Readers sound off

(CC0 Public Domain)

Readers sound off

Readers remember Jonathan Z. Smith, Robert Maynard Hutchins, and other campus figures; reflect on growing older; seek ice-skaters; debate a speaking invitation; and more.

Moonlighting mathematician

Your article about Eliot Ness, PhB’25 (“Out of the Shadows,” Winter/18), brought to mind another University of Chicago connection with the legend of the Untouchables. In the climactic scene of the 1987 movie, the Ness character bluffs a corrupt judge into switching the jury, which Capone has bribed, with a clean jury from another case. The “second bailiff” who swaps the juries was played by the late Patrick Billingsley, a longtime U of C professor of statistics and mathematics. Besides having a distinguished career as a probabilist, Billingsley acted in numerous plays at Court Theatre and other venues, as well as in several movies filmed in Chicago. For example, he appears briefly as the biology teacher in My Bodyguard (1980).

Daniel Heitjan, SB’81, SM’84, PhD’85
Carrollton, Texas

Late life lessons

In reading Martha Nussbaum’s and Saul Levmore’s essays about aging (“Looking Back,” Winter/18), the word I kept expecting to find but didn’t was karma, and I don’t find it in their book either, via a “Look Inside” search on Amazon. In their Western-centric view I think they have overlooked a very useful concept for aging thoughtfully and coming to a productive and insightful understanding of the connections in one’s past, present, and possible future. I recommend it to them and to everyone.

Thinking about karma was well developed in Indian philosophy long before the Greek and Roman foundational thinkers were bandying ideas, and it deserves a place among the grand frameworks we use for constructing narratives about ourselves. Like other such structures, it doesn’t lend itself perfectly to verification by experiment, but it gives better returns than many other explanatory frameworks. At the very least, it’s a useful heuristic. And if karma is really a thing—who’s to say it’s not—why not poke around in it to come to a helpful understanding of why things are the way they are in your life?

Orin Hargraves, AB’77
Niwot, Colorado

Brava! Bravo! for the Nussbaum-Levmore essays. Considering the emphasis they place on the novel’s importance in the development of the modern psyche, it would be interesting to know how they think it differs from the part played by myths and epic poetry in earlier societies.

Ken Shelton, AB’69 (Class of 1968)
Galveston, Texas

Essay appreciation

A Chaplain’s Compassion” (Winter/18) by Bailey Pickens, AB’10, is the best article you’ve ever published. And that’s saying a lot (because of the longtime excellence of your editorial).

Carol DeChant
Sarasota, Florida

Secret history

In “Where the Art Is” (Winter/18), Susie Allen, AB’09, writes that the Art to Live With program was founded in 1958. I remember an art loan program prior to that. When I was a first-year student in 1956–57, living in Mathews House, Burton-Judson, there was a program in which students in the dorms could borrow framed works of art, at no charge, for the academic year. All you had to do was to go to Ida Noyes Hall and ask for one. As I recall, the loans were made from a cloakroom on the ground floor. There were prints by Paul Klee, Georges Rouault, and other famous artists. I got one by Leon Golub, AB’42—black and white, possibly in lithograph crayon, a very serious subject, befitting a new student in the College. Golub was already well known by then. I was delighted to have a “real” work of art in my room.

Harvey Choldin, AB’60, AM’63, PhD’65

According to Emily Edwards, Art to Live With registration and programming coordinator at the Smart Museum of Art, the University has few records of the early days of Art to Live With and relies on archival and alumni recollections like Harvey Choldin’s “to help us create a sort of institutional history of the program.” His letter is the first Edwards has heard of any program activity before 1958, when it was in fact operated out of the Office of Student Activities in Ida Noyes Hall, as Choldin recalls. The artwork that he borrowed is likely Golub’s lithograph Totemic Crucifixion.—Ed.

What do you know?

The Magazine came this week. The first thing I noticed was a headline: “In the Know” (UChicago Journal, Winter/18), an article about the new Stevanovich Institute, whose mission is the question: How do we know what we know? In one course I took in my second year at UChicago, the opening line was: we are going to inquire into how we know what we know.

Wow, in that one sentence, I was hooked, and continue to be. I have studied many fields since then: business, public health, law, and more. The question resonates still. My wife, Barbara McCool, and I have a near-finished book titled “Active Aging, Designing a Life.” In our research into how to best live a healthy lifestyle, we read widely, guided by asking, how do the writers know what they purport to know? Exercise, healthy eating, friendship networks, spirituality, and more appear widely. Yet when it comes down to how they know what they purport to know, there is a wide gap. For me it remains the UChicago way: I follow those whose research seems sound and whose findings are relevant to my quest. In fields not lending themselves to scientific research, I lean toward those whose reasoning is good and relates well to science that sheds some light on behavior.

To me UChicago hews closest to the fundamental question, how do we know what we know? Second to that, how does this professor or this discipline approach its work? How do they discover what might be the best theory to fit the known facts? What can they teach me about how to think about things? How can I know what I think I know and convey it to others for their consideration? UChicago to me is about the life of the mind, and learning is a lifelong endeavor.

I have very little recollection of the many courses taken at the University, but the basic question is alive and well. One book, The Red and the Black (1830), by Stendahl, continues to flit in and out of mind without any thought of content, but this morning I began a new painting, Red and Black, to split a canvas. The Stendahl title haunts my thoughts and now comes back as colors that go well together on canvas. Perhaps it is time to read the book again.

Monty Brown, AB’59, MBA’60
Kansas City, Missouri


In his Nobel Banquet speech, 2017 Economic Sciences laureate Richard Thaler exhorts nudge-letarians globally to use the prod and preadjust of choice architecture to “Nudge for good. … Nudge for the greatest benefit of mankind” (“Good Behavior,” UChicago Journal, Winter/18).

Bend them like Bentham. To the vectored go the spoils. Choice architecture ploys can be the best-laid schemes of mise-en-scène. Array of hope.

Philip Frankenfeld, AM’81, PhD’89
Washington, DC

A counterpoint

Nathan Aviezer’s (SM’59, PhD’65) letter (Winter/18) correctly points out that the Japanese death toll from US conventional bombing in World War II exceeded 500,000, and uses that to draw the conclusion that a “demonstration of power” of nuclear bombs wouldn’t have compelled the Japanese government to surrender. Curiously, he doesn’t carry his own reasoning further to ask how it could have been that the far fewer civilian deaths at Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought the war to a conclusion. The most reasonable answer is that they didn’t—the war in the Pacific was brought to its conclusion not by the use of nuclear bombs but by the entry of the Soviet Union into the war with Japan. See Ward Wilson’s article “The Winning Weapon? Rethinking Nuclear Weapons in Light of Hiroshima” (International Security, Spring 2007).

Bob Michaelson, SB’66, AM’73
Evanston, Illinois

A life in stories

I started studying with Jonathan Z. Smith (Deaths, Winter/18) after Henry Rago, head of the New Collegiate Division’s History of Religion (no “s”), died far too young. We five or six students were dispatched to History of Religions, a discipline of a different color, the hue of Mircea Eliade, whom Smith admired. In his modern but diminutive office, Jonathan introduced himself with vignettes. How at Santa Barbara, as his lectures got more popular, they piped them by television into a lecture hall. But they required him to wear a tie, which he refused to do. So they painted a tie on the screen; the tie didn’t move, Jonathan did. Another victory for the antiauthoritarian Jonathan.

When he was sitting with Eliade one evening, Jonathan noticed Eliade was ailing from some flu or such. When Jonathan expressed concern, Eliade responded, “We will take care of it.” And Jonathan understood that Eliade would do something shamanistic to help himself.

Jonathan described growing up in Manhattan. He became interested in Eastern religions sufficiently that he engaged a teacher of Zen (as I recall). One of his final exams: Jonathan was to attend a large cocktail party with his Zen master, who stood in one corner of the crowded room (in some apartment with a view of Central Park, as I imagined). Jonathan was to stand in the opposite corner. The Zen master spoke softly and Jonathan was to hear what his teacher was saying. After that, I was cautious to shield my lips when I wanted to speak to someone else in Jonathan’s presence.

Now, my falling away from the way. Jonathan encouraged me to stay in History of Religions. He said he would escort me to the Modern Language Association or such meetings after my PhD so that I would get a job. He thought I could find something in Austin, Texas, or such. I, Jewish immigrant that I was, thought, “What’s a Jew to do in Austin?” I remembered the vignette he gave of visiting Texas (perhaps for a job interview). He went to a real cowboy-type bar. He stood with one foot on the rail and ordered something. A real cowboy sauntered in, bellied up to the bar, and said “Gimme a shot of Manischewitz.” Apocryphal? Well, a good story.

I wrote a BA proposal to study Maimonides’s Guide for the Perplexed (University of Chicago Press, 1963, with an introduction by Leo Strauss with the help of Ralph Lerner, AB’47, AM’49, PhD’53). Lerner was assigned as my adviser. I was handed a two-page single-spaced reading list—some texts in Hebrew, some in Arabic, some in Greek and Latin, of course. I spent a hot summer in non-air-conditioned libraries starting to read. That fall, I switched to premed.

A dedicated teacher, a precious man, Jonathan Smith.

Nathan Szajnberg, AB’74 (Class of 1971), MD’74
Palo Alto, California

Invitation on ice

Laura Demanski (AM’94), you skate backward? (Editor’s Notes, “Cold Comforts,” Winter/18.) How did you miss being recruited by a member of the Maroons Women’s Hockey team, a small but enthusiastic group of mixed abilities who traverse Chicagoland at ungodly hours for the thrill and adrenaline fix of a strenuous hour of hockey on cheap ice to empty stands. The 2016–17 Division 5 champions in the Women’s Central Hockey League, this club team, self-coached and captained by the highest ranked undergraduate, is bolstered by assorted UChicago staff and alumnae. Join us! With practices starting at 11 p.m. we can guarantee it won’t conflict with anything else on your schedule. We can also guarantee it will be more fun than anything else you’ve ever done. We are truly in it for the love of the game.

Sandra Schloen
Oriental Institute

This invitation is under serious consideration by the editor and extends to local readers who skate backward. Contact the team via their website to express interest.—Ed.

Bannon invitation debate

I am a proud graduate of the University of Chicago. I consider my time there as one of the most important developmental steps in my life. I continue my relationship with the University as the correspondent of my graduating class. It is there where I learned to examine unpopular ideas, conflicting ideas, new and strange ideas, with an unbiased bent to understand and learn. I believe in Nat Hentoff’s notion that the response to speech we do not like is better speech. I despise Steve Bannon and find him and his ideas disgusting and contrary to all of the values and principles of our democracy.

However, I applaud Chicago Booth professor Luigi Zingales’s decision to invite him to speak on campus. Subject his ideas to the usual scrutiny we have learned and practiced here at the University for generations. Let him feel the sting of true academic examination. Those who would bar him from campus seem cowardly and fearful that they do not have the intellectual ability to deal with his ideas. If his economic ideas parallel his social ideas he will be exposed as an irrelevant scholar. If not, who knows, we may even learn something from him.

Robert B. Bloom, SB’58
Highland Park, Illinois

I’m incredibly disappointed in UChicago inviting Steve Bannon to come speak.

While I fully respect the University inviting dialogue and opposing viewpoints, even viewpoints as reprehensible as Steve Bannon’s neo-Nazi white supremacist views, inviting someone to speak who has demonstrated such basic contempt and opposition to science, scholarship, and evidence-based analysis is the antithesis of everything the University of Chicago purports to stand for. Debate and learning must be based in truth, facts, and Socratic dialogue. Steve Bannon does none of these in advancing his racist, misogynistic views.

Derek Brockbank, AB’03
Washington, DC

I am dismayed by the protests from students, faculty, and other alumni against the invitation to Steve Bannon to speak on campus. I myself am no fan of Bannon or his views, but, as Voltaire said, I adamantly defend his right to express them. I hope that those on campus who disagree with what he says will engage him in civil and rational discourse.

By the way, as a Canadian I want to point out to those on campus who welcomed my prime minister, Justin Trudeau, with open arms and probably at the same time oppose Bannon’s presence, that Trudeau during his short tenure as leader of Canada has already been cited by our Ethics Commissioner for breaches, has been called out for lying many times, and has passed legislation mandating forced speech. There are no angels among politicians but we go down a treacherous path when we try to squelch voices in a free and open society.

M. Dov Dublin, AB’69

Fermi memories

My father, Lester R. Dragstedt Sr. (SB 1915, SM 1916, PhD 1920, MD 1921), was chief of surgery at the University of Chicago and a friend of Enrico Fermi (“Clashing Colleagues,” Fall/17).

My father figured out that some kind of secret atomic project was being worked on at the U of C. Dad used to eat lunch and play bridge at the Quadrangle Club. While there were fewer and fewer students in the University in the early 1940s, all of a sudden there were lots of brilliant new scientists, “professors,” at the club, playing bridge at lunchtime.

Dr. Fermi developed cancer of the stomach for which only palliative surgery could be offered then. Dad operated on him. As Dr. Fermi became increasingly ill, the FBI proposed to my father that they should post a guard outside Dr. Fermi’s hospital room door. That was in case that, in his delirium, he should start to reveal national secrets. Dad responded that there was no one at Billings Hospital who had the intellect to comprehend the unconscious ravings of Dr. Fermi. No guard was placed.

I was a teen during the war. My friends and I used to go to the infield of Stagg Field to practice hitting golf balls. We became annoyed when any of our balls happened to land in the west stands, because immediately a guard would come and shout to us to get away from there. We couldn’t afford to lose golf balls so we tried not to hit them there, but it was impossible to understand why we couldn’t retrieve them.

I thought your last issue was excellent. I enjoyed the letters to the editor and the article on Eliot Ness, PhB’25 (“Out of the Shadows,” Winter/18). Thank you.

Lester R. Dragstedt Jr.
Des Moines, Iowa

Bees under siege

A friend recently sent me an article about ancient beekeeping (“Sweet Honey in the Rocks,” Fall/15). Now while I didn’t graduate from the University of Chicago, my brother did in 1951 and a great and close friend, Paul Wagner, AB’38, a distinguished graduate, recently passed away at 98.

Like the author, I have been a beekeeper for more than 40 years and found the article fascinating. I do have to comment on a small but interesting fact. The author says he has either 11 or 12 colonies. Without saying why he is not precise, the approximate number indicates that he, like all American beekeepers, is being affected by attacks from everything like colony collapse disorder to varroa mites and tracheal mites.

Bees were not native to America but were brought over by the Europeans. When I started beekeeping it was an interesting and relatively straightforward business. Now the attacks on the honeybee are so extreme that many migratory beekeepers, those with thousands of colonies, only use their bees for pollinating the big almond crops in California or the orange trees in Florida. They don’t even bother to extract honey, as the loss of colonies is so high, the economics do not encourage extracting.

Perhaps the most interesting fact in the article is the migratory nature of beekeeping in the ancient era, as Syrian bees were transported to Palestine for their gentleness and productivity.

I have told nonbeekeepers for years that the honey found in the tombs of the pharaohs 3,000 years later was potable, as the bees excrete an enzyme that preserves it indefinitely.

Peter Krulewitch
Clove Valley, New York

Hutchins College days

I have just (after all these years!) finished reading William H. McNeill’s (LAB’34, AB’38, AM’39) Hutchins’ University: A Memoir of the University of Chicago, 1929–1950 (University of Chicago Press, 1991), a history of the years when I attended and graduated from the Hutchins college experiment.

It is interesting and perceptive, but I was surprised to note one omission and wonder if the author did not know about it. His account of the early years leaves the impression that no formal degrees were awarded until quite late. However, I know of at least one (me) in 1943, and I think that I was not alone. I was a precocious high school student (not yet quite 14 years old) when I received a four-year scholarship to what was then called the Four Year College, located in a small house very close to the chapel. I commuted from home via the 63rd Street streetcar and vividly remember being in the Reynolds Club when Roosevelt gave the Day of Infamy address. Life and the University were never the same.

In 1943 I and some others would shortly be draft age and were offered a “proposition.” The faculty recognized that several of us would be drafted before we could finish our “last year”—but there was an impending vacation quarter. We were taken aside and told that if we were interested they would provide the critical course outlines, reading lists, etc. for our “last year” and we could, without any other assistance, spend our summer reading and cramming—and then take a special comprehensive exam. If we were able to study and read independently and then pass this major qualifying exam, we would get credit and could graduate a year early, and have a degree before being drafted.

I did that. The end result was that I received a PhB in 1943. I don’t believe that I was alone but really don’t remember. The irony of this was that when I was then called up for the draft, I was instantly rejected (!) as 4-A for being underweight (six feet tall, 120 pounds). So I spent the last year of my four-year scholarship taking courses in physics and math, and then took a job doing thunderstorm research in the basement of the Reynolds Club.

I was always led to believe that the role of the Hutchins/Adler Four Year College was to develop Rennaissance men and women from young “gifted and talented” students, and I like to think that I came to fit that mold. Life has treated me incredibly kindly, in no small sense reflecting that education.Along the way I modeled for Maude Phelps Hutchins, and her husband would occasionally visit and tease me. (“Aren’t you cold?!”) I assume that he must have known that I was one of “his” students.

If there is a record somewhere of the outcomes of the Four Year College it might be appropriate to note that there was at least one PhB awarded. And it might be worth checking to see if there were not one or two others from that summer quarter.

George W. Tressel, LAB’42, PhB’43
Silver Spring, Maryland

The University of Chicago Magazine welcomes letters about its contents or about the life of the University. Letters for publication must be signed and may be edited for space, clarity, and civility. To provide a range of views and voices, we encourage letter writers to limit themselves to 300 words or fewer. Write: Editor, The University of Chicago Magazine, 5235 South Harper Court, Suite 500, Chicago, IL 60615. Or email: