Retirees recall the old and the new

An intensive intellectual feast. Exciting. Fulfilling. A learning experience. Broadening. Kaleidoscopically multidimensional. Challenging. And most frequently, rewarding. These are some of the ways that recent MIT retirees described their careers at the Institute.

Almost 100 members of this year's approximately 700 retirees--most of whom took advantage of MIT's early--retirement incentive-responded in writing to a questionnaire sent out over the summer. Others reminisced on a videotape shown at the Retirement Dinner on September 16. Many of those who responded worked at MIT for decades, and their memories offer a window on MIT history.

Growth at MIT--in physical space, in computer and electronics technology, in radar, in the emergence of the life sciences, in humanities offerings and in the numbers of women and minority students--was a frequently recurring theme. Vacuum tubes have been replaced with microprocessors; mimeographing, keypunching and calculating on slide rules are "gone and almost forgotten," in the words of Theresa E. Morton, an administrative assistant in Physical Plant. "One can have more computational capability on one's desk at home than the campus mainframes offered in the early 1970s," noted John P. Delvaille, a staff member at Lincoln Lab.

"When I first came to MIT, lasers did not exist and fiber optics could not have been imagined. Now they permeate communications and practically all other technical fields," said Institute Professor Hermann A. Haus of electrical engineering and computer science. Recalling her early days as a Sloan School secretary, Marian Walke wrote, "There were a few Wang word processors that all the secretaries shared-you had to sign up for which time slot you wanted. There was a room with about six huge printers to serve all of Sloan-imagine only six printers for all of Sloan today!"

However, there have been some losses along with the gains, retirees observed. "Students aren't as good at doing math in their heads as they were in 1969," said Peter A. Holland, associate professor in the Athletic Department. Other retirees mentioned a decrease in personal contact. "We have lost the parchment touch to the e-mail approach," said Jacqueline A. Sciacca, fellowship coordinator for the dean of the Graduate School. But there's one change at MIT that every retiree surely noticed: "My colleagues and associates kept getting younger!" quipped Leslie Cole, chief operator in the Laboratory for Nuclear Science.

More than the technology, the people are what retirees said they would remember fondly about MIT. Several said they first felt like an "MIT person" on their first day of work at the Institute (though a few joked that it wasn't until they got their first paychecks). When asked for their favorite MIT stories, names of some famous MIT people, such as the late Professor Norbert Wiener, known almost as well for his absent-mindedness as for his mathematical genius, were mentioned. "His office was a few doors down the hall from mine," said Phyllis L. Block, graduate administrator in the Department of Mathematics. "He often visited my office to talk to me. When my office was moved after a few years, he came in to introduce himself. He didn't realize I was the same person he had frequently visited [before]; I was in a new office so he thought I was someone else."

Robert K. Weatherall, vice president for alumni and director of the Office of Career Services and Pre-Professional Advising, related another Wiener story told to him by an MIT alumnus who "was driving in New Hampshire and stopped to help a tubby-looking man with a flat tire. He recognized Norbert Wiener and asked if he could help. Wiener asked if [the alumnus] knew him. Yes, he said, he had taken calculus with him. `Did you pass?' asked Wiener. `Yes.' `Then you can help me,' said Wiener."

Some other MIT anecdotes from the retirees:

  • "Once I was standing near the visitor kiosk near Park Street Station and a couple of foreign visitors asked the young man on duty, `How do you get to MIT?' He screwed up his face, trying not to give them the joke answer, but he couldn't resist. He said, `Study, study, study! No, please excuse me, actually you take the Red Line."--Ms. Walke.
  • Before the Blizzard of '78, there were "many laughs and jokes from co-workers for keeping a desk drawer full of underwear," wrote George E. Carney, a Physical Plant shift supervisor. "Come the blizzard and five days at work without leaving-I could have sold the underwear for $20!"
  • "Early in my career at Lincoln, I had written a real-time program for a new radar being installed at Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands. On my first trip, I was standing [outside] on a dark night and watched an ICBM missile light up the sky as it burned through the atmosphere. This was a very sobering experience because I thought to myself, this is what the end of the world will look like." --An assistant group leader at Lincoln Lab.
  • During an era of campus unrest, "a riot had broken out on campus just when I was leaving to go home. Campus Police had locked the main door at 77 Mass. Ave., and I was instructed to exit through the architecture building. Upon leaving the building, I found myself in front of the rioters, and the riot squad in hot pursuit. It was at that time that I became a contender for the Olympic 400-yard dash and came out the champion with my skin intact, but no gold medal. Those were the good old days." --Louise MacEachern, an administrative assistant and veteran of the "cord board" in Telecommunications Systems.
  • ������������������"I came to Lincoln Lab from California. I got a call from a machinist in the shop who said he had `shottened the pot.' I said, `What do you mean, you shot the pot?' He said, `No-the pot you gave me isn't as long as it used to be.' I said, `Oh, you shortened the part I gave you this morning.'"--Darryl E. Weidler, Lincoln Lab staff.
  • "Doc Edgerton's impromptu lectures in the corridors, and occasional lunch at the F&T with Assistant Professor Paul Gray." -William E. DeFeo, Lincoln Lab staff.

The post-retirement plans of those who responded to the questionnaire included "sailing the seven seas" (Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Robert D. Logcher), traveling, consulting, starting a business, enjoying music, gardening and grandchildren, acting and writing children's stories (Mr. Delvaille of Lincoln Lab), "sleeping at night" (an employee who spent 34 years of working the midnight-to-8am shift), and "laughing at the clock in the morning" (Ms. Morton of Physical Plant). But even while planning her post-MIT future, one still remembers her first day here. "It was June 16, 1952. I got off a bus in front of what was then the Coop, went up the stairs and under the dome. It took my breath away-still does."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 25, 1996.

Topics: Campus services, History of MIT

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