Sometimes you don’t know what you’re looking for until you find it.
That was certainly the case for archaeologist Michael Chazan C’85 and his colleagues, as Beebe Bahrami Gr’95, who writes for the Gazette on archaeological and other matters, recounts in this issue’s cover story, “Finding an Old Flame.”
Chazan and an international team of collaborators have been excavating for years at Wonderwerk cave in South Africa, a national heritage site that shows signs of habitation by hominid groups going back 2 million years. The group had gathered for what they assumed was a relatively routine analysis of material they’d collected, in preparation for an article about the site formation. But then something surprising appeared under the microscope—wood ash, they determined. “[W]e came across this and we said, ‘Wow, this is fire in here.’ I didn’t cry over the microscope, but we were pretty happy,” one team member recalled.
Their discovery was significant because it would push the earliest firm evidence of hominid control of fire back by some 300,000 years, to the time of Homo erectus, with enormous implications for understanding human evolution. It’s believed that using fire for cooking may be linked to the development of larger brains, for example, but beyond that, Chazan suggests, “socializing around a campfire might actually be an essential aspect of what makes us human.”
As executive creative director at Walt Disney Imagineering Creative Entertainment, Dan Fields C’88 creates puppet shows, Broadway-style musicals, and a wide variety of other forms of live entertainment for the iconic company’s theme parks, resorts, and cruise ships—and also has what he calls a “true blue sky fund” for ideas he just might like to try out. But as Alyson Krueger C’07 writes in “Magic Man,” “if Fields has a dream job now, it’s one he never even knew he wanted. And one that took a long and sometimes bumpy road to reach.”
After cutting his theatrical teeth in Penn classes and student groups like UTV and Penn Players—learning that what he really wanted to do was direct—Fields worked in regional theater in Seattle and California, and then as Director Julie Taymor’s assistant on the Broadway show of The Lion King. After it opened to great acclaim, and Taymor left for other productions, he stayed on to direct the show for three years.
His next step, he thought, would be to direct a Broadway show of his own. He came close, mounting a well-received production of Arthur Miller’s early play, The Man Who Had All the Luck, on the West Coast, but couldn’t find the backing to bring it to New York. And that was followed by a few more unsatisfying professional experiences before the Disney offer came along to provide his “happily ever after” ending.
Ever since he was a boy, Matt Klapper C’05 has known what he wanted to be: a firefighter. It took a lot of hard work and persistence—not to mention time-management skills—but Klapper ultimately achieved his dream. After years of work as a volunteer fireman, passing all his tests and other requirements, he became a professional firefighter in 2011.
Along the way, he’d earned his undergraduate degree from Penn and was about to get his law degree from Yale. Oh, and he’d also become a trusted advisor to a politician named Cory Booker, who came to national prominence as the high-profile mayor of Newark. In “Putting Out Fires,” Kathryn Levy Feldman LPS’09 traces Klapper’s “two lives” of firefighter and political advisor, and the choice between them he may face in the wake of Booker’s election this past October as New Jersey’s junior US Senator.
Also offering some surprises is “The Three Authors,” in which former Gazette associate editor Susan Frith profiles a trio of alumni first-time novelists whose works evoke very different worlds—from intrigues among artists in 19th-century Philadelphia, to a death-row prison cell, to a future society in which most humans have retreated from the natural world (except for exterminating those who still live there).
—John Prendergast C’80