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

Readers sound off

Readers comment on the social impact of architecture in out of the way places; the recollections of Philip Glass, AB’56, about the College he knew; memories of the late Mike Nichols, EX’53; the circa-1970s ski team’s not-at-all slippery slope to victory; racial “block busting” in the 1950s; the distinction between a telegram and a telegraph; and more.

Difference maker

I wanted to commend Michael Murphy, AB’02, the subject of “Social Constructs” (Mar–Apr/15), and its author, Michael Washburn, AM’02, who wrote the story in such an informative and affirmative way. I love that Murphy’s MASS Design Group is trying to make a difference in unsung places (hi, northern Rwanda and downtown Poughkeepsie), and I appreciate the very human and circuitous path that Murphy has taken to get to this point, and especially that he remained open to new experiences—including Renaissance poetry and study in Cape Town—and new hurdles along the way.

Washburn describes how Murphy abandoned one dream to attend to his sick father and kept him alive by working with him on house restoration, and those two elements—family and manual labor—don’t often feature prominently in the Magazine, but they are part of all of our lives. Add a little Donne and District Six and you have the mental tools to accomplish a great deal, as Murphy shows. I wish him good luck and look forward to following MASS Design’s projects somehow, even if they don’t make the headlines. Great article!

Catherine Skeen, AB’91, AM’02, PhD’03
Narberth, Pennsylvania

Glass’s journey

The excerpt from Philip Glass’s (AB’56) memoir (“The Great Escape,” Mar–Apr/15) brought back wonderful memories of the near-final days of the Hutchins plan version of the College back in the 1950s. Although my travels through the comprehensive exam system were not without some serious hiccups, the breadth and depth of the curriculum, and the engagement of the professors, have served me well over a long and varied career. When I veered from my original career as an experimental physicist into energy and environmental studies, the transition into social science perspectives was greatly assisted by the basics of sociology and anthropology I so fervently absorbed during my undergraduate years. Remarkably, the broad and demanding curriculum that was the foundation of our education continued to shape my life for many years thereafter.

It was, perhaps, too small and demanding of resources to be continued, a small college embedded in a rapidly expanding research university. Those of you who attended the College after it became more “conventional” have certainly not been treated badly but may never fully appreciate the deep and abiding love and respect I and many others have for our undergraduate years in that unique environment. It did engender real affection; when I heard that the last of the circular seminar tables had finally been disassembled, it was like losing an old and valued friend. Neither time nor space has diminished the memories. Or the love.

Gene I. Rochlin, SB’60, SM’61, PhD’66
Berkeley, California

I went through the same process and did pretty much what Philip Glass did, with possibly fewer of the Core courses (you took entrance exams then and could pass out of some comp courses), but quite enough to make me think hard and then some. He is right: you worried about the comp and knew that a few rarified exotics existed who had just sat down, taken them all, and gotten their PhBs. Stunning. I learned that you never can learn enough, that this is both a metaphysical and a practical issue, and that ontology also kicks in, especially today. One always remained a bit confused, but intuited that this experience was profoundly important: there it was, the horizon of knowledge. And there always was someone (most likely sitting next to you in class) who could do it, whatever it was, better. I think we learned respect for the universe.

And yes, we could audit just about anything, including Richard McKeon’s legendary intro Greek philosophy grad course, which figures so strongly in Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I did audit McKeon and topology and anthropology, and the last won over premed. And I did go that distance; the beauty of Chicago was also its richness of choice. Enough; Glass’s account is fine and wondrous true in his own harmonic. That’s how it was and that’s how Chicago should and can be.

I am concerned about one matter, a major one: the Senior Thesis (I choose to capitalize it). I attended my 50th reunion, a definitely great and superbly orchestrated event. At one of the tastefully lubricated revels during the reunion, I sat next to three new U of C graduates. One was in economics, one in biology, and one entering law. Only one had done a senior thesis.

The undergraduate thesis is profoundly significant because it integrates your studies and your skills into a particular focused experience, set at a professional level. It is a powerful ritual and a significant symbol in a major rite de passage (I am obviously an anthropologist) that prepares you for the next step of—whatever. I also believe it is a useful achievement and rewarding in itself. I sensed that it was seen as becoming an obstacle, and we all realize the American cultural mandate for near-neurotic achievement at warp speed over purported hurdles.

The senior thesis is not a hurdle, and it should be kept. No parboiled simulacrum from someone else’s work: do your own, and do it in a recognized, assessable, and respected format with someone aware of and helping you.

K. J. Pataki, SB’60
Portland, Oregon

I enjoyed Philip Glass’s description of his experience at the College in the 1950s. He obviously received a fine education and a wealth of experience in the arts and sciences by his broad contact with Nobel laureates and internationally acclaimed scholars, entertainers, and philosophers. His description of how he navigated the course work and comprehensive exams brings back many memories. I was in the Class of ’52 and observed many bright 16-year-olds, away from home for the first time, who also managed to pass the comps but ignore the classes and quarterly exams and actually avoided receiving an education. Several of my acquaintances majored in bridge and/or pool at the Reynolds Club.

As a premed student, I was one of the people Glass never met, who did all the class work plus some additional science courses and was able to continue at the University in the medical school. I think we both had fulfilling experiences at the University. His experience was filled with considerably more breadth, but my goals required more than a B-minus grade point average.

Paul R. Kuhn, AB’52, SB’54, MD’56
Newport Beach, California

Radio days

Herbert Gans’s (PhB’47, AM’50) report on Mike Nichols, EX’53, at WFMT (“Mike Nichols’s First Career,” Peer Review, Mar–Apr/15) was a fine introduction to his life beyond the U of C. May I add my recollections?

I believe I first saw Nichols in a production of R.U.R. in Mandel Hall. He was well suited for the robot part, as a result of his hairstyle (none). Do any other alumni recall that performance?

WFMT had previously been WOAK, but after new management of what had been a classical station shifted it to pop music, Bernie and Rita Jacobs took over and insisted on a name change, restoring quality radio programming to the Chicago area. The Jacobses also pioneered such innovations as having advertisements read by the announcers, publishing a monthly fine-arts program guide supported by subscriptions, and carrying slick color ads as well as articles of interest to their listeners.

Of course, all but one of the previous advertisers left, thinking there was no interest in classical music in Chicago. The Jacobses broadcast a plea for contributions. I called in to say that, as a student, I didn’t have any money but would like to volunteer my time (I had done engineering at WUCB, the “underground” station at Burton-Judson Courts, and happened to have a commercial radio license).

I started as a volunteer engineer the same week that Mike was hired as an announcer. I regularly came to the station during Mike’s time, keeping the required logs and doing technical maintenance after the sign-off.

The growth of WFMT over the years was a very eventful experience. There are tales I could tell of his sojourn at the station. One evening, having reviewed the teletype printout, Mike announced, “There is no news tonight!”

Mike also helped create the Midnight Special program, beloved by folk music fans for many years. For the same audiences, I recorded concerts by Pete Seeger and many others, at Mandel Hall and elsewhere.

Cal Herrmann, AB’51, SM’56
Richmond, California


I was so happy to see J. V. Prunskis’s (AB’77) letter about the Ski Team in a recent issue of the Magazine (Letters, Jan–Feb/15). After John graduated, we carried on and won the 1979 Illinois Governor’s Cup. It was good fun. Our team included future CFOs, MDs, polyglots, and research scientists. Some had never skied before joining the team. At the Governor’s Cup, teams from Minnesota and Wisconsin were sure that they would come down for easy pickings at Galena. But I won the slalom by seven seconds. Mitch Levine, AB’81, MBA’83; Doug Warren, AB’80; Dave Murdy, AB’79, SM’81, MBA’82; and Jeff Guterman, SM’81, all did their bit to bring a cup back that now languishes in an attic somewhere in Ida Noyes.

The most amusing moments during the races came when our competitors observed us studying on the hill or in the lodge. They often wondered aloud about how we were nerdy and winners.

Abdulkader Thomas, AB’79
Safat, Kuwait

A block busted

I experienced one of the first instances of “block busting” (Letters, Mar–Apr/15) in 1954 when our landlord sent a letter to the renters at 1165 East 52nd Street informing us that he had rented an apartment to a Negro lawyer and his family, but that we could break our lease with 30 days’ notice. People had lived there for decades, but in a short time my husband and I, both UChicago graduates, were the only whites renting. The rents were raised for black families that took their place.

Jean O’Leary Brown, PhB’47
Oakland, California

Good reads

A decade ago the University of Chicago Magazine was a romanticized, Keatsian version of an “Ode to a Grecian Urn” or of an inanimate school. Today this outstanding magazine profiles College students, postgraduates, and teachers influenced by the school’s approach, warts and all. Your article on Senator Bernie Sanders, AB’64 (“A Political Education,” Jan–Feb/15), brought me beyond his media celebrity to see a humanistic, socially aware individual whom I would want to know more about. In the next issue an article by composer Philip Glass, AB’56 (“The Great Escape,” Mar–Apr/15), showed the ability of a broad liberal arts education to allow his mind to later create multiple operas. If there are prizes for best alumni magazines, yours should be in the running. In the future an interview with Cass Sunstein, who taught for 27 years at Chicago, would be intriguing.

My suggested experiment is that an issue should go to 50 percent of the College applicants you accept. I suspect that a greater number of high schoolers who chose to accept the University of Chicago offer will be influenced by reading the Magazine. I assume that the acceptees are already aware of UChicago’s presentation of original thinkers in its Core program. The Magazine presents a further vision of originality and innovation in its students and later in its productive and intellectually contributing alumni and teachers who benefited by their UChicago experience.

Leonard Friedman, AB’56
Middletown, Massachusetts

House hecklers

Fascinating to hear about the two couples “heckling” the Robie House (“Eyes Wide Open,” Editor’s Notes, Jan–Feb/15). I’m curious to know what you gathered was the basis of their laughter? It is old, vintage, weird because not Kentlandish? Unrecognizable nonsuburban? Couldn’t be seen as a mansion? Seemed out of place, unlike anything in their experience? And were they University types? From Seattle? Another country? Thanks for this anecdote and your column.

Bob Garlitz, AM’69, PhD’69
Plymouth, New Hampshire


On page 84 of the Mar–Apr/15 issue is a photograph of Wayne C. Booth, AM’47, PhD’50, teaching a class. The student to Booth’s right is me, so the photograph does not date from 1984, as indicated in the caption, but from either the fall quarter of 1977 or the winter quarter of 1978, when I was a student in his class.

Kurt P. Wise, AB’81
Cleveland, Georgia

On pages 32 and 33 of “Object Lessons” (Mar–Apr/15), you refer to telegraphed messages as “telegraphs.” The term should be “telegram,” defined as “a message sent by telegraph and then delivered in written or printed form.” Telegraph refers to the system or to the device used for transmission.

Ruth Curd Dickinson, AB’52
Topeka, Kansas

We regret the errors and thank our readers for pointing them out.—Ed.

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