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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.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

L. Roy Wilcox, PhD - Autobiography, Part 9-B

E5: 1929-1935

Part B – Graduate Period: Winter 1932 – Spring 1935 inclusive

It seems that from an academic point of view I was now sitting pretty. No tuition to pay and an ideal plan of study: continue the differential geometry with E. P. Lane (one of the best instructors in my view) begun in the fall; I could anticipate learning enough in the two spring months to specialize in that field and maybe begin a Masters thesis by summer. With the free period then I might be able to complete the thesis in time to come up for the degree the following December.

The University, however, threw a nasty communication at me. True, I had been extended the one-year senior mathematics scholarship; but my letter stated, I was no longer a senior and so I couldn’t use the scholarship. (No such condition had been stated in my acceptance document.) The Department’s Chairman and Division Dean tried without success to get the University to back down from its high-handed action, and so the Dean assigned me a “service” scholarship for the two quarters which would cover tuition, but would require me to perform some minimal task. As it turned out, this worked out well, since my task was to grade homework papers for one of the instructors (with whom I had taken calculus and whom I knew well and liked). The experience I got was well worth the effort I put in. At the end of the year I was awarded a fellowship paying tuition plus $200 ($500 in all) for 1933 to 1934. For that I would have to give some sort of service. Otherwise, my plans all worked out perfectly. In fact Mr.[1] Lane was delighted to take me on and gave me a master’s [skewed] research problem. I returned the following fall and had conference with Mr. Lane during which I presented my results, led [sic.] to his accepting what I had done as sufficient to be written up as the thesis. The fall quarter was spent in writing, getting Mr. Lane’s approval, reviewing for the Master’s exam (which was oral only), passing same, and of course, taking three courses; broadening my background into some new (to me) subfields. My fellowship service would be to teach an elementary course in the spring.

With the S. M. Degree under the belt by winter I could now get down to business. Again I took courses, including one or two in my specialty. Near the end of the year it was déjà vu: I got a doctoral thesis problem from Mr. Lane to be worked on in the summer. The spring course that I was assigned to teach was analytic geometry, which would have been my first choice anyway. This first full teaching experience was fun; by now I had already decided that University teaching would be my profession, and this taste assured me of the correctness of my decision. In the class was a bright, attractive girl with whom I had some campus “dates,” at which I usually played piano for her (at her request). (There was no rule against such socializing.) I wasn’t serious about Olga Adler of course – she was good company. (I’m sure my mother would have been nonplussed – Olga was Jewish!) We corresponded over the summer but the next year I saw her only once or twice, from afar, with a boyfriend. Oh, well, now that I had a fellowship (this time for a total of $800, the highest amount ever given, and enough to pay me back for the $300 the University had wheedled out of me), I might teach another course.

The next fall I returned with my thesis results. Before I had presented all of them to Mr. Lane, he stopped me and said, “Write up the material to this point, and that will be your thesis.” I had of course a full year to write this material and have it typed. The idea would be perhaps to work up the remainder for publication in a post-doctoral paper. While I had a full year of more coursework to take there was plenty of time to do other things so I extended some of my Master’s thesis work, presented it to Mr. Lane, and at his suggestion submitted it for publication. His influence might have helped – the paper was accepted!

My last quarter was spent preparing for the final examination (oral, of course), finishing off the thesis, taking the usual three courses, and teaching analytic geometry again. One of the members of that class was Herbert Simon, who later became an economist, was a colleague of mine at IIT, and a few years back was awarded a Nobel Prize. I got to know him quite well, but much later: he seldom attended class preferring to work independently. (More comments on this shortly.) And there was a bright, attractive girl in the class. Again there were some “campus ‘dates’,” and again I didn’t get serious. (My mother would have been nonplussed: Margaret Stone was Catholic!) The exam went well; I was elected to Sigma Xi (honorary scientific society) and got my PhD on schedule on June 11, 1935.

Art and Leora, who attended the convocation along with my parents graciously suggested a celebration at their home afterward: dinner and a social evening. They also asked me to select and invite one of my classmates. A friend who also received the PhD seemed an appropriate choice since his family lived too far away to attend the convocation. 

The event was enjoyed by all; I remember few details except that I played the piano, sight-reading Schubert’s Rosamunde Suite from Leora’s sheet music, and that even Leora played along on the violin.

My memories of the graduate friends are pleasant ones. I got to know well and enjoy a number of graduate students. There were several aids toward this end. First, the department provided the fellows and a few other graduate students with small private offices on the top floor of the mathematics building; this facilitated interplay. There were weekly afternoon teas, attended by most mathematics faculty and graduate students. Every other week the Mathematics Club (research oriented) met after the tea, and on off weeks the Junior Mathematics Club met (with a more elementary orientation). I spoke several times at each club and as senior fellow, served as president of the Junior Club during my last year. The Mathematics Library was separate from the main University library (a correct plan) – it was heavily used, so that people “ran into” one another often. We had a close-knit group. Relations between students and faculty were also easy and cordial.
Junior Math Club (Roy is at far left)

I had high personal regard for almost all the mathematics faculty members; there were at least six (out of about 10) from whom I learned a great deal and toward whom I felt indebted for one reason or another. Mr. Lane was of course no one to whom I felt most gratitude not only was he an ideal thesis adviser, but he had an important effect on my entire future. As my impending completion of work at the U of C approached, we discussed possible plans for my next year. I had applied for a National Research Council (NRC) fellowship – support of me for or guidance of post-doctoral research at a chosen university, but was not appointed. So Mr. Lane agreed to recommend me for a “membership” on the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) at Princeton, N.J., similar to an NRC fellowship. He knew well the mathematics director there. Another possibility was a one-year instructor ship at the U of C. But Mr. Lane advised me to keep that possibility as a last resort, feeling that it would be to my interest to receive the branding that would result from a connection elsewhere. The Institute for advanced study appointment came through in due time, and my immediate future became secure: the stipend would be $1200, and the period at the IAS would be expected between October and May with a month break at holiday time.

Also, Mr. Lane gave me great insights into what applied mathematics and indeed science in general is all about, and Mr. B[ounend?]’s courses provided me with an understanding of what mathematics itself is all about – what makes it tick, and what constitutes precision of thought and critical attitude throughout one’s contacts with the subject. It was he who provided the inspiration which led later to my co-authoring the Anatomy of Mathematics.

There was one more other faculty member who deserves special mention: Mr. Walter Bartky, my freshman astronomy teacher, the top member of the astronomy trio, with whom I had had several courses, seemed to take a special interest in me. Early in my last year he called me to his office after having received an odd request: two executives at the Saturday Evening Post magazine had called him to ask for help in navigating. Each owned a yacht and did his own navigating but was anxious to get some instruction in the whys and wherefores of indulging the “cookbook” approach plus tables in common use by navigators. Would I, said Bartky, be interested in teaching these men navigation? I immediately pleaded lack of knowledge of the subject. No excuse, said Bartky; essentially only spherical trigonometry was involved;[2] and I could certainly learn the rest in a week or two; he even had a book that he suggested my using. I was still dubious and reminded him that as a fellow, I was prohibited from doing outside work. No problem said Bartky. Never shy away from something new, he advised, and cited his own acceptance of the job of teaching some industrialists the theory of sampling (for quality control), even though he would have to learn it from scratch himself in a week or so. [But I pointed out that as a fellow I wasn’t permitted to do outside work. This is repeated here.] No problem, he said; a trustee would write a letter waiving the restriction in my case. Upon that I had no choice [but] to agree. On my own I learned navigation, then taught over a five- or six-week period to the two yachtsmen at five dollars per weekly lesson each. This experience gave a tremendous boost to myself-confidence. Just after my final PhD examination Bartky and his wife congratulated me by taking me out to dinner at a local swanky restaurant. I kept contacts with him for many years; he later became a Dean of Physical Science at the U of C.

At this stage I had now reached, it was natural to look back and ask myself whether I had made a good choice to major in mathematics. I recall that at an early stage when I returned to new Trier for a visit Mrs. Walker, who had really led to me to the U of C via the German examination, expressed great disappointment that I had shifted from languages. “Mathematics is so cold,” she said. What she failed to realize was that mathematics is every bit as much a human activity as language, in that mathematical and ordinary language have much in common. Also she couldn’t know how useful to me would my language skills be later on [sic.]. Thus, instructors in the graduate courses always tried to select the best textbooks available whether in English or not. (In two of my courses, the texts were in German, and in one the book was in Italian. In anticipation of this latter I spent part of the previous summer learning Italian, a language which comes easily to one who knows French. Oddly, the Italian versions of mathematical terms are usually closer to the English counterparts then are the German versions.) Then, of course, a prerequisite for a PhD degree was the passing of examinations in two languages to test reading knowledge. The German and French exams were my choice and turned out to be no trouble.

I think that Mrs. Walker would be pleased to learn that I never lost my interest in languages. My interest in linguistics motivated a curious move I made during one of my graduate quarters. I learned that a graduate level course on modern German dialects was to be given by Leonard Bloomfield, a recognized scholar in this field. Since the University permitted auditing of any [offered?] courses by full-time students, I decided not to pass up this opportunity. I knew the Bonn dialect, learned in childhood from Gertrude, and I knew that there were many German dialects differing from one another to the extent that persons from towns as close as 50 miles might not be able to understand each other. (Educated Germans generally learned “stage German” in addition to the local dialects version.) I bought the textbook and attended all the sessions. My presence confused Mr. Bloomfield on the first day of class; he expected only graduate students in German, all of whom he knew. But he accepted my indication that I was only an auditor – probably the first such that he had ever had. The course was fascinating and I felt that in a way it grounded out my academic efforts.

As in earlier periods I developed very few personal friendships during the graduate years. Of my classmates, there were only two or three; with only one of these, Malcolm Smiley, did I maintain close contact for a period of years. He will appear here and there in the sequel. Aside from classmates, there were two friends deserving of mention. One, John Simpson, a prelaw student [who] was an undergraduate during my graduate years. We met on the L: I would leave the North Shore train downtown at the station adjoining the terminal of the Chicago Union and Elgin Railroad (similar to the North Shore line). He would arrive there from A[…?…], making a transfer to the L like mine, and at about the same time. (We both had 8 o’clock classes. I always had them during my whole six-year stint, necessitating my leaving Wilmette on the first morning train at 6.) We had common interests, including music: we were both analytic about most issues. So there was much to discuss, and we both looked forward, over a two-year period, to our frequent meetings, rides, and walks. I was sorry to have seen but little of him after I left the U of C.

A second contact stemmed from my paper-grading year: Harry Harman was a student in a class for which I was grading. Since he always did perfect work, I was determined to meet him. He turned out to be a very close friend up to and beyond my marriage. In fact, he was an usher at my wedding. We had little contact while I was studying at the U of C but later got together often for tennis, bridge, and talk. He was interested in mathematical psychology and statistics. After he and his family moved to California we maintained contact by mail; unfortunately both he and his wife died too soon a number of years ago.

In some ways it was fortunate that I began work at the U of C when I did rather than later, for President Hutchins viewed himself as an educational warden and in a few years after his arrival in 1929 effected major changes in the University’s programs. Students entering under the “New Plan” had little freedom to choose courses and had …?…: They took, during their first two years, four “survey” courses, in humanities, social science, biological sciences, and physical sciences. The idea was to give each student a “broad general familiarity” with major academic areas. A student’s success in these was judged by his performance on “comprehensive examinations,” which could be taken at any time, whether a student had actually attended the course or not. Admission to upper division work in a major field was contingent on the passing of all those four examinations. Hutchins (erroneously) believed that U of C students would be mature enough to govern their handling of this work – whether they wished to attend or not and whether they wanted to take a few other (regular…?…) courses too. (Even passing or finishing ordinary such course at the freshman/sophomore level depended only upon a departmental examination, not on an instructor’s guide.)

Having started my studies under the “old plan” I could continue that way, and, of course, I did. (To change over would undoubtedly have entailed extra time expenditures.) My disapproval of the “new plan” was solidified during my teaching period as a fellow. I learned afterward that very few students in my first class actually appeared for examination so as to “pass” the course; many of these could have passed, had my grade counted. And it is common knowledge that this condition was wide-spread.

The summer of 1935 was spent mostly in preparing a version of my doctoral thesis for publication. While not required, publication clearly would be in my interest. After it was completed I sent it to the Transactions of the American Mathematical Society (AMS) the major research journal in the field.

There was a small additional job: the Wilmette State Bank, which had provided my parents with a mortgage back in 1923, decided to call all such loans and get out of the mortgage business. This meant that $5000 had to be raised somehow – apparent [im]possibility, since the Depression was now in full force. But there was a bit of luck: just formed was the First Federal Savings and Loan Association of Wilmette, ready to enter the business. After a conference with its president, Carl Clifton, approval of my application followed – I guess my new appointment at the IAS was thought adequate to yield the modest monthly payments – now of interest and principal amortization.

All personal and family obligations out of the way I took the rest of the summer off, having earned, I thought, a vacation.

[1] At the U of C no one was ever addressed as “Professor,” or even (except for medical people) as “Doctor.”
[2] This subject was no longer a standard curriculum item. But I had learned it during my early astronomy courses.

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