back to work, because it was a rigorous four years.
So Carl Reid was one of your mentees?
Yes, he was one of my mentees. When Carl graduated I said, “Carl, when you leave here, your career is going to be defined by how you get started, because if you have a reputation as being a person that does not do good work, it is much easier to establish a bad reputation than it is to change one. If you get off and establish a very good reputation, people will be tolerant of when you don’t do things nearly as well. So when you leave here, I want you to hit the ground working very hard. Also, in today’s Army, no one makes general if they don’t have a master’s degree. You must have a graduate degree; otherwise you’re not going to make it. So the question becomes when do you go back to school and get your masters? If you work very hard, your first five years are critical. You cannot afford to be in a company, battery, unit, learning the basics of that particular branch that you happen to be in. But once you get to the five-year mark, if you have done all the important jobs, you’re ready to make major. Then there’s about a five-year period when the assignments are not quite as critical. That’s a good time to go to graduate school, because you had your basic experience and now you get your graduate degree. You come back to West Point and you teach for three years, and now you go back out into the active army. You’re going to be slightly behind, because all the people you’re competing against have been doing all these assignments that you haven’t had. But it’s not an insurmountable task. The advantage is, you’ve got your graduate degree, and as people now start grooming you for senior leadership, the fact that you have that degree is going to be a good thing. That’s what you’ve got to do.” So Carl comes in. I said, “How did you happen to get a masters in physics?” He said, “Well sir, you told me to hit the ground running. I worked my butt off as a second lieutenant. I asked for company command early. I got it. So I had had my company command, I was a young captain, and have checked are the blocks [assignments] that were a must do. So I called the department of the Army and said, ‘I want to go to graduate school.’ The person on the other end said, ‘Well, the only slot I’ve got is in physics.’ And I said, ‘I’ll take it.’” But, as an Arabic major with a West Point degree, with his three semesters of physics, his six course engineering sequence, his mathematics through differential equations, his chemistry, he could get into the Naval Postgraduate School in a physics program and get a masters in physics in two years, which he did. And so I argue that the West Point education, back in those days, because it was solid in the science and humanities, gave the nation flexibility that they could use, and that’s my flexibility argument, use those West Point graduates to fill whatever need it happened to have had. If it needed a person in the humanities, they could take a West Point graduate and use him there. If they needed a person with a background in the sciences, they could take their person and use them there because they had the background to do so.
So what fraction of the faculty at West Point are Ph.D.s then?
Oh, very few. Basically the only Ph.D.s were those of us who were on the permanent faculty. Most were masters, except I did have a few who, while they were at West Point, went to RPI and got their Ph.D. while they were on faculty.
That’s close by, right? [Yes, close by, in Troy] So when you were doing your physics education research, did you do that primarily at West Point?
Yes, primarily at West Point, and my experimental group were cadets at West Point, with the officers there working for me, doing the work. That’s where I really got my experience doing it, and took that with me to Ohio State.
So when you kind of pick up the sociology and psychology angles, that’s sort of in the process of that?
In the process of doing all that, learning how to do statistics, how to do all the things I needed to do. Keep in mind that there are active discussions on-going within the AAPT community.
Did you consult with the other faculty?
Other faculty at West Point, I mean I was active in AAPT, and again working with the PER group within AAPT: Bob Karpus, Arnold Aarons, Fred Reif Lillian McDermott — all those folks who were active in AAPT starting the PER. Joe Redish at the University of Maryland, those were some of the folks. Jose Mestra [?], Robert Fuller, Priscilla Laws, Ron Thornton — that was the core group that did that kind of work within the AAPT. Now there are some twenty-plus universities in the country that offer a PhD in physics with a specialty in PER.
So one last thing, then. So you enter then the faculty at West Point as a captain and you leave as a colonel. Could you kind of give me a little bit of a timeline as to how the promotions go?
Basically, what happens in the military is that after you’ve been in each grade for so long, your file then goes to D.C. and a review board looks at that file and selects those for a promotion to the next grade. It’s an up or out system. If you don’t get promoted after having been reviewed twice, you must get out. As a professor at West Point, I was evaluated based upon how well I performed at West Point as measured by the evaluations done by West Point senior officers. Of course by this time, I have learned what the rules of the game are. So when I’m having my discussion with my evaluator, they say the right words and I’m getting the kind of OERs that are competitive. From that point on, I was always competitive. I was promoted through the ranks from captain, to major, to lieutenant colonel, to colonel. Now as a permanent professor at West Point, I had to retire after 30 years of service. I could not stay beyond that.
30 years of military service? [30 years of military service].
As a professor at West Point, I could not get promoted above colonel because there were only three generals on post: the superintendent who was a three-star, the dean who was a one-star, and the commandant who was a one-star. Now, if you were department head, when the dean retires, they select the new dean from the list of sitting department heads. That dean then becomes a one-star. That was the only way that a professor at West Point could get promoted to one-star was to become the dean. If you were a department head when you retire you are retired from active service and then you are put on the retired roll. When you go on the retired roll, you may be promoted to one-star as a retired officer. Department heads are promoted to one-star upon retirement. Only department heads do that. Those of us who are not department heads retire as colonels. When I was at West Point, the department head retired and I put my hat in the ring as a department head; I was not selected.
Do they rotate the department heads?
No, the department head stays there until they retire. The person that was selected when I applied for the position retired June 5 of 2010. He had been Head since the early 90’s. I would have been the first African-American to be a department head. I was the first African-American to be on the tenured faculty at West Point.
In any subject?
In any subject. I had the conversation with my wife and, again, , “I hope this is not sour grapes.” But I wasn’t quite sure I wanted to be department head, but I felt that I had to apply for it because of the milestone. The year I applied, that was in 1986. I recall being called in. I would not have been the chair right away, because it would have been the deputy head, but when the department head retired, the deputy chair automatically became the department head. In my department the head had stepped down. The deputy head was automatically going to become the department head, and they were selecting the deputy. The new head called me in and said, “Jim, you have applied for a sabbatical. If you are going to be on sabbatical, you can’t rightly be the deputy head.” I said, “Wendell, that doesn’t make good sense to me. I’m only going to be gone for a year, and so it makes no sense that because I am due to take a sabbatical this year that I’m not competitive for the deputy department head. There must be some other reason for that.” I was not selected. Now, the new department head and I had worked together for a number of years and it was an adversarial relationship in many respects, but he was a colonel and I was a captain, major, lieutenant colonel. He always outranked me, but I always felt that as a permanent professor, academically we were peers even though militarily he outranked me. He was one of those people that was never a friend, but he was a person that I did a lot of work with. As I said to my wife, I really don’t think Wendell would ever select me to be his deputy because of that adversarial relationship. I’m not saying that’s what caused it, but I was not selected.
Is it solely their choice?
No, but the department head has the right to veto. They aren’t going to assign him anyone as his deputy that he says, “I don’t want as my deputy.” It is a committee that is made up of civilians now, and senior military. I was not selected. I should say in retrospect that after the selection was made, it was in a month or so that I was called and asked if I would run for the presidency of AAPT. Because I had just been turned down as department head in that selection, I said yes to running.
So you were president elect of AAPT in ’91, and then you moved up through vice president and president in ’92.
Actually, it was vice president, president elect, president and then past president. They select the slate about a year before the election is held. So the call came when I knew that I was not going to be the department chair, so it was a good time to run.
Let me ask you about Livermore. Why Livermore?
Well, I planned to go to Europe to work with a research office, because I had always wanted to go to Europe. But my youngest daughter was a competitive figure skater, and her goal was to make it to a ’92 Olympic squad. And ’86-’87 was a time when her coach said, “You can’t afford to take her out of the country for a year during this time in her skating career.” So we had to find a place where she could continue being trained as a figure skater. My middle daughter was an avid swimmer, a competitive swimmer, and I was looking for a place where she could continue to swim competitively, and looking for a place where I could do some physics and have some fun. I had worked with Edward Teller, and I knew about Livermore, had some good friends that worked there and so I started looking at Livermore as a place for me to go.
You say you were working with Edward Teller?
We had a program at West Point where we brought distinguished people in for a week to spend time giving lectures and meeting with small groups of cadets. Edward Teller was one of those, so I got to know Edward.
There are just fascinating turns that we seem to take in this interview.
So that’s why Livermore’s on the radar screen. I knew about good swimming in Livermore, in the San Francisco area, but I didn’t know about skating. I got this phone call from somebody from the skating rink in Dublin [CA]. Then I got a phone call from Linda Leaver who was a skating coach in Dublin. She had two students, well known, one whose name was Brian Boitano and another whose name was Kristi Yamaguchi. So she called and she said, “Mr. Stith, I understand that you’re looking for a coach. I’m Linda Leaver. I coach Brian and Kristi. I would love to coach Alyssa.” My daughter on the East Coast was developing a reputation as being a very good skater.
Was Kristi Yamaguchi already big then, or well known?
She wasn’t then, but she was clearly up and coming. At that time, she was more of a serious pair skater. Brian was big then. And so when Linda said that she would love to coach Alyssa then I said, “Okay, I’m going to go to Livermore.” I lived roughly two miles from the rink, and it was a great experience for all of us. At Livermore I did x-ray optics. It was a great year for me in terms of getting out of the classroom, getting back into active research, and you know it was just all it could be, really.
I have to ask you about Edward Teller.
Edward was a very interesting guy, very arrogant, very opinionated — One of the things that Edward used to always say was, “The mistake that this government makes is that we tend to classify everything, and all we do is make it difficult for the people who are on our team. Our enemies already know it, because their spy system is well enough that they gain access to most of our secrets well before we release it.” But I decided not to work for Edward because he was a very dictatorial type of person, very opinionated, but mostly because of Lowell Woods who worked with Edward. I’ll just say that I didn’t like — I wasn’t very impressed with Lowell, so I decided I didn’t want to work on that team. I went to work in another division; I worked in the laser fusion division with a person doing x-ray optics — I’m trying to think of his name but I can’t right now. I’m having a senior moment [Nat Ceglio].
The new facility is coming online right around now, the National Ignition Facility, so it was one of the predecessors to that.
Yes it was the heyday of inertial confinement fusion and they were trying to get the Nova laser to work. The goal was to hit a fuel pellet from many sides simultaneously in such a way that enough heat and pressure was produced to cause fusion. It was a wonderful year for all concerned.
I remember when you signed off on that grant that I had for the Contemporary American Physicists, is what we’re calling it right now. We have all the biographies all together, we have about 800. We have several people because we have all the winners of the Bonner Prize. Let’s see there was, I think, John Nuckolls?
Yeah John Nuckolls was out there at the time. He was the associate director and soon became the laboratory director.
So you’re kind of in that general group? [Yes]. So who were you working for?
I was working for Matt Nat Ceglio who lead the x-ray optics group. Nat reported to Michael Campbell. Michael was a fantastic physicist and an exceptional leader, but left the laboratory under a cloud several years later because it was alleged that he never actually received his PhD.
I seem to remember even having read about that somewhere. [Break] All right, so we were on x-ray optics.
So anyway I just did research in x-ray optics for a year. We were looking at the properties of multilayer structures and the fabrication of multilayer mirrors that could be used to focus soft x-rays and the possibility of soft x-ray laser cavities. We were able to get the first x-ray laser and actually got it to operate.
How big of a team were you working in there?
The group was composed of about a dozen people, with about four or five physicists. There was also one person from Berkeley who would come over and work with us from time to time. I brought a student from West Point during the summer to spend part of the summer there. I was trying to start an exchange program between West Point and Livermore. In my days at West Point, we had an active research exchange program with Los Alamos, but I could never get one started with Livermore because they felt that four weeks was just not enough time for a student (especially an undergraduate) to do any kind of work. I couldn’t spring West Point cadets away longer than that, because they had to spend their summer doing military stuff. They would go out and be attached to Army units around the world. The best I could do was to break them away for four to six weeks, six at the max. Los Alamos was willing to do that; Livermore was not. So I chose that opportunity while I was there to get that program instituted and was able to do so. It’s amazing how face to face is much more persuasive than trying to do things by letter and by telephone.
So by Livermore standards, then, it’s a fairly small team, or not?
Well not really. This was a subgroup within a group within a group. It was about the size of most of the teams that were there, and these were people that we saw and worked together with every day on the various programs and projects. The fundamental goal was to learn the physics to get the big laser (Nova) operating and make steps towards inertial confinement fusion.
When we say “the big laser,” I mean I’m just trying to conceptualize the facility.
The mirrors in the laser were about the size of this table
Okay, so it’s about, what, four or five feet across?
Yes. What was the problem? One of the problems was mirror cracking. They just would not sustain, so we couldn’t get the full power so it never worked because of that problem. It just never worked. There were those who believed that the basic design was fundamentally flawed. It was finally dismantled in 99.
Okay, so there’s another line, as long as we’re picking up little dangling years, you also were a visiting associate professor at the Air Force Academy?
Yes. The year that I was made…
That was ’76-’77.
Yes. The year that I received tenure — West Point called us “permanent professors. What was the issue? The issue was that I was a permanent professor as a captain, and typically most permanent professors were lieutenant colonels or above. Frankly, because of the military structure, they didn’t know what to do with me. The Secretary of the Army had this idea that one of the things that was wrong with the academy education was that each academy operated very autonomously and didn’t really get to know each other and didn’t cooperate. It was proposed that they start an exchange program where they take an officer from the Military Academy and send them to the Air Force Academy, an officer from the Air Force Academy and send them to the Military Academy to exchange places, and do the same thing with the Naval Academy. Each pair would work that way. The first year, my recollection is that it only happened between the Air Force Academy and West Point, because when it came, I said to the boss, “Hell, I’ll go.” So Richard Swanson, who was at the Air Force Academy, came to West Point. He was in the physics department at the Air Force Academy, I was in the physics department at West Point, and we just flipped jobs. The initial thought was that we would simply go and we’d trade houses. Our wives said, “There is no way that anyone’s going to use my furniture.” So they move us lock, stock, and barrel, me from West Point to the Air Force Academy in Colorado, and Rick from there to West Point. His wife had horses, so he came with his horse trailer with his horses behind and the whole nine yards. It was a wonderful experience for both of us, and we have remained friends. He’s now a dean in a school in North Carolina, a two-year college. Richard (Rick) Swanson. So I went out there and worked with the Air Force Academy, and General Orth, he was then Colonel Orth, who was the physics department head, allowed me to experience all facets of the physics department, so I taught in each of the divisions of the physics department at the Air Force Academy. I taught in the classical physics division, I taught a modern course, and I taught an elective while I was there.
Is that a bigger department out there?
Oh, it’s about the same. But they were organized slightly differently than we were. But I also had an opportunity to spend a lot of time with cadets doing other things. For example, about once a month I would go on a navigation mission with the Air Force cadets who were learning how to navigate. The training flight would take off from Patterson Air Force Base early in the morning. They’d take a 727, take all the seats out, and put navigation stations in it, and that’s how cadets learned how to navigate airplanes. There were two routes: either fly to San Francisco and back from Colorado, or we’d leave Colorado, fly east until about St. Louis, go north to just over Montreal, and then head back to the Air Force Academy. It was a full day. I guess I did this about four or five times when I was out there to get a sense. I’d go with the sports team when they’d go out to a game to see that aspect of it. I did a lot of work with the gliding team, so I would go gliding with the—that’s when I flew my first glider, while I was out there.
Did you stay with it?
No, no, no, no, no. My wife thought I was crazy for being up there in an airplane that didn’t have any motor in it, but it was a wonderful year. At the time, I was doing research on writing examinations where one could predict the exam average and were also valid and reliable. We had established a data bank at West Point that had of the order of 7000 questions, each of which had been analyzed. I used the Air Force experience to expand the data set and check the reliability and validity on a different student sample. The goal was to be able to write four versions of an exam that covered the same material but had different questions but would be the same level of difficulty. We wanted an A on one exam to mean the same thing as an A on the other three exams. One of the things that I did for the Air Force Academy was to start putting together a data bank for them so that they could also help us do that work.
OK. Quick question: what was the year that you made colonel then?
I think it was early ’91, because I retired in ’93, and typically you must be in grade for three years before you can retire at that grade. But they were going to downsize the Army, so they said that if you had been a colonel for two years you could retire and stay in grade. That’s when I decided to leave, because I had been at West Point for twenty-plus years and I was going to have to work when I left, and Ohio State was pushing so I decided to leave and go there.
We covered Ohio State a little bit before, but just to kind of go chronologically, let’s cover your time at the top of the AAPT, which I know nothing about.
I was President in ’92 so I must have run in ’89.
Yeah, you were Vice President in ’90.
Okay, so and you get elected roughly six to seven months before you take office, so okay. When I entered the AAPT presidential chain as vice president, Tom Rossing was the president elect, Judy Franz was the president and Jerry Wheeler was the past president. Wheeler became the Executive Director of NSTA; Judy came here as the Executive Director of APS; Tom Rossing stayed in academia, and then I came to AIP. When I was vice president of AAPT, we started having discussion about joining APS and AIP in their move out of New York. I replaced Judy Franz on the committee that oversaw the construction of this building. Judy was on the committee when they selected the present site. .
I should say for the recording that this is the American Center for Physics here in College Park.
So the first time I remember coming down here was before they started doing any excavation, and there was a flight hangar over here, and I traipsed through the woods to find this place because that bridge wasn’t there. I looked at this place and there was nothing but water out there. I thought there was no way they could ever build a building here and have the basement dry, but we were able to do so. So, for roughly a year while I was president, I was down here once a month because we would have our meetings over at OSA, Optical Society; Jarus Quinn was the executive director. The committee had three people from AIP, three from APS, and three from AAPT who were the committee to oversee the design and construction. During my presidential time was when AAPT took the vote to join APS and AIP in coming down here. Keep in mind that AAPT had moved from New York to College Park some six or seven years earlier. They were initially at the University of Maryland and then bought this building on Berwyn Road. Since AAPT owned a building on Berwyn Road, which was their headquarters, it took some doing to convince the AAPT executive committee to…
Move down the road again.
…and to really go in debt a lot by coming into this building with AIP and APS. As a consequence of that, I think the deal that was struck was a very good one for AAPT. I have always argued that in the history of the physics profession, AIP and APS were always in some respects, adversaries. The leaders at that time were, let’s say that it was a very adversarial relationship. So AAPT came in to keep the two from killing each other, as we always say. The arrangement that was struck and I hope this is correct, that this 24 acre parcel, it’s about 24 acres that we’re on; half of it is owned outright by AIP. The piece that is the footprint of the building is on (roughly 10% of the total parcel) is owned 10% by AAPT, 40% by APS, and 50% by AIP. I think those are the right numbers. The other 40% is owned by APS and AIP. But we struck the agreement that in terms of the decision making process, each society would have one vote. So AAPT has the same voting power as AIP and APS even though it owned much less of the building.
Voting powers concerning the building and the land?
Yes, that’s correct. So in terms of making the decisions, we would meet once a month to talk with the architects to make a decision as to what the building would look like, the construction schedule, all of those details that had to do with design, construction and opening the American Center for Physics. That was, again for me, that’s why I have a soft spot in my heart for this building, because I was in on the ground floor in terms of the construction. When Marc Brodsky called me in ’97 and said that John Rigden is retiring and would I put together a list of people he should go after to be the new Director of Physics Programs, at that time it was called physics programs, and now the Physics Resources Center. I put together a list, and he came back and said, “I have several folks who have done this. They have nominated you, are you interested?” I said no, but over time I was persuaded that it was a good thing to do.
Were there other issues in terms of physics…?
The other thing was that during that time, APS decided to have a Campaign for Physics. They wanted to raise, I think the initial number was $10 million. Once they did their preliminary work, they learned was that the community was not interested in giving money for many of things that APS wanted, but they were interested in giving money for education. So AAPT was invited to join the Campaign for Physics, and I was on that campaign team with APS. We changed the sight just a bit to raise $5 million instead of the $10 million. John Armstrong was one of the chairs of that group. That’s where I first met John, doing that work. But Nico Bloembergen was the president of APS at the time, Nico and Ernest Henley (was who the APS president elect) myself, we were all on this committee together. That’s how I got to know that group of people.
Give us a sense of the relative size of the organization.
Well AAPT at the time had about 10,000 people. APS at the time had about 40,000. They haven’t changed sizes much in that time frame. The demographics have changed a lot since those days, but the numbers haven’t changed that much. Back in those days AAPT didn’t have that many high school teachers, but it started the Physics Teacher Resource Agents (PTRAs). PTRA’s were a group of master teachers that would come to an AAPT week long workshop, get their pedagogy upgraded, and then go back to their communities to spread that pedagogy to other physics teachers, and hopefully this process would upgrade the high school teaching of physics in this country. The assumption was that these master teachers already had strong physics content skills. As a result of that program, we had a significant number of high school teachers who joined AAPT, and so that changed the demographics of AAPT. Now it is roughly a third high school physics teachers. At about the same time, and I don’t know that there’s a direct correlation, but we saw APS taking a stronger interest in education. A forum on education was established, and that was a group of people within APS and close ties with AAPT who were interested in education, so they formed the forum. AAPT has at-large membership on the forum, so APS has changed a little bit since those days, and now has a significantly larger number of people who have a strong interest in education, whereas AAPT, who considers itself as the education association, saw its membership of high school teachers increase. But you also saw a significant number of people who started doing physics education research, so many of the younger people in AAPT are those who are doing PER, physics education research, if that makes any sense.
I think so, yes. Why don’t we talk about physics education research at Ohio State then. We went into a little bit earlier, but I’m a little out of chronological order, so maybe you’ll have more to it. [Cross-talk]
As I said in the mid-70s there were groups of people who started looking at why students were not doing well in physics. We talked about the way physics was taught.
Are we talking about at the college level?
At the introductory level. I say introductory because that spans high school and college introductory physics. People started doing work there. You saw groups primarily at the University of Washington. You saw Fred Reif at Carnegie Melon, who moved there from Berkeley. You have Bob Karplus who was at Berkeley, but who prematurely died. You had Robert Fuller who was at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. You had Joe Redish who was a nuclear physicist here at the University of Maryland, who switched his field to physics education research. You had Lillian McDermott who went to work for Arnold Aarons at the University of Washington, because at that time they didn’t hire women physicists at the University of Washington. I think she was a lecturer and was working with Arnold, but subsequently became a full-fledged faculty member and subsequently a professor there. These were the people who were having these discussions in the early work of PER. Ken Wilson, Nobel Prize winner in physics, was at Cornell. Ken was not a part of those discussions, but Ken’s father and Arnold Aarons were good friends and Arnold had a significant influence on Ken as he was growing up. When Ken was persuaded to leave Cornell and to join the OSU physics faculty, he was instrumental in the formation of the PER group. Ken’s arrival at OSU was when I was first approached about joining their physics department.
I guess this is in the ’90s now?
This was in the late ’80s, early ‘90s.
We started in the ’70s when PER kind of starts first getting going.
Actually they first approached me in 1990 because I had just made colonel, I said, “Can’t do that guys. It means too much money, because your military retirement salary is based upon your last pay grade.” And there was significant difference between the retired pay of a lieutenant colonel and the pay of a colonel. And so I said, “Now that I am a colonel, to give it up, over a lifetime, means too many bucks, so I’m not interested.” Then they said was, “Well, when you retire let us know.” Frankly I didn’t believe them, so I forgot about that. But anyway, when I retired in ’93, there’s a longer story that needs to be told. I was asked by Ohio State to join the faculty. At the time, I am having discussions with APS about becoming their director of education programs and am talking with Hampton University about becoming chair of their physics department. The Hampton position was especially intriguing because they were starting their PhD physics program. I decided not to take either of those, but to go to Ohio State and help start the PER group.
So you were there for five years?
I was there for a little better than five years. Why did I leave? I left because John Rigden retired here, and at about the same time that John retired — well let me go back to Ohio State. Alan Van Heuvelan and I made a decision about our third year to stop supervising individual graduate students, that each of us would work with all the graduate students in the Group. Before we made that decision, he had one and I had one.
We discussed earlier that you had more graduate students than you could handle, how many did you [have]?
We had seven. I thought that was a full load. It was more than we — when I say “handle”, I mean that graduate students are expensive. We were spending most of our time writing proposals to get the grants to support graduate students. You’re talking of the order of — what were we paying our graduate students? $16,000 to $18,000 a year back in those days. At our peak we had seven, so that’s a lot of proposals. Anyway, Alan and I decided that we would co-sponsor graduate students. But I had one that was my own graduate student and I was the only sponsor: Chris Cooksey. In late 1997, Chris’s wife was a teacher and one of her students kicked her in the eye. Chris came in and said, “Jim, with my wife ill, I can’t afford to be a graduate student and support my family.” I tried very hard to talk him out of it, but I could not. He said, “I’m going to stop for a while.” Chris had finished all of his coursework, he had passed his qualifiers, and he was in the middle of writing his dissertation. I said, “Chris, you’re going to be done with your dissertation in less than a year. If you walk away, it’s going to be tough to come back.” But he stepped away. So when he stepped away, that left me without a graduate student that I was directly supervising. I said, “Okay, I shouldn’t accept one until I decide what to do with the AIP thing.” So then I decided to come here.
As long as we’re talking about the AIP transition, you had been involved through the AAPT with the executive council?
Right, I had been on the Governing board and on the Executive Committee. As an officer in the AAPT I was on the governing board, and then the governing board selects people to serve on the executive committee. The governing board had selected me to be on the AIP executive committee.
Then from ’94 to ’97 you were on the Physics Programs Policy Committee.
Right, I was on the policy committee following my service on the Board. I had been involved with AIP for some time. I was also on the governance committee for AIP; the committee looked at the constitution, bylaws and other governance issues. While on the governance committee, we were trying to change the constitution to reflect then current operating practice of AIP. So I had done a lot of work with AIP. We had also just done a study of Physics Today and physics programs, as to how well it was doing what it was doing. I was on that committee. I thought I knew AIP. But when I was asked to come in I had said no, because frankly I was having a lot of fun at Ohio State. I felt a commitment to all of these graduate students who were there and to work with my colleagues. But right after Chris decided to step out of his graduate studies, Rod Grant, who was the AIP secretary, said to me, “Okay, I know you’re not coming to AIP, but you know physics programs, you know AIP.” And at the time Physics Today was having some significant issues. I had just finished serving on a committee looking at Physics Today and how it ought to be organized to be a more effective publication. The committee looked a various editorial and publication issues. So Rod said, “Do me a favor. Let’s have a discussion, because I know you don’t want the job, but if you had it what kinds of changes would you institute based on what you know.” It was getting ready for that discussion, that all of the sudden the AIP position started having more and more of an appeal. So I finally made the decision to come. That was in ’97. Marc [Brodsky] wanted me here in October of ’97. I said I can’t do it because I needed six more months at Ohio State to get vested. I had put all of this money into the Ohio State retirement system, and if I didn’t stay for five years then all of the share that Ohio State would put in they were going to take back. So I said, “I’m not going to do it.” Marc finally persuaded me to work half-time. So I spent one week at AIP and one week at Ohio State. It turns out that Ohio State, I was no longer teaching because during my third year at Ohio State, the dean called me in because there was an issue with the mathematics department. He wanted evaluate the mathematics department, and wanted me to chair the committee doing the evaluation. I resisted that because my feeling was that I had to live there — that the committee should be an external one. But the dean didn’t give me a choice. He bought out my teaching, so I didn’t teach that year at all while I was doing the evaluation. During that period, my colleagues in the department of physics persuaded me to become the vice chair for instruction in the department, which meant that I was the person who made the decisions about who taught what. I supervised all the graduate teaching assistants in addition to my research group, and I hired all of the non-physics people, all of the adjuncts, who would teach the various physics courses in the department. Because I was a vice chair, vice chairs didn’t teach. Now I go back and say, “Okay, why did I come here? I came here because I enjoy teaching, but now I have become an administrator. If I’m going to be an administrator, I might as well get paid to be one.” So that also made the position here at AIP much more attractive. Thirdly, my wife kept reminding me that she was not a Midwesterner. All of our families are on the East Coast. I’m from Southern Virginia, and so all of those things helped me to make the decision to leave Ohio and come here.
One more question about Ohio State, then. So you said that when you were at West Point you did your physics education research at West Point. So now you’re in a specialized program for physics education research. Is it still based at the institution that you’re at that you do that, or is there more of a…?
I describe PER as the research into the learning, understanding and teaching of physics. The knowledge from that research is used to construct curriculum and improve teaching models that will better assist students in understanding and applying physics concepts — for example, when I was at Ohio State we had students looking at the introductory course, we had students looking at the student concept of energy, what does energy mean and how do we get students to understand what energy is all about. We did research on what is a photon and how do students conceptualize what a photon is. We looked at teaching physics by inquiry, i.e., you teach by having students build conceptual models as opposed to lecturing about what things really are. We had the premise that a student comes in with their own conception of what physics is all about, and what nature’s all about. They don’t change that perception as long as their conceptual model gives them a valid answer to the questions they are trying to answer. As an example, most naïve students, most young students, think that current is something that’s used up in a circuit. It is the current running through that light that as it is being used up causes the light to glow and it spreads light in this room. We know that’s not the case. Current is not used up. So we would try to set up conceptual models so that the student could see that their model was not correct. Once they see that the “used up” model has flaws, they were then ready to accept the model that we were trying to get across to them. So we talk about what our student idea is — we used to call them misconceptions. We started calling them student conceptions; we then started calling them preconceptions, so we still have the discussion about what they really are. So that’s basically what I did.
Do you ever study things like curricula at different institutions?
While our group looked at curricula, I would not say we studied them. Basically what did we do? The idea was to learn how students think, and then use that to develop curriculum models and then put those curriculum models into use, then take a look at what happens based on what we learned. It was what we call “the learning cycle.” That’s the way we operated.
I think we’d better get on to AIP and finish things off.
So, I came to AIP in ’98 and worked for Marc Brodsky. It turns out that in my role on the AIP executive committee, I served on the selection committee that hired Marc Brodsky. So as Marc and I used to say, turnabout was fair play. My committee hired him, so he hired me. Marc was a good guy to work for. We had a good, what I call “working arrangement”: the things I worked on and the things he worked on. I enjoyed the autonomy that I had as the VP here at AIP. Frankly, I’m quite pleased with many of the things that we were able to accomplish while I was here. Physics Today, I think it grew. When I came there were some significant morale problems in PT, Physics Today, largely having to do with the economics. Physics Today was expected to break even, and in my view, Physics Today could never break even because the model was such that it could not. We were getting roughly $2.50 from every member for every copy of PT that we put out. You can’t publish a quality magazine for $2.50. Yet, in the physics programs arena, we were giving (using “giving” loosely) roughly $2 million to the history center. We were giving roughly $2 million to MGR. We were giving roughly $2 million to education.
I beg your pardon, just for the sake of the transcript can we not use acronyms until we’ve established…?
Okay, to Media and Government Relations. In that case it was the physics policy arena, we were giving roughly $2 million to the education division to run student programs. We were giving roughly $2 million to the Center for History of Physics to run the history programs. Roughly $2 million to the statistics division to collect the data, and those units were not expected to break even, and the people working in those divisions were not made to feel that they were not doing their job because they’re not breaking even. So I argued that Physics Today was on the same par as they were. They were in physics programs because they provided programs and services to the physics community so we established a $1.6 million subsidy to Physics Today. With that $1.6 million subsidy they could then “break even” just as all the other units “broke even”, i.e., they live within their budget. Career Services was always a smaller unit of the order of $600,000 because they only had three or four people so it was a much smaller unit. When that happened, the atmosphere within Physics Today changed significantly, in my view. The rest of the units were always strong in terms of working together and all of those issues. One of the first things I did upon getting here was to work with the Physics Programs senior staff to write a five year plan to outline what kinds of things that we were going to do over the next five years. One of my goals was to increase the public outreach that the policy center did. Another goal was to work more closely with the ten member societies. In my view, we were doing an awful lot of work with AAPT and APS. We weren’t doing that much with the other eight member societies, and I felt that the reason that AIP was formed was to provide programs and services to the ten member societies. So the goal was to work on that. I think that we were successful in doing that. One of our other goals was to be more inclusive. I had spent most of my life doing diversity things, but I have never believed that you do diversity for diversity’s sake. You do diversity because you’re trying to serve the entire population. So, when I would talk to Spencer and Joe, I would talk about…
Spencer Weart and Joe Anderson [the directors of the Center for History of Physics and the Niels Bohr Library, respectively]?
Spencer Weart and Joe Anderson. I would talk about the need to make sure that what we did in the Niels Bohr library reflected the community that we were serving to the extent that how did our holdings reflect the demographics of the community. I would argue that if I was looking for things on Hispanic Americans or African-Americans that the holdings didn’t reflect that, and I would argue that we needed to start working on that. I’m pleased that they picked up that ball. Is it where it should be? The answer is no, but at least it is on the radar screen in terms of what we do. In terms of SPS, the Society of Physics Students, when I was talking with Jack Hehn, I looked at where SPS chapters were located and felt that those chapters didn’t reflect the community that we served. We tended not to have active chapters at minority serving institutions. When I went to the Council meeting and observed that the SPS Council was basically white male. Yet, the demographics of the physics community reflected a growing number of young women who were doing physics. There was a significant number of underrepresented who were there, and yet they were not on our radar screen. I am pleased to say that when I go to Council meetings now, that I see a significant number of young women who are on the Council. We also have underrepresented members who are on that council. When we looked at active chapters of the society of the Sigma Phi Sigma, the physics national honor society, we didn’t see active chapters at minority serving institutions. Gary White has changed that.
Who is Gary White?
Gary White is the Director of Sigma Pi Sigma and SPS, Society of Physics Students. Gary has done a fantastic job. When I listened to the conversation within the SPS council, it was the students who said, “We want to have a year where we talk about the diversity of physics and what it means,” they call it the Future Faces of Physics, and that was a student initiative. It was SPS, the Society of Physics Students Council who talked about the ethics of the physics profession and what ethics means. I was extremely pleased. What I tried to do with my leadership style was to talk about what kinds of things we needed to do to make physics reflect the community that we serve, and not to have add-on programs, but to make every program that we had do that. I argued that if you make it part of the institution, it doesn’t matter who is in charge because you do things because it’s the right thing to do. With Roman Czujko, who is the director of the Statistical Center, we started collecting data and publishing that data every year about the number of women who were in physics, about the number of minorities, Hispanics, Native Americans and African-Americans who were in physics and where they came from. We started highlighting the fact, as an example, that African-Americans who are undergraduates tend to graduate from minority serving institutions and not from majority serving institutions, yet most of the underrepresented students go to majority serving institutions, but for some reason at those institutions they are not going into physics. We asked the question, why not? So now we have discussions going on about the kinds of things that majority serving institutions ought to be doing to increase the number of underrepresented and women. When I say underrepresented, what I mean by that are Native Americans, African-Americans, Hispanics, and women. So in terms of the kinds of things that happen on my watch here, those are the things that I’m very, very proud of and the fact that frankly I think I had a fantastic group of directors who basically did their job and, in doing so, made me look as if I knew what I was doing. That’s the short version.
Since we’ve just cleared the four hour mark on the interview, unless there’s anything else that we forgot to cover…?
As I said, I’m sure that there are some things that I have forgotten, but I hope those things that came to the top are those things that are important. Frankly, as a physicist I’ve had, I think, a wonderful life. I can honestly say that since the day I graduated with a BS degree in physics, I’ve never had a job I didn’t like and I didn’t enjoy. The last job I applied for directly was when I left the Army and went to work for RCA. The others, it just happened, and so what I tell students is that physics is one of the few professions where you can have an awful lot of fun doing what you’re doing, and they actually pay you to do it. But what’s my disappointment: that the profession does not look that much different than when I got started. We still have a ways in terms of the representation.
Is there anything that we didn’t cover in terms of your efforts to promote diversity in the profession that is particularly significant to you?
My style has always been to try to work within the system. Did I make as much progress as I wanted? The answer is no, but I’d like to argue that the progress that we’ve made, I think, has been lasting. It continues to happen. I believe in starting the conversation that if we can have a serious conversation about these issues, well-meaning people will do the right thing. That’s always been what I have always believed in, and I continue to believe that.
That seems a fine place to leave off. Thank you very much.
 The school only had seven grades – I misspoke
 He died in 1937
 She died in 1995
 After Brown vs. Board of Education, the school was changed to a junior high school. The white high school became the county high school. Both are integrated.
 The more I think about this, I don’t remember – I placed.
 It turns out that I was incorrect here – Hampton did not have a religious affiliation.
 My memory was a bit faulty here. The correct version is that two years later, after I had received my master’s degree, I became a faculty member at Virginia State. Dr. Hunter approached me about the possibility of staying with him mother, Dr. M.E. V. Hunter, who had been the head of the home economics department at Va. State. I spent a year with her and it was a wonderful experience for me.
 Hunter was born in 1901, so he was 62 when I graduated in 1963.
 The more I think about this story, West Point must have been one of those schools that I sent a resume to looking for a job. At the time, West Point did not have civilian faculty, so I did not get a response. Somehow, It was determined that I was former Army, was an African American and the plan hatched to investigate my willingness to return to active duty status. Bob Fry was the connector.
 In AAPT, the person is elected to the office of vice president – then serves as vice president, president elect, president, past-president.