Readers share their experiences with the Small School Talent Search, encourage mountain climbing, debate free expression, and more.
Grass roots talent
I very much appreciate Tom Heberlein’s (AB’67) “No Small Talent” about the Small School Talent Search. I was recruited to that program through an interview with Margaret Perry in Billings, Montana. I was a senior at Custer County High School in Miles City, Montana. My father was a barber, my mother a bookkeeper. I learned of my acceptance and scholarship in April 1963 (the local paper gave it quite a write-up, calling it the “Small Talent Search,” which was not entirely inaccurate since I was ill prepared for the academic demands I was to face).
That first quarter was agonizing. My composition instructor wrote on my initial paper, “The first thing you need to do, Mr. Shields, is learn to write an English sentence.” I barely scraped though my math requirement with only high school algebra and plane geometry to my credit. I had an incompatible roommate, the only person in all my years at Chicago to scoff at my origins. I returned from winter break fully suicidal and ready to turn tail. A phone call to a wonderful counselor, Wilma Ebbitt, changed that. She understood where I was better than anyone and, with complete sympathy and a little psychology, convinced me to try another quarter. She was there with me all the way from then until the end of my first year.
That May my father died and Mrs. Ebbitt came to my math class to tell me, took me to the dorm where she had arranged to have my bag packed (inserting the right textbooks for finals the next week), put me into a cab to O’Hare with a friend to make sure I got onto the flight, then contacted my professors. The University bought my ticket home (my first-ever flight) and sent a spray of flowers to the funeral. Margaret Perry sent a certified letter to my mother of both condolence and assurance that the University would be there for me and her, and the students at New Dorms (I had by then established a circle of friends and changed roommates and felt more at home there) took up a collection to assure I could afford a train trip back in time for finals.
Although it may sound like something from a hackneyed movie script, my mother put me on the train and told me she had worried about me in the big city but would worry no more.
Those years were pivotal and the most formative of my life. I studied under too many great professors to list, from James Miller, AM’47, PhD’49, to Hans Morgenthau. I gained a circle of friends who introduced me pretty much to all Chicago had to offer, from student-rush tickets at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to ball games at Wrigley Field.
But most exciting of all was that I learned to learn.
I moved to Reno, Nevada, in 1969 and began a 33-year career teaching English, a 20-year career as the Reno-Tahoe entertainment critic for Variety and Daily Variety, and a 40-year-and-going career as an entertainment writer for the Sacramento Bee.
Mel Shields, AB’67, MAT’69 Reno, Nevada “No Small Talent” enraptured me.
I grew up on my family’s six-generation farm in Iowa, 10 miles south of a small 2,000-person community. Even though I graduated nearly 50 years after the Grass Roots Talent Search (GRTS) kids in the article, their sentiments and experiences still resonate.
It is apparent that UChicago has made great strides in the effort to accommodate students of varying backgrounds—including regular tutors in Stuart, the UChicago Careers In programs, and frequent adviser check-ins—yet I still found myself out of my depth my first few quarters. I was used to a life where everyone knew everyone, there was one predominant political ideology, and doors were always left unlocked. Moving to campus was a big wake-up call, and while it was tough and often solitary at the beginning, I wouldn’t change my decision to attend the University for the world.
My UChicago experience is priceless to me, full of ideas and thought processes and friendships I would likely have never acquired had I remained in my one-mile-by-one-mile town or gone to a college nearby. I am confident I can successfully apply rigorous inquiry and a strong sense of curiosity to my family’s farming business when I return to carry it on to the seventh generation.
The closing quote, from GRTS student Loren Nelson, AB’67, SM’68, PhD’79, prompted a sense of personal mutuality and a good laugh: “I think that this talent search was harder on my folks than it was on me. … I went far away and I became corrupted. I met communists in school … I became less religious. I think they probably regretted that I went, although I loved it.” Seems like not that much has changed after all!
Thanks to Tom Heberlein for the fantastic read. Easily my favorite piece of journalism I’ve come across in the Magazine.
Lauren M. Riensche, AB’15 Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Thank you for a fine article. Even though I was not part of the Small School Talent Search, I would like to share two anecdotes. As the only student from North Carolina in the four years I attended, and the only one who had attended a small boys’ boarding school in Virginia, it is clear I was admitted for diversity’s sake.
I entered the University of Chicago in 1959 and arranged piano lessons with someone who taught music students on a part-time basis. A sign posted in the music building stated that the practice pianos were reserved for music majors. I checked the sign-up sheets, went to the office, and offered to wait until all music majors had signed up. My suggestion was dismissed out of hand, and the person who was willing to teach could do nothing. The other pianos I found on campus were in public rooms.
The second anecdote took place at one of those faculty-student meetings held in Burton-Judson. A good friend of mine has a stutter. When he introduced himself to a member of the English department, she said, “It’s always nice to meet someone who can’t pronounce his own name.” That line might be appropriate in a British satire of academic life, but it was hardly conducive to warm faculty-student relationships. The unpleasantness I experienced at Chicago involved the faculty, not the students.
Jeffrey T. Gross, AB’63 Memphis, Tennessee
Thanks to Tom Heberlein for his story. I came to the U of C under that endeavor in 1962 from a high school class of 21 in an ingrown German American town three and a half hours west of Chicago. We spoke a peculiar kind of English called “Dutchy” by outsiders. My first quarter at the U of C was very hard. My roommate informed me that it wasn’t cool to wear white socks with black shoes, so I discarded my white socks and began an accent reduction attempt. After fall quarter grades came out, I was convinced that I was in an environment of tough love in its purest expression. We were assured that a C at the University of Chicago was equivalent to a B or even an A at a state university. Still, rural draft boards were notorious for confusing the U of C with the University of Illinois at Chicago, so a low GPA wasn’t good for one’s draft status.
We were encouraged to address our teachers as Mr. or Mrs. instead of Doctor. I found some of them aloof, even unfriendly, in spite of that. I wonder to what extent the College faculty bought into the SSTS. Surely some of them feared pressure to dumb things down; others may have felt an assault on their own identities.
With time, my obsession to assimilate into the cultural milieu abated, and positive thoughts began to overtake my negative ones.
I hope that Tom will continue to research and document this unique experiment.
Jeff Ruprecht, AB’67 (Class of 1966) Twin Falls, Idaho
The article “No Small Talent” brought back memories of this program, which I knew as GRTS. As a high school student in 1972, I attended a National Science Foundation–sponsored program at the University of Texas, and my mentor encouraged me to look seriously at schools I had only dreamed about. This was a radical and empowering suggestion to a farm boy for whom UT was considered radical.
While my mentor pushed the Ivy League, the U of C appealed to me because of both a stellar reputation in research (Robert Millikan, Enrico Fermi, George Beadle, and others) and a more democratic spirit sans legacy students. But it was only after arriving and receiving an invitation to a reception from Margaret Perry that I learned that I was a GRTS student. While the program did not recruit me, I suspect they were behind the letter I received from College dean Charles Oxnard after I applied, which addressed the interests I expressed in my application essay. And Perry helped me get a part-time job working in the admissions office. Adapting to the academic rigor was daunting but manageable: life of the mind, meet West Texas Bible Belt work ethic.
I am forever grateful to the University for the opportunity to attend and scholarships to make it possible.
D. M. Henry, AB’76 (Class of 1977), MD’80 Schererville, Indiana
I much enjoyed Tom Heberlein’s article. I entered the College from Wabash, Indiana, in autumn 1951 and remained at the University until 1975. During those 24 years, I was a general adviser and later dean of freshmen and director of men’s housing. I served on the College Committee on Admissions from 1956 until 1971.
Tom correctly reports that I claim credit for suggesting the “small school talent search.” What I suggested to Margaret Perry was a straight-out recruiting device. Margaret became so identified with the program that it is not surprising she misremembered a couple of years later. In autumn 1960, the University prepared a press release describing the program, featuring LaVonne Johnecheck from Rice Lake High School in Wisconsin, and quoting me for the Admissions Office and Mary Alice Newman, AM’49, PhD’54, for the College advisers. No Margaret Perry. The press release was picked up by a number of newspapers, and it and some clippings are in the archives.
Tom discussed the withdrawal rate. This was a very sensitive topic among administrators in the 1950s and 1960s. I took some heat because I sometimes thought taking time off or transferring made sense. I thought the registrar’s figures underreported graduation by failing to keep track of individuals who took up to nine years to graduate or who changed names (mostly through marriage). My computations showed a graduation rate of 67.3 percent for the Class of 1966 and 73.8 percent for the Class of 1967 including the GRTS students.
James W. Vice, EX’52, AM’54 Wabash, Indiana
Were you on the 1968 UChicago football team, the first after football was reinstated as a varsity sport? A player reunion is being planned for Homecoming weekend; call me at 815.382.2210 for more information.
Charles Nelson, AB’73 Palatine, Illinois
A different game
Robin Hunicke, AB’95, deserves congratulations for her success in the video game industry and encouragement in her efforts to develop games “that help players in their lives” (“Game Changer,” Winter/17). What leaves me a bit disappointed (not so much in the creators as the customers) is that so much time and energy is given over to video games.
Hunicke receives accolades for the creativity of the game she codeveloped: “Journey’s unusual system of collaboration: throughout the game, players spontaneously encounter one another and can travel toward the mountain together, communicating only through wordless song.” Hunicke was inspired to create this game after trekking in Bhutan.
Instead of encouraging people to spend more time locked onto a device, I wish people with Hunicke’s talents would promote actual outdoor experiences. Hunicke’s mountaintop experience in Bhutan was so moving it inspired her to change her life. As she explained, “I realized that I had been climbing the wrong mountain.”
The less time we spend hiking real mountains, and the more time spent focused on screens with digitized mountains, the more alienated from the natural world we become. Hunicke’s market would be better served to put down their devices and get outside. On the treks I lead in Nepal there is “a system of collaboration,” there are always “spontaneous encounters,” and we “travel toward the mountain together.” Our songs are not, however, wordless, and our scarves are for warmth, not magic.
Jeff Rasley, AB’75 Indianapolis
In response to the letter from Jim Vice, EX’52, AM’54, titled “Eat, Memory” (Letters, Winter/17): Several scenes in my very long novel, now under consideration by a New York publisher, are set at Station JBD, Jimmy’s, Morton’s on South Shore Drive, Tropical Hut, and Steinway Drugs on 57th Street (maybe 55th?). For the record, if it’s actually published, the title is “Jesters.”
Roland Schneider, LAB’43, AB’48 Santa Monica, California
Talking about free speech
The University of Chicago has garnered great respect for its consistent public advocacy of speech and inquiry freedoms, when other educational institutions may have difficulty doing so. It also has attracted admiration for its “tough love” position regarding so-called safe spaces and trigger warnings, by advising students that such concepts are inconsistent with the University’s general pedagogic philosophy of intellectual confrontation.
From President Zimmer’s commentary (“A Crucible for Confronting Ideas,” On the Agenda, Fall/16), that philosophy seems fundamental to the aspirations and expectations for the student body. For example, Mr. Zimmer asks, “What is the value of a university education without encountering, reflecting on, and debating ideas that differ from the ones that students brought with them to college?” Indeed. But what about ideas, beliefs, or assumptions that faculty and administration bring with them, especially in the area of political economy where so much campus controversy resides?
That may be relevant, because President Trump’s recent immigration order is an example of an enormous campus contention that the University must accept some effective responsibility for: despite objections Mr. Zimmer recently penned to the White House concerning that order, the University has generally avoided challenging its deeper causality—the global war on terror—with the same kind of probity that it encourages among students. The University hosts several educational programs, including the Institute of Politics and the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism, that accept, ipso facto, the premises of that war.
The intellectual culture of the University of Chicago—skepticism and investigation—might apply equally, and with equal responsibility, to all its members, if that “crucible” is going to form its highest results.
Matt Andersson, MBA’96 Oak Brook, Illinois
This year we are celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Neighborhood Schools Program at UChicago (NSP) with a series of events that culminates at Alumni Weekend 2017. The program, founded by Duel Richardson, AB’67, in the Office of Community Affairs (precursor to today’s Office of Civic Engagement), has been serving local schools by connecting University students to volunteer or work opportunities as tutors, classrooms assistants, tech support, etc., since 1976. This year more than 400 UChicago students will partner with local schools for long-term substantive experiences working with young people in 50 schools and community centers.
As part of the celebration, we would like to acknowledge and learn from the alumni who have participated in the program over the years! We’re collecting and posting reflections and feedback online, but we could use your help identifying alumni from the era before electronic records. If you are (or know) an alum who participated in NSP in the ’70s, ’80s, or ’90s, let me know at email@example.com.
Shaz Rasul, AB’97, SM’08, Director, NSP Chicago
For more on NSP see William Rainey Harper’s Index.—Ed.
Debating climate change
I am all for intellectual debate based on facts. But that debate needs to provide appropriate disclosures. Ken Young, SM’67, PhD’73, states that “Richard Lindzen is a good example of a well-known and respected specialist in atmospheric dynamics who has questioned the underlying science” (Letters, Winter/17). Young fails to disclose (as one must in all scientific discussions) important conflicts of interest for Lindzen. In a 2007 column in Newsweek, Lindzen’s biography claimed his “research has always been funded exclusively by the US government. He receives no funding from any energy companies.”
In fact, Lindzen received funding from Peabody Coal for his research. This funding only came to light in Peabody’s bankruptcy filing. His trip to testify before a Senate committee in 1991 was paid for by Western Fuels, and a speech he gave, “Global Warming: The Origin and Nature of Alleged Scientific Consensus” was underwritten by OPEC. So it seems that Lindzen’s “findings” are at the very least tainted by his lack of transparency in research funding.
I’m guessing this pseudoscientific letter based on research conducted with undisclosed conflicts isn’t what President Zimmer had in mind.
Victor S. Sloan, AB’80 Flemington, New Jersey
Reviving trauma care
The news of Selwyn O. Rogers Jr. coming to the University of Chicago to lead the development of a level 1 adult trauma center (“For the Record,” Winter/17) has brought joy and happy memories to my life.
The city of Chicago has been instrumental in developing designated trauma care units in US hospitals. When I was in training, I spent time at Cook County Hospital. The chief of general surgery was Robert Freeark, EX’45, and it occurred to him to put all the trauma victims in a special room. When he was asked what the room was called, he called it a “trauma unit.” It was one of the first in the United States and certainly the first in Chicago.
Later Peter Geis, who trained at the University of Chicago, was also concerned about trauma victims and helped develop a system in the city of Chicago in which trauma victims were taken by ambulance to the nearest trauma unit, bypassing small hospitals that were not trained properly to take care of trauma patients.
The University of Chicago was involved in the trauma system, and it brought a lot of cases to us, but it was not of any benefit financially to the University.
Because of my trauma experience and the fact that I am in general surgery, several years ago in my rural practice I was able to save a patient who was shot accidentally with a shotgun and came to our emergency room in shock. Trauma victims are sad cases, but luckily we can take care of them many times quite successfully.
The new level 1 adult trauma center at the University of Chicago is indeed a wonderful idea.
Fernando Ugarte, MD’65 Marysville, Kansas
To read more about Selwyn O. Rogers Jr., the founding director of UChicago’s level 1 adult trauma center, see “Community Caregiver.”—Ed.
It was appropriate for the American Chemical Society to mark one of the achievements of the chemistry department (“For the Record”, Fall/16). The article attributes Willard Libby’s carbon-14 work to Kent Hall. My recollection is quite clear that Libby’s laboratories were in Jones, one on the second floor opposite Hermann Irving Schlesinger’s (SB 1903, PhD 1905) lab where I worked (his main counters were there) and two in the basement, where Andy Suttle, PhD’52, was his graduate student.
The only activity in Kent that I recall was the two-plus story thermal diffusion column wedged into the modest space in the stairwell that ran from the basement to the second floor. All of the labs on Kent’s second floor were largely taken up by undergraduate qual and quant chemistry courses, and the attic was largely an interesting storage/archive place. There are others who might recall his labs also.
Martin J. Steindler, LAB’44, PhB’47, SB’48, SM’49, PhD’52 Downers Grove, Illinois
The writer is correct that Libby’s lab was on the second floor of Jones. The plaque commemorating his work as a National Historic Chemical Landmark was placed in Kent Hall for greater visibility. We regret the error.—Ed.
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