Mailboxes in the Social Science Research Building. (Photography by Joy Olivia Miller)

Readers sound off

Readers remember the Small School Talent Search, reflect on the Vietnam War and its aftermath, recall Ann Lander’s influential campus food criticism, reject a defense of presidential power, reach for the heavens, and more.

Rara avis

The photograph of Charles O. Whitman in the Mar–Apr/14 issue of the University of Chicago Magazine (right) shows him with some of his birds. He appears to be holding a metal bowl, probably with seed/grain food for his flock. The bird in his right hand is a clearly a Columbidae, as are the ones on the ground in the foreground. The bird on the bowl edge bending its head down feeding is not, though. It is a Colaptes auratus, the northern yellow-shafted flicker, a female I believe. Its pointed tail feathers, used to stabilize the bird while clinging to tree trunks, are a typical characteristic of woodpeckers. In my four years in Hyde Park, I never saw a flicker in the wild. I am not sure if this specimen was a captive or just felt very safe around Dr. Whitman.

Stephen I. Schabel, MD’72 Charleston, South Carolina


I agree heartily with the sentiments Gerald Fong, SM’61, expresses (Letters, Mar–Apr/14), but I fear he misunderstands the Grass Roots Talent Search (GRTS) program (or perhaps Muriel Beadle, whose book I don’t have on hand, misrepresented it). GRTS, which began in 1960, was the “baby” (and I think brainchild) of Margaret E. Perry, for many years associate director of College admissions. From Wisconsin and a former WAC, Margaret was sensitive both to the disadvantages rural small-town students faced and the strengths they could bring to Chicago. There was never an “I” in the acronym, but it was always pronounced “grits,” a word rich with associations and in this context always alluding to students with rough edges (academically and/or socially) but determination, whom the Chicago experience would polish into gems. Diamonds in the rough.

Margaret never doubted that the equation balanced: if Chicago smoothed GRTS kids, GRTS kids roughed up the assumptions of their sophisticated urban classmates. The program was no giveaway. George Beadle, quietly cultivating his corn early morning, may have become a good (but fortuitous) model. I recall the morning George brought down to admissions an early student who reported enthusiastically the unexpectedly great conversation he’d just had with the janitor up on the fifth floor of the Admin Building.

I entered the College in 1959 from Lewis and Clark High School in Spokane, Washington, graduating class of 540. Nonetheless, Margaret quickly dubbed me an “honorary GRTS” since I had largely grown up on a farm near Flaxton, North Dakota (still on the map, but little is left of it), where my freshman class of 13 was about average in a high school with fewer than 50 students. The four-year curriculum was divided into two sets of courses, one set taught each year. As a freshman you got business math or geometry, as a sophomore you took the other. The faculty was four in number, the principal teaching North Dakota history while coaching basketball; the band leader doubling with science, typing, and study hall; two women dividing the rest of the subjects.

At the College, GRTS status got me invited to a reception about once a quarter, nothing spectacular but always enjoyable, and Margaret invited a few administrators and faculty members to meet us. And she kept an eye on us, calling us in if we seemed to need help. It counted.

This also allowed her to pass information back to schools as small as Flaxton’s throughout the Dakotas, Montana, Washington, Oregon, Colorado, and the Plains states, which she cultivated for many years. Few of them were likely to produce a “Chicago student” frequently. But Margaret was tireless in assuring that when a teacher or a principal in one of these little burgs saw a promising student coming along, they immediately thought of her and Chicago. Not all of these students came, of course, but some did, and over time Margaret counseled hundreds of teachers and students toward opportunities other than Chicago that they would not have found by themselves.

Educational systems in these states had begun to change by the 1970s, with most states eliminating by consolidation schools as small as Flaxton’s. Still, when I was a member of the admissions staff from 1965 to 1969, Margaret talked regularly with schools she had first visited ten years earlier, and the program, later rechristened the Small School Talent Search, was still going strong when she died, at the age of 91, in 2002.

Margaret would of course have found it obvious that high IQs are found in Washington, Illinois, as well as Winnetka; what she knew was that IQ was only a part, and typically not the most important part, of what made a bright student successful at Chicago and beyond: what did was “grit” in one of its varied forms, and grit might be found among the affluent in Winnetkas but often came with the territory in less well resourced Flaxtons.

Sidney F. Huttner, AB’63, AM’69 Iowa City, Iowa

The spirit of the letter by Gerald Fong was right, but his details were a bit off.

In autumn 1959, while working part time in the admissions office, I took a brief trip home to Wabash, Indiana, to visit my family. On the way, I made school visits for the office at Plymouth, Culver Academy, Rochester, and Peru. At Rochester, the principal treated me warmly and said I was the first representative from a major private university to visit his school. He regretted the fact that his students were never invited to look beyond the state.

I pondered this over the weekend and came up with an idea I presented to then associate director of admissions Margaret Perry when I returned to Chicago: the Small School Talent Search. We could not possibly visit all the small high schools in the Midwest, but we could use our usual scholarship funds in a recruiting mailer to hundreds of such schools. I suggested Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Minnesota (Ohioans seemed too oriented to the East). Margaret had visited Norman Maclean [PhD’40] at his Montana home that summer, loved the state, and asked why we could not add it. I said, “Why not?” and we did. We applied the same admissions standards but juiced up the financial aid computation a bit to lessen the shock (though tuition was then far lower than now). I think we had 12 matriculants in autumn 1961. As that first year progressed, we got good national publicity for the program.

I think Margaret coined Grass Roots Talent Search (GRTS) and was properly seen as the “mother” of the program. President George Beadle was from Wahoo, Nebraska, and so a great supporter of the idea. One year we got more than 30 matriculants from Montana as well as many from the nearby states. As general adviser to freshmen and then dean of freshmen, I made a special point to reach out to the entering students because I myself had been extremely homesick at first.

The schools of Chicago were a different matter. A representative had always visited all of them, even as academic standards fell. I added all the Gary and Indianapolis schools without much success. Efforts along this line were much more spotty in other metropolitan areas, and we sometimes depended on local magnet schools, such as Detroit’s Cass Tech, Omaha Central, and the several special high schools in the New York area.

James W. Vice, X’52, AM’54 Wabash, Indiana

Thank you, GRTS

Thanks to Gerald Fong for supporting students even from Washington, Illinois, my hometown. I do apologize now but my U of C chemistry mentor, Henry Taube, mentioned me in his 1983 Nobel Prize speech. I wrote, did research, and/or taught at Harvard, Stanford, International Christian University, and elsewhere. My latest books are English for Japanese Chemists with Hiroshi Minato (Tokyo Kagaku Dojin, 1976) and Inorganic Reactions in Water (Springer, 2007).

Ronald Rich, PhD’53 Bluffton, Ohio

Collegium and crossroads

As one whose research interests have recently taken an interdisciplinary turn from early modern church history to late medieval international law, I was pleased to read of the cross-disciplinary focus of the newly established Neubauer Collegium (“A Laboratory for Humanists,” Mar–Apr/14). This is a refreshing addition to UChicago’s collaborative stance against the insidious and all too common myopia of academic specialization.

It was an extra pleasure to note that this new research center will soon be housed in the former home of another of my almae matres, the Meadville Lombard Theological School, at the familiar corner of 57th & Woodlawn.

Jay Atkinson, AM’77 Berkeley, California

Returning vets

I very much enjoyed Nissa Rhee’s [AB’06] article on Vietnam vets who have returned there to help with unexploded ordnance destruction (“The Things They Carried Back,” Mar–Apr/14). I wish I had the skills to help out myself, but I don’t. Maybe when she’s done with this project she could do some research on experiences of Vietnam vets on the U of C campus in the early 1970s, while the war was still on television every night. There weren’t very many of us, and our relationships with the campus community were sometimes less than cordial. If not worthy of a book, our experiences might at least make an interesting article for the Magazine.

Larry Barnthouse, PhD’76 Hamilton, Ohio

Very nice story, however, I take exception with the assertion that American soldiers return as a defeated enemy. We departed with honor after peace was negotiated. It was no surprise when the South Vietnamese military was defeated. The only surprise was that it took two years after the last American combat troops left for Saigon to finally fall.

As a US Army helicopter pilot I flew in support of the South Vietnamese Army and was amazed at the apparent lack of commitment to their cause. It was their country and way of life that hung in the balance, but you would never know it by their timid fight. It was the polar opposite of the commitment displayed by the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong. The communists fought with incredible courage even as hell rained down on them, from heavy artillery to helicopters and bombers. We had an enormous technological edge, but they still would fight to the death for something they deeply believed in and we could not understand.

The outcome of the war was a defeat for the US political leadership and not a military defeat. I, like the vast majority of servicemen and servicewomen, returned home proud of my honorable service. My only regret concerning the war was that our political leadership chose to use military force without an absolute commitment to military victory in support of a worthy cause. Use of military force to achieve a stalemate or anything short of victory is immoral and is a total betrayal of we pawns of war on both sides. What did our brave soldiers die or otherwise suffer for? How can we justify the killing of our “enemy” if the ideal is abandoned when the going becomes difficult?

Stephen Willett Orange Park, Florida

More is less

Am I the only one horrified by the sentence “Teaching a class on Lolita to around 60 students in Harper 140” (“Spine Thrilling,” Jan–Feb/14)? One of the things that set the College apart (at least when I attended) was the small class size and Socratic method. In the same issue of the Magazine, anthropologist Nathaniel Dominy notes the distinction between instruction and education, which “requires students to be active participants.” I remember taking a class on Don Quixote. There were about 15 of us, and we spent the entire quarter in deep and thoughtful discussion about this seminal work. I struggle to see how that kind of interaction can take place in a class of 60. If this is the “strategic plan” for the College, and the outcome of the growth many of us questioned, then it’s not an improvement.

Victor S. Sloan, AB’80 Flemington, New Jersey

The size of the course described in the story is not typical. According to a September US News and World Report story, 77.2 percent of the College’s courses enroll 20 or fewer students.—Ed.


This is to extend my hearty congratulations to my classmate Donald Steiner, MD’56, on his Alumni Medal, to be presented at the Alumni Awards Ceremony in Rockefeller Chapel this June (“Degrees of Honor,” Mar–Apr/14). I remember him well during our four years in medical school and have followed his research. He well deserves this recognition (and the others he has received).

Norman R. Gevirtz, MD’56 New York City

Quality control

I was privileged to be in the audience when Eppie Lederer held her discussion in Burton-Judson Court in April 1956 (Alumni News, Mar–Apr/14). She was both charming and challenging. The food in the court was remarkably poor that year, which had led to a demonstration in the dining hall a few days prior to Lederer’s appearance. She had dined with us prior to the presentation and felt compelled to comment upon the situation.

She let us know in a charming fashion that she disapproved of our demonstration but agreed with the lack of quality which had led to it, and further felt strongly enough about the matter that she would discuss the matter with University administration. In just about one week the food did show significant improvement. Thank you, Ann Landers.

Don Greer, SB’58 Boerne, Texas

Both sides now

Why is the News for Alumni and Friends e-newsletter (February 11, 2014) distributing such politically partisan trash as [Law School professor Eric Posner’s New Republic article] “The Presidency Comes with Executive Power. Deal with It”?

I won’t provide a detailed line-by-line critique. Read it yourself. But here is one example of the ridiculous argument brought forth. In regard to minimum wage rules/legislation, Eric Posner defends President Obama’s executive decision to raise wages for defense contractors. The relevant legislation allows the president to “promote efficiency” in the course of his administration. Who would believe, other than an extremely partisan observer, that an organization that has increased its expenses, without needing to do so, has increased its efficiency?

“Obama’s assertion of unilateral executive authority is just routine stuff,” Posner argues. Well, Obama and Posner may believe this, but there is a coherent, rational political argument opposed to this view. When will the University of Chicago Magazine provide space for the counterargument—or is this just news and opinion that does not fit?

The argument presented in this article is an example of a blindly prejudiced political rant. The U of C alumni newsletter apparently believes that its readers are sympathetic to this rot.

Once upon a time the University of Chicago community promoted independent thinking and analysis. Apparently this is no longer true. Now it sponsors political types such as David Axelrod, AB’76, and Richard M. Daley, and there is resistance to an economic institute named for Milton Friedman, AM’33.

This is no longer a great university, just a politically motivated prestige mill.

Thomas Rodgers, AB’76 (Class of 1968) Oak Park, Illinois

Divine origins

It’s interesting how things are ordered, whether in Holy Scripture, scientific study, or the University of Chicago Magazine. The Nov–Dec/13 article on Divinity School dean Margaret Mitchell, AM’82, PhD’89, was followed immediately by an article on dark matter and dark energy, “On the Dark Side.”

The first piece, which proclaimed religion “not exactly in the same category as legend, myth, and folklore, but perhaps an outmoded human invention whose value and power in explaining the universe … make it an endangered species” was followed immediately by the science article, stating “Copernicus showed that we are not at the center of the universe … so in fact there is no center of the universe.”

The same old tired secular assumptions! To the Chicago editors, religion explains nothing in the universe at all, and, supporting this, medieval science tells us there is still, today, “zero” special about our planet (medieval science that is!). Happily, new and overwhelming scientific evidence supports the Catholic Church’s traditional position on the earth being in a very special place in the universe. The leading cosmologists in the world are interviewed in a new documentary challenging big bang assumptions called The Principle. I suggest all Maroons see it when it comes out this spring.

In short, new evidence for the distribution of galaxies and hard facts from background radiation indicate that Earth lies precisely on an immense axis of warm and cool spots that “should not exist” if space is correctly defined by an isotropic big bang. Unproven dark matter which “would make up 70 percent of the universe” appears now to be just academic “filler,” rationalizing large holes in the big bang theory.

To be certain, I am no cosmologist. Judge the scientific proof for yourselves. However, I do know that God has a great sense of humor. When we see his word is said to explain nothing, his Catholic Church to be questioned, and yet science finally discovers an ordered space mimicking church teaching, we have a new way of appreciating his glorious design and intentions for finding his truth. Our life, purpose, and our origins are much more absolute than many have wished to imagine in recent centuries. The proof is right before us.

Donald L. Meccia, AB’85 Redondo Beach, California

Rowley’s larger impact

Obituaries, even skillfully written, cannot capture the dimensions of a life without some description of key points on a strand of life. Janet Rowley’s (U-High’42, PhB’45, SB’46, MD’48) obituary (Deaths, Mar–Apr/14 ) noted her appointment to the National Cancer Advisory Board in 1984. The full significance of her contribution to the nation’s “war on cancer” won’t be found in transcripts of the board. No mention will be found of her role in containing a disastrous public policy. Action took place in the asides of the committee: coffee, lunch breaks, and occasional dinners, where and when members were uninhibited.

I was appointed at the same time to the board, serving as chair for the subcommittee on environmental carcinogenesis and its report on quantitative risk assessment. Janet participated in this task, working closely with member Irving Selikoff, the global leader in population approaches to environmental cancer research and prevention. They helped prevent complete moral abdication by government’s perverted application of the Supreme Court’s “benzene decision” (Industrial Union Department, AFL-CIO v. American Petroleum Institute, 1980). The decision helps prevent risk assessment from becoming mere persistent foreplay in bureaucratic rites of cannibalism.

Desecration of reason embodied in misuse of cost-benefit analysis prevails, not only in regulatory policy since Truman’s wartime restrictions on civilian life, but also in setting priorities in our health research program budgets. Today’s massive budget cutting at the National Institutes of Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, ripping the fabric of society, had not yet begun. Undercutting government’s Kafkan rationalization, a moral assessment of cost-benefit analysis by UChicago philosopher Alan Gewirth was already under construction.

Streams of budget allocation had for decades been routinely misdirected by special interests away from sane environmental cancer assessment and management. Janet’s work and other work on cancer genes sharpened the tools of cancer prevention.

The International Agency for Research in Cancer disseminates an archetype identifying the course of environmental exposures and subsequent genetic changes retained over the natural history of the individual. Molecular biology as the cutting edge of environmental health science was sharpened. Genetics in this application moves away from the patient-by-patient mode of the orthodox clinic toward aggressive medical surveillance: testing and assessing whole populations, reducing death by preventing increasingly identifiable environmental exposures and subsequent risks of chronic disease. Janet was a leader in developing methods of discovery that have the same precision both for identifying an individual’s environmental exposure and for the individual’s genome. An exposome to match the genome.

Our National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health also has outlined the need for an expanded occupational health program to map the exposome, enabling measurement of exposures we may experience over a lifetime, and of factors such as lifestyle, physical condition, and genetics.

Janet Rowley at one point on her strand of time was the mother of much of this new and needed science. At another point she was its midwife.

Sheldon W. Samuels, AB’51 Solomons, Maryland

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