About Me

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Lake Mathews (Perris), CA, United States
Born in Illinois, I grew up in Wilmette, a northern suburb of Chicago. I have one sibling, an older brother. I am married, for the 2nd time now, to Butch & got 4 children in the deal. They have gone on to make me grandmother 25 times over & great-grandmother to over 20!. After many years working in industry, I got my bachelors and masters degrees in speech communication, & was a professor in that field for 13 years. I retired in 2001 & returned to school & got my doctorate in folklore. Now I meld my two interests - folklore & genealogy - & add my teaching background, resulting in my current profession: speaker/author/entertainer of genealogically-related topics. I play many folk instruments, but my preference is guitar, which I have been playing since 1963. I write the "Aunty Jeff" column for the Informer, newsletter of the Jefferson County NY Gen. Soc. I work in partnership with Gena Philibert-Ortega & Sara Cochran as Genealogy Journeys® where we focus on educating folks about Social History. More about that: genaandjean.blogspot.com. More on our podcasts: genjourneys.podbean.com. More about my own projects: Circlemending.org.

Friday, February 7, 2014

L. Roy Wilcox, PhD - Autobiography, Part 10


The Pennsylvania Railroad was to see me from time to time in these years. An overnight trip got me from Chicago to North Philadelphia. A change of trains was needed to get to Princeton Junction, whence by a three-mile shuttle trip I would arrive at Princeton. At Christmas the trip was reversed; after the holidays the entire process would be repeated, and I would be home for the summer after the second term.

In those days one shipped most belongings in a trunk; I didn’t travel light. Although we were still poor, I learned that a trip by coach worth the small extra cost. I found the upper berth better than the lower. This was the routine until I got a car in 1937.

On my first arrival at Princeton I was a bit [unprepared], not having been able to make any contacts earlier. So I stayed one night at a hotel in town (not the best, I learned later, but with space) and the next day made my way to the IAS headquarters in “Fine Hall,” graduate mathematics building of Princeton University. The two institutions were almost entirely separate, but a close relationship existed between the two groups of personnel.

To help indentify the IAS, I quote here from the foreword The Institute for advanced study 1930 to 1954:
“The Institute . . . will permit.” – Robert Oppenheimer (then Institute director) [It is apparent that the intention was to reference this work to complete this quote, not included in the manuscript.]
Initially, the IAS was intended solely [for] mathematics and mathematical physics; later a few other fields were added.

On my first day I quickly made some acquaintances and inquired as to how I might find a place to live. By luck I asked the right person, Al Clifford who summoned another man Wallace Givens. They both were renting rooms in a private residence where there was still one vacant room. It took little time to make necessary arrangements, ending with my renting, for $15 weekly, a small room; ideally located well away from the other four rooms which were respectively occupied by Al, Wallace, a chemist Joe Hüstenfelder, and the landlady Elizabeth Cleary, 60ish but vivacious and most pleasant. This was to be my Princeton abode for the next three years. As it turned out, I couldn’t have asked for a better “family.” And 43 Vandeventer was located only three blocks from Fine Hall.
Roy in front of the Vandeventer residence, Princeton, New Jersey

I learned the ropes easily from my newly found friends. There was an excellent French restaurant only a few blocks away. There one could have three meals a day for one dollar! (I tried that arrangement briefly but soon shifted to a dinner only plan – $.60 per day – since breakfast and good light lunches could be had elsewhere.) There were teas daily (4:00 to 6:00 PM daily) for social and professional contacts, bridge playing, etc.[1]

Soon an appointment with the Institute director, Dr. Abraham Flexner, was made for me. The main purpose was to tell me – and I remember his exact words: “Here you have no duties only opportunities” – which I had already surmised. And the opportunities were many indeed; there were six “professors”: Oswald Veblen, John von Neumann, Marston Morse, Albert Einstein, James Alexander, and Herman Weyl; in addition there were some members, including professors on sabbatical leave known all over the US, and post-doctoral people like me, and a few “assistants” to the professors. Everyone was free to conduct lectures, a lecture series, seminars, gab fests, etc.; And everyone was free to attend any of them as he chose, as well as similar offers by the Math Department of Princeton University.

My first appointment was with Prof. Oswald Veblen, friend and erstwhile colleague of my thesis advisor (Mr. Lane), and now the principal professor in the School of Mathematics. He gave me the information I needed concerning the way the Institute operated. For example, I learned that Fine Hall was open to members 24 hours per day (each member having a key), and that the library (all of the top floor of Fine Hall) was also open all the time. I later realized that this library had as complete an advanced mathematics collection as existed anywhere. It was effectively run strictly on the honor system, with a top librarian to help find things if need be. It took me little time to learn the details necessary for coping with a living and working situation of a kind new to me. I had never been away from home and family before, nor had I been in such a situation of complete self-management.

I took full advantage of the new opportunities by attending lecture series in several subjects that I had never heard of. The mathematics here was unbelievably far ahead of any I had met at the U of C and I was beginning to realize that my graduate education there was far less than it seemed and as it should have been. The reason I began to realize, was that most of the U of C professors had been students of the professors of earlier times, who had done pioneer work in their field, and that their students were engaged in focusing on more or less routine extension of the earlier work. When my thesis submitted earlier for publication was turned down on the grounds not that it wasn’t good work, but that it was in a work “passé.” The full force of the need to get myself into the modern mathematics world hit me. One of my objectives, though, was to learn at least one field, new to me, adequately enough to do acceptable research in it – no small task, but my start was underway.

My career had so far exhibited fortuitous features; another piece of good luck was about to occur. Professor von Neumann had a lecture series I had attended in the first term. The Professor began a new series at the start of the second term. As it happened, his assistant had got seriously behind in his work and for some reason didn’t attend the first second-term lecture. Von Neumann, noting this absence, asked if someone would be willing to take notes. He seemed to be looking at me and I nodded: Von Neumann’s new subject was “continuous geometry” of furthering of a brand new field of mathematics lattice theory. Secretly I hoped that I would be continuing to “pinch-hit,” so that I could grow easily in the new field which excited me greatly. And this is just what did happen: the absent assistant had all he could do to complete work on the notes of the first term!

Now Flexner’s promise seemed violated, for I did indeed have duties! Typically my afternoon after a lecture was spent preparing “the notes,” discussing them with von Neumann, and getting them to the secretary, who would prepare the stencils the next morning. Then an afternoon (sometimes going into the evening) I would process them and get them back to the secretary. By the next day, the time of the next lecture, the pages were ready for distribution. This task might have been less daunting had von Neumann been an ordinary lecturer. But his speed was about three times great as the one lecture, and the size of the notes reflected that. I was now performing the exact functions of an assistant (without pay for it, of course).

With these duties, I had gained untold opportunities. In order to get to the point of doing research in any established field, even in a small one, one mainly has to gain considerable background – to learn what has been done already. But when one enters a fledgling field as lattice theory was then, there is precious little by way of background to research. And one has the advantage of participating in the building of the foundations of the subject, almost from the start.

As the end of the first year near, a decision as to the following year had to be made. But before I even inquired about a shift in role from member to von Neumann’s assistant, I was told by Veblen in that, at von Neumann’s request, I would be so named. The lecture series carried out with term ending could go on for at least another year. (I had an offer of an instructorship at UCLA, but had turned it down, feeling that I needed more of the post-doctoral work that I was doing before entering teaching.) Now I would have a salary of $1500 per year. Actually, I remained as von Neumann’s assistant for an additional year, since he had, by that time, done enough research to present a further year of lectures. As it happened, my duties in that last year were lessened, since for some reason von Neumann felt that his approach in the final year’s development wasn’t the best possible and he therefore did not want notes prepared and distributed. (I took them anyway, but did not [type] them up, on the chance that he would change his mind! He did not.)

By my second year at the IAS I reduced attendance at seminars, etc. so that I could give thought to research areas. During that year and the following I was able to work on and complete two definitive papers (one with a coauthor, Malcolm Riley,[2] an old friend from the U of C who had got his degree two years after I had), later published; and I began work on a third paper, also ultimately published.

During my last year at the IAS I had two job nibbles, the first from the University of Cincinnati and a later one from the University of Wisconsin. The first resulted in a sort of offer after I had visited Cincinnati during the winter break but it never became definite. I had little enthusiasm for the location and didn’t pursue the matter. When Prof. Cyrus MacDuffee from the University of Wisconsin at Madison [result of an IAS project] approached me with a definite offer, it didn’t take me long to decide to accept. I would be an instructor at $2200 per year.

Very few “eligible” young ladies were left in Princeton. The school was then for males only, and there were very few females at the IAS. The town “girls” were maiden ladies left over after the graduating seniors from the University had carried off the cream. There were occasional dances (one per year hosted by Dr. Flexner); for dates to these I made do with the maiden ladies available. Some members at the IAS had wives and had brought them to Princeton. These were evenings with some of these couples. At 43 Vandeventer we roomers sometimes had parties inviting town girls. But most of the social life was in the form of gab fests, games (e.g., Go, Canasta, Bridge) among single males. The exception occurred during my second year, when I somehow got acquainted with a nursing student in Philadelphia. (She was related to some people I knew in Princeton.) There were a few dates with her and after a period of inactivity I learned that she had married.

It was some consolation that Princeton was place of many musical events. There were organ concerts by famous organist at the chapel; and there was a fair amount of chamber music on the campus. (Einstein usually attended and always congratulated the performers afterward.) A few other musical matters are dealt with in F 1. Unfortunately I was able to get to New York or Philadelphia [only] occasionally, to hear their reputation-great symphony orchestras.

Once during my first IAS year at the spring break I went to Boston (train to New York, boat to Boston) to visit with Mort Mergentheim, now at Harvard Law school, during our spring break. And during my second and third years I took weekend trips to northern New Jersey where my old friend Clarence Baerveldt was living and preparing for the Presbyterian ministry. I hadn’t made those trips (by railroad) more than a few times when Clarence suggested that I get a (used) car. In fact, he took me to a dealer in East Orange; I bought a 1933 Pontiac four-door sedan for $365 (the only car I ever bought on time). 

I secured a New Jersey driver’s license (Illinois still didn’t require one). Thenceforth I had better control over my transportation. I could now enjoy more local attractions than I could earlier. Thus I could get over to Asbury Park, a delightful town on the coast, and could try a variety of seafood restaurants in the Princeton area. (It was at this time that I enjoyed my first experience with oysters, clams, crabs, etc.)

My years at Princeton added up to nothing short of a wonderful experience. I grew professionally, became weaned from my family, and learned the art of “personal administration.” A typical workday, when I became an Assistant, went something like this:
               12 noon or so:                   Arise, get a brunch
               1 – 2 PM:                         Attend a lecture or seminar (not all were                                                         where I had duties!)
               2 – 4 PM:                            Play tennis or squash with a colleague[3]
               4 – 8 PM:                            Tea, plus a long bridge game
               8 – 9 PM:                            Dinner at Lakiere’s[?]
               9 PM – 12 AM:                   Late movie
               12 – 1 AM:                          Game (usually with Al Clifford) at 43                                                             Vandeventer
               1 – 5 or 6 AM:                    Work on my research

The schedule was of course different on von Neumann’s lecture days, with the 2 to 4 and 9 to 12 periods devoted to work on lecture notes. As can be seen from the table, I had become fed up with the U of C early morning schedules and chucked them as soon as I could; I became and remained a “late” person. The main advantage to working through the wee hours was that there were then no distractions. More on this in section F2.

(One word about bridge, etc. while as a grad student at the U of C, I noted that some of my fellows’ students played bridge incessantly – to the point of addiction. So I steered clear of the game. At least one very capable but addicted student I knew substituted bridge for studying and never got his degree. But at the IAS I got interested in the game and found it possible to work it in without damaging my professional life. After leaving the IAS I played only rarely; usually people who played didn’t do so very seriously, and I wasn’t accustomed to that. While I always enjoyed games of skill, e.g., chess, Bridge, billiards, they never played a major role in my life.)

Summers during this period were by no means wasted: they supplemented the important active things at Princeton. I lived at my Wilmette home, of course, but spent weekdays at the U of C, where office facilities were available for visiting mathematicians. I was surprised to find a number of my IAS colleagues there too, taking advantage of the U of C hospitality – one of our group, a Princeton University professor, was teaching at Northwestern during the summer and rooming in Wilmette. Since he joined the group at the U of C, I got a ride home, since he had a car. The U of C gave us privileges at the Quadrangle (faculty) club, with facilities for tennis, billiards, and meals. All in all this was a most enjoyable summer.

The second summer (of 1937) was much like the first, except that I had a visiting instructorship at the U of C; many of the old group were there again. 
Roy, his mother Pauline (in car), and the 1933 Pontiac; ca 1937, Wilmette, Illinois

The course that I taught was along the lines of my new lattice theory interest; one of my students became so interested he asked me to become his Master’s thesis advisor. I readily gave him a Master’s level problem and started him off. After I left, he continued his work under Mr. Barnard[?] and, I understood, later got the degree. Another experience was to be appointed to the PhD final oral examination committee for my old friend Malcolm Smiley who had now completed his work toward the PhD. He passed, of course, and turned up at the IAS in the fall! In fact, a room at my rooming house became available and he moved in. That year we developed and wrote our joint paper.

When these years were over, I had about finished my “growing up” period; I had positioned myself well for future research work, and a proper University teaching career seemed assured. I had also grown up politically. Wilmette was my official residence, and so I voted absentee in the 1936 Presidential election – for Roosevelt (and I voted for the same candidate three more times). My Pontiac was still running well; I maintained the New Jersey registration until I got to Madison. The summer of 1938 passed uneventfully, except that I again frequented the U of C and [commentary ends here].*

[1] At the IAS the custom was to use appropriate titles – Professor, Doctor, etc. as appropriate.
[2] Malcolm eventually became a professor at …?… where he stayed until …?… was too much. His career ended at SUNY. (He died a few years ago.)
[3] Shortly after arriving at Princeton I asked the gymnasium management for privileges at the gym – locker, towels, free use of facilities, etc. They hadn't heard of the IAS, but heard my request and decided to extend a special reduced rate privileges not only to me but for all IAS personnel. I was thanked by many for my action.
* Not included here but most likely the process during the Princeton years, during the summer, after Roy got a car: his Sundays were spent taking his parents to church, then his father to the Cook County Jail to play music for and preach to the inmates and taking his mother to the Foster Park German Baptist Church on Paulina, later picking up his father from the train and driving him to the home of a German Church parishioner to join his wife for dinner at that location. (This according to oral interviews by the transcriptionist with Roy Wilcox in ca. 1979 and 1997-99.) 

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