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.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

L. Roy Wilcox, PhD - Autobiography, Part 11

E7: 1938-1940

As at Princeton, I waited until I reached Madison to make living arrangements. This time I had a shorter trip from home and I had my car to carry my personal luggage. I learned where North Hall, the mathematics building, was and went there directly to announce my arrival and inquire as to procedures to find off-campus living quarters. By good luck, a Mrs. [Adelaide] Skinner, widow of a late department member, had a room to rent. In short order I went to her house and rented the room (again $15 per week). Here I would be the only roomer, and my room was very large, even equipped with a washstand. There was no shower – only a tub – but I couldn’t expect everything. On [Lathrop] street-parking was OK, but I later found that with 25° to 30° below zero temperatures, a heated garage would be needed. And there was one a block away, which I used each winter.

There were no private offices for faculty. (I had had one since the U of C.) The building was much too small for such a large department. (In fact, this was a gigantic University compared to those that I had known.) Apart from about twelve mathematics faculty members with professional ranks, there were seven instructors, of whom I was one. It turned out that the others – Don Hyers, Dick Kershner, Bernard Friedman, Bob Wagner, Churchill Eisenhart, and someone whose situation was special – were not regarded as slated for ultimately permanent appointments, but that I was. 

Don Hyers, Roy Wilcox, Dick Kershner

The department had no faculty member in the field of geometry and I had been selected to work toward the geometry slot, because of my background in that field. (Accordingly, I was getting $400 more in salary than each of the others.) If a department of 18 members seems small for a big University it should be remembered that there are countless graduate assistants, each teaching one or two elementary courses in small sections. (Often, but not here, such courses are handled through big lectures and “quiz sections.” I later came to realize that the Wisconsin system was by far the better one.)

My teaching assignment was a bit heavy I thought (14 class hours per week in for courses). The first year was uneventful. Teaching went well, due in part to my previous experience; I taught only freshmen and sophomores. Engineering majors too, a different sequence of math courses, and the faculty for them was separate from the main (liberal arts) group, though all were in the same department, headed by Prof. Mark Ingraham, who later became Dean and became very active in American Mathematical Society and organizational affairs.

My closest friends among my fellow instructors were Don Hyers, whose mathematical and musical interests were close to mine, Bob Wagner with whom I played billiards, and Dick Kershner. Dick and I didn’t have much in common during my first year, except that he and his wife Amanda liked to play bridge and sometimes invited me to “fill in.” Bob Wagner left after one year, and our association was short, though we have kept up contacts through the years.

But I felt it too narrowing to limit my contacts to fellow mathematicians. A small taste of faculty club life during my U of C Summers led me to investigate the University club. While this club was designed for, used by, and managed by faculty members, it was run as a private club with no administrative or financial connections with the University. The building was not even on University property, but was adjacent to the campus. I immediately joined, so that I could eat lunch there and use the facilities. Except for Kershner, the other male instructors had a living quarters there. Even had I known of the existence of such quarters I would have preferred the more quiet environment that I had selected.

It was at the club that I learned to play billiards seriously (not pool, but three-ball, straight rail billiards). This activity alone got me contacts, some becoming quite important to me, with non-mathematical people. The man who taught me what I learned (and know even now) about billiards, was Miles Henley, English professor, who was a renowned linguist. He specialized in American dialects and provincial usages; what a find, for one incipient linguist such as I! I spent many hours with him at the billiard table soaking up what I could about language. From here I first learned what “hyper urbanisms” are and the mysteries of “virtual words.” These latter would have given me plenty to do research on, had I carved out a career in linguistics.[1]

There were several things which were unpleasant about Madison. First, it is a city with many hills, and the campus has its share. Parking on campus was impossible unless one was a Dean or a Regent; I couldn’t even wangle a permit out of a M. Wilcox, in charge of campus grounds. So I made a practice of parking near the University Club, except during the cold weather, i.e. most of the winter, when I walked the mile or so to and from the campus, leaving the car in the garage. Also, my abode was across the street from the athletic field, the source of much noise at times. (I had learned at Princeton to try to get out of town on football weekends and of course here I could do the same by spending such weekends in Wilmette.) But there is no denying that Madison was a beautiful city, with three lakes nearby, one right next to the campus. (North Hall was so named because Lake Mendota precluded any building north of that building.).

The year was a smooth one; I had plenty to do, with my teaching, research work, and recreational activities, including tennis principally with Don Hyers, flute duets with Don, evenings with the “gang” at a local pub, etc. As to feminine company I thought that my experiences with the dearth of it during my E4, E5, E6 periods would not be repeated, since a State University would teem with females. The U of W was no exception: hordes of girls covered the campus, and it was said about their climb up the hill toward North Hall, with the statue of Lincoln (seated) at the top, that he would rise whenever a virgin reached the top. But I soon learned of the roadblocks. It was against University policy for (male) faculty members to date undergraduate students. Mathematics had a few female graduate students who were normally sought by the younger (male) graduate students. There were townspeople, a hospital with courses, even a nursing school, but there was no ready way to get acquainted with these people (unless one went to church or joined some local organization). Of my instructor friends only one, Bob Wagner, seemed to make out. Churchill Eisenhart eventually made out by cozying up to a waitress at a local restaurant and then marrying her. Somehow Don Hyers got acquainted with a girl at the nursing school, whom he dated a bit. On one occasion I joined him on a blind double date. But she wasn’t too bright or attractive, and, although I later accepted her invitation to her school dance, I had no interest in furthering the matter.

Occasionally one learns an important principle respecting one’s behavior; after all, one isn’t born wise. My first lesson along this line I learned at the end of my first Madison year. While elementary courses were large, they were taught in grade sections, as already noted. But final examinations were common, held in large rooms, and were designed by those teaching the course. In the second semester I taught such a course and all the remaining were graduate assistants. During the writing of the examination, the other instructors insisted on including a question on a book outside the course syllabus, all of them had covered it, but I had not. My negative vote carried too little weight. So at the examination time I announced that students in my section would not be required to answer that question. Chairman Ingraham learned of this later and called me on the carpet. I argued my case, but he claimed that I should have been more forceful in trying to keep the question off the examination. He was wrong, of course. More than that, the procedure was wrong in two ways: first, examinations should be separate for separate sections, since students should be tested over only the material they were exposed to; secondly, if common exams are given, they should result from a unanimous decision of the group. Here I learned that one must be more creative in going along with existing policy, however stupid it might be. It would take more experience to direct me toward a good personal policy for dealing with such matters. Later items relevant to this should get described in E8 and E9.

The next summer was spent in Wilmette where I worked on my research projects and enjoyed a vacation. There was swimming with Mort Mergentheim in Winnetka, and I was able to play billiards, since the University club had reciprocity compacts with the faculty clubs, and I could get a summer membership at the club at Northwestern University. There I played often with a returned professor who was a good match for me. During this summer the Pontiac developed transmission trouble and so I traded it for a 1936 Chevrolet two-door sedan. Again, price was $365 (less trade in).

My second Madison year was an eventful one indeed, good and not so good. On the first day I met Bob Coe, who was enrolling as a graduate assistant in our department. He had been a theater organist until sound films knocked him out of his profession, had briefly worked for the telephone company, and then decided to get a college education at Carroll College, majoring in mathematics. He was found so capable there upon graduation he was recommended for graduate work at the U of W – Madison. The day I met him, we conversed briefly, and then he told me about his background. I made a comment something like “So you are a tibia roller.” He perked up, knowing that I was no novice regarding the theater organ. This began our close friendship and association lasting until his death in [April] 1982.

Now it happened that Bob had a connection with the firm that owned the Capitol Theater* in town which he knew had a fine organ, which had undoubtedly deteriorated. Through some conniving he got permission to repair the organ and use it for his enjoyment. I was to be his assistant and thus have the opportunity to play on it. So from 8 to 12 AM [unclear if this is really 8 AM – 12 PM or 8 PM – 12 AM; the transcriptionist suspects the latter since the author was not a morning person] twice a week we worked through most of the 1939 – 40 year bringing the organ up to par and having great fun. I learned much from Bob not only about repairing and tuning but also about playing techniques. The manager was opposed to this project (since power use cost him money), but he had been overruled. Now one part couldn’t be repaired there, but had to be taken out. It was a heavy box; and we had sneak it out lest the manager see us “stealing” theater property. So one morning Bob enlisted three of his student friends; we parked by the rear theater door which was open. Luckily the theater was dark: Bob and I went to the balcony where the organ chamber was located, secured the box, tied a long electric cord around it, let it down over the balcony front to the fellows below. They received it and rushed it to my car. We had noted that the manager was there (an unusual event so early), and we knew that if the electric cord broke we would all be in the soup. What luck we had! The repair was made by the time of our next scheduled visit to the theater; we knew that no secrecy was now needed, since the manager wouldn’t object to our bringing something in.

The second important event stemmed from the fact that Don Hyers was no longer dating the nurse, but had become acquainted with a girl in Milwaukee, Wanda Deming, in whom he had become quite interested. One day he asked whether I’d like to join him in a double date: Wanda had a friend, Virginia Johnson, who would be my date. Don and I would drive to Milwaukee (in his car), and plan to stay in a hotel overnight. We could thus see the girls both Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon before returning to Madison. Answer: yes. (As it developed, the answer should have been YES!!)

Virginia’s family was by no means an academic one; in fact her father was …?... though a business man, and a good one. But she had an academic orientation having graduated from Carroll College (my second “contact” with Carroll) and had a Master’s degree in journalism from Marquette University in Milwaukee. I was especially struck by her voice – not deep but very sonorous and distinctive.

I looked forward to possibly more dates with her; if – and this crossed my mind – we were to see each other further, there was the advantage of dissimilarities in our educational and professional backgrounds. Of course there were indeed several double dates thereafter, Don and my cars alternating. I planned to spend the Christmas holidays in Madison, and so I tried to get a date with Virginia for New Year’s Eve. No soap, since she already had one. Oh well. So I spent the evening with Bob Coe and his friends. But the following spring things picked up with even some single dates in Milwaukee. Then it developed that Don and Wanda were to be married in April (1940); he asked me and I agreed to be his “best man.” After the wedding, Virginia and I had another date – an important one, based on some careful consideration by me of the pros and cons of single life. We planned to marry in December.

Throughout the academic year, Dick Kershner and I became better acquainted. Initially he and I didn’t see eye to eye on some basic mathematical ideas.[2] But slowly he was coming around to my position, and by my second Madison year we were very much in harmony; he even proposed that we might take some steps toward dissemination of the “gospel.” Suffice it to say here, we agreed to write a book and started on it the following summer. Because of WWII, we didn’t get to complete it and have it published until 1950. More on this elsewhere.[3] Our affinity led to closer social relations between me and the two Kershners. So when Virginia would come to Madison, for our date or a dance at the University Club, she would stay at the Kershners. So even before our marriage, the Kershners and Wilcoxes became very close friends.

Of course, Virginia met Bob Coe, and they hit it off quite well. On one of the visits to Madison, Bob took us to the Capitol Theater where, by that time, the organ was in superb condition. She and Bob sat in the balcony, and I serenaded her. Since the theater, as usual, was dark, I always suspected that she didn’t listen very much but instead conversed with Bob throughout the “concert.” Oh well; there would be times later when ignoring my playing wasn’t so easy. Clearly Bob was the right guy to play the organ at our wedding, which would be at Virginia’s church in Milwaukee.

Now came the first setback in my career. In April, a new governor was elected in Wisconsin – a “self-made” plumbing goods manufacturer, Julius Heil. Now Heil had no idea what a university was or how one operated. So he sneaked around the campus to find out. When he found that professors were often not in their offices on “working” days, he decided that the university was mismanaged and should have its funds reduced. (He might have asked a few questions and learned that professors are often in libraries or teaching classes, or attending seminars or meetings or working at home; but he didn’t have sense enough for that.) He had no trouble getting the State Legislature (largely ignorant farmers) to vote a 10%, across the board, decrease in the University appropriation. When this news reached our department, there was consternation, since costs had to be reduced. I still don’t know how Chairman Ingraham planned to deal with this disaster; the tenured faculty would be secure of course, except for possible payouts; but we little guys could be dispensed with. In my conference with the Chairman I was told that my job wasn’t in jeopardy, but there could be no promise of the future for me as had been envisaged. After all, no one could know how long Heil would remain as governor or how long it would take to restore proper level of financing the University. (As it turned out, Heil was voted out of office two years later; but it took ten years before the University got back to where it had been, in size, scope, quality, and the level of funding.)

My decision was clear: I would put out the word that I was available. And it was clear to me that, if I had a choice, I would prefer a private rather than public university, because too many uninformed and disinterested people could exercise power over the latter, while the former would be managed by an interested and, one hopes, an informed board of trustees. Our marriage plans remained in place; as a last resort my Madison job would be in hand; after marriage we could get an apartment and live there. The next summer, while I was spending some time at Virginia’s family’s summer home at Beaver Lake, Wisconsin, a phone call came to me from a Dr. Grinter, vice-president of Armour Institute of Technology on the South Side of Chicago (in the process of combining with a liberal arts college to become Illinois Institute of Technology). Would I be interested in considering an assistant professorship at $2400 a year? If so, when could I confer about it with him at the Armour campus? Answer: yes, and as soon as convenient.

I knew little about Armour Institute, except that I had seen from the “L” its “campus” – a few old buildings and a big vacant lot (for athletic events): hardly an impressive-appearing place. But teaching in Chicago would have its advantages, since I already had friends there, including the U of C people. I knew only one faculty member at Armour, a U of C PhD, who was rather kooky. Also, the assistant professor rank was appealing. The interview was a pleasant one; apparently the VP Grinter was satisfied with my background and promise. He turned me over to the President, Henry T. Heald, for an hour’s conference. He also presented his long-range program to me: expansion of IIT into a true University, enlargement of the 7.5 acre “campus,” upgrading faculty – especially by adding promising young PhD’s to the very meager thus …[looks like “audified”...] existing faculty and weeding out deadwood. With this story and Heald’s compelling personality, I became almost enthusiastic to accept. Leaving the President I then went to talk to the mathematics Chairman, Lester Ford. This interview was a minor detail, for he told me almost immediately that my appointment was up to the higher-ups; he evidently had no voice in the matter. In due course I got the appointment letter: things were looking up.

I had often in the past attended summer meetings of the American Mathematical Society. The meeting in 1940 was in Madison, a sort of last hurrah for me. With the opening of the fall term I would live at home in Wilmette and commute to IIT by car or train until the Christmas holidays, during which the big event would take place.

Maybe my career hadn’t been set back a great deal after all; much would depend on how Pres. Heald’s vision of the future of IIT would materialize. After all, life is made up of gambles: now I was gambling on a new career, the effectiveness of college President, and shortly a new life as a married man. Possibly this new gamble would be a success, as early will ones had been.

[1] See appendix.
* Now the Overture Center
[2] See F2.
[3] See F2.

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