Eiseley remembered, Mask and Wig’s funny history, and more.
Possibilities in a Big, Complicated World
I was taken with the Jan|Feb 2022 issue of the Pennsylvania Gazette. Both the article about Loren Eiseley [“A First-Rate Version of Himself”] and his difficulties talking one-on-one but tremendous ability to express himself in writing, and the one on Vivian Maier, “Delayed Exposure” [“Arts”], who was mainly a recluse, not discovered in her lifetime.
I also was taken by the article “COVID’s Long Shadow,” and what researchers at Penn are doing. I’m glad that the article on COVID was developed. Thank you for publishing it.
And thanks for the article about Vivian Maier. What made it possible for Eiseley to find success and this photographer to remain mostly unknown? Are there things we can learn about how connection works and what is possible in this big, complicated world exploring different modalities?
You look for the odd and new ways of exploring human nature, motivation, drive, and creativity. Thank you for that.
Julie Levitt CW’65, Bala Cynwyd, PA
Well Written and Well Chosen
I am writing to congratulate you on a remarkable Jan|Feb 2022 issue, which featured three outstanding articles: “A First-Rate Version of Himself” by Dennis Drabelle, about the brilliant author Loren Eiseley; “The Timekeeper” by Matthew De George; and “COVID’s Long Shadow” by Julia M. Klein.
Each article was well written and well chosen for the Gazette and each had some personal meaning for me as the widow of a physics department faculty member emeritus. I met Dr. Eiseley on campus and have long been an enthralled admirer of his writings, in particular the published lecture The Mind as Nature. Eugene Rabinowitz, who was the originator of the Doomsday Clock, discussed in “The Timekeeper,” was my husband’s graduate advisor in the 1940s. Finally, I am a longtime admirer of the journalism of Julia Klein and am always glad to see an article of hers in the Gazette.
Rena B. Burstein GEd’67, Bryn Mawr, PA
Disappointed and Alarmed
I was disappointed and alarmed by the cover and report “COVID’s Long Shadow” in the Jan|Feb 2022 issue. Why is Penn supporting these studies? Anytime we identify a group and keep telling them they are persecuted by others we usually make trouble. Example: Hitler and the ethnic Germans in the ’30s.
Joseph Stewart GEE’64, Winter Park, FL
I too experienced the diving horse on the Steel Pier in Atlantic City described in Cynthia A. Branigan’s article “The Plunge” [“Rabbit Hole,” Jan|Feb 2022]. The horse seemed timid and scared. The horse did not dive so much as the platform collapsed and the horse fell into the pool. The picture in the article clearly shows the platform collapsing. Sorry I can’t see that as a high point in my life or get nostalgic about it!
Michael J. Smith SW’70, Massapequa Park, NY
Such a pleasure to find the article in the Gazette on Loren Eiseley. As a sophomore at Penn in 1958, I signed up for an introductory course on anthropology—a subject I knew little about. By chance I was placed in a section taught by the department chair, Eiseley himself. I do have to disagree with the article on one point. The author, Dennis Drabelle, includes a quote saying that Eiseley felt uncomfortable with students, but to me he seemed much at ease, perhaps because my background, like his, lacked East Coast sophistication.
When I was elected to Phi Beta Kappa my junior year, what a thrill it was that the powers that be named Loren Eiseley as an honorary PBK member. At our induction ceremony in spring 1960, he explained that his undergraduate record was too spotty for him to even be considered for such an honor then. Drabelle can add that honorary membership to the long list of accolades Eiseley so deservedly acquired.
Martha Taylor Simonsen CW’61, Santa Fe, NM
Life Changing Event
I read, with great interest, the article on Loren Eiseley. He was the chair of the anthropology department when I began my graduate studies in the fall of 1956. The only course I had with him was Human Paleontology, but it was one of the most memorable I ever had. I sat in the front row next to fellow grad student Bill Bass [William M. Bass III Gr’61], not wanting to miss a word. Eiseley started each class by walking in and asking Bill: “What was I talking about last time, Mr. Bass?” After Bill’s reply, he would start lecturing, in the most elegant prose, without a single note. I recognized that prose when his book, Darwin’s Century, came out a year later.
One requirement of the class was that each of us would choose from a list of topics to present to the class for two hours, without benefit of notes. Eiseley’s rationale: “You will probably be teaching one day, so you might as well start practicing now.” As I recall, I held forth for my two hours on methods of dating archaeological remains.
In the fall of 1958, when I saw Eiseley to get my schedule for the semester approved, he looked at me and said: “How would you like to go to Tikal?” At that time, the Penn Museum’s pioneering project at this ancient Mayan site was getting under way, and I jumped at the opportunity. It turned out to be a lifechanging event in my life.
When his book, The Immense Journey, came out, I got a copy and asked him to autograph it. I still have it, and in the front is the handwritten inscription: “To Bill Haviland with best wishes for his success as an anthropologist, from Loren Eiseley” (signed with a flourish). It was his suggestion that made my success possible.
William A. Haviland C’56 G’58 Gr’63, Deer Isle, ME
The Eiseley I Know
Your article about Loren Eiseley made for interesting reading, but it was not the Eiseley I know. At Penn I never met him, never took one of his classes. But I knew who he was, and one day after running into him in front of College Hall, I looked up his books.
Those were our meeting place.
Fall reminds me of his beautiful essay, “How Flowers Changed the World,” as I wander through Florida landscapes lavish with lopsided Indian grasses glinting in the sunshine, their seeds hung out for creatures to feast on. I think of Loren Eiseley in springtime when thistle puts forth pink blooms and pawpaws pop up here and there. A coontie—a cycad holdover—planted in a strip mall parking lot throws me back to the age of dinosaurs. Frogs coming back to life from desiccated ponds after a hard rain … pines … the matrix of Florida landscapes. He wrote about all of these. He wrote about that revolution which produced you and me.
In 2017, Hurricane Irma wiped out my home library, but I couldn’t bear to throw out my moldy copy of The Star Thrower, which I now keep in a plastic bag. In his introduction to that book, W. H. Auden quotes Eiseley referring to the recognition of Odysseus by his dog, Argos, after his long journey home. “The magic that gleams in an instant between Argos and Odysseus is both the recognition of diversity and the need for affection across the illusions of form. It is nature’s cry to homeless, far-wandering, insatiable man. Do not forget your brethren, nor the green wood from which you sprang. To do so is to invite disaster.”
As I work to educate people about the disaster of climate change and the urgent need to preserve biodiversity, that admonition stays with me.
Fran Knight Palmeri CW’63, Nokomis, FL
Thanks so much Dennis Drabelle for your wonderful story on Loren Eisely! It has brought back some very fun memories of my student days at the Penn Museum … my favorite place to be at Penn. After taking a class there, I learned all about the Cuneiform writings and the ancient city of Ur. Then I signed on to Anthropology II with Loren Eiseley. Professor Eiseley was comfortable and relaxed in the classroom, and there was always something interesting going on!
One afternoon he was sitting at the small coffee shop and table at the museum entrance, most likely with Professor Rainey as they liked to do that. Professor Eiseley was holding a nickel in his right hand and was trying to pry it apart with the dinner knife on the table. He invited me to join them. As I looked on curiously, he split the nickel in half with a hard blow downward and half of the nickel fell on the floor—with a thud and not clink clink as I had expected. I had never seen a nickel or coin split in half! So I asked how he decided this nickel was two pieces. He said by the thunk sound it made on the table. So professor Eiseley was definitely the man who left no coin unturned! Since then I have inspected hundreds of nickels and never found another phony one. We mused about how much trouble someone had gone to create just five cents!
I carried his book The Immense Journey around for many years.
Stuart Resor C’64, Mount Juliet, TN
Eiseley’s Writing an Inspiration
Thank you for your engaging an insightful article about Loren Eiseley. I was first introduced to The Immense Journey by either my graduate advisor, Hans Borei, or by Professor William Telfer (whose teaching style influenced my own approach to teaching high school biology for over 40 years). Subsequently I read almost all Eiseley’s books, but it was The Immense Journey that I returned to regularly.
I thought it noteworthy that the Gazette article specifically referenced “The Bird and the Machine” (without revealing the “ending”). This is the same story I regularly shared with my students in both high school biology classes and, during the 1970s, in summer field biology courses. Invariably my voice would crack as I read them the touching dénouement. For me, Eiseley’s writing served as an inspiration, and an undergirding, for my own passions about life sciences.
Thanks for jogging the many distant but happy memories that began long ago.
David W. Hoyler C’67 G’70, Lee, NH
Loads of Fun, But Maybe Not So Funny?
I’m delighted that Mask and Wig has wisely decided to open its membership to anyone with a funny bone [“Gazetteer,” Jan|Feb 2022]. A modest dance ability also helps. If you can carry a tune, even better. However, I take exception to a quote stating, “comedy from 50 years ago would probably not play well today and vice versa.” I disagree with that comment because, even though we had loads of fun, I’m not sure Mask and Wig was all that funny 50 years ago.
I was chairman of Mask and Wig in 1969. At my last board meeting as chairman, I put forth the proposition that excluding women was a terrible mistake and should be stopped. Immediately. Actually, the absence of funny people of all genders and ethnicities forced the show to look unfunny and old fashioned 53 years ago. Since then, in an age of Saturday Night Live, Mad TV, Second City, The Groundlings, Kentucky Fried Theater, SCTV, et al., Mask and Wig’s hipness factor took a serious beating. I remember as an undergrad what a thrill it was to hang out at 310 S. Quince. I’m somewhat embarrassed to say we were convinced we were the coolest kids on (and off) campus—and we reveled in the fact we had all these geriatric alumni supporting us. Here’s hoping this important decision to open up the Wig’s membership will help restore the club to its former glory!
Chip Zien C’69, New York
Better Shows and a Long Future
As an olde Mask and Wig member, I enjoyed your article about the change to “all-gender.” When the notion first came up, I was not in favor, but have come around to supporting the change. I think it’s good for everyone, including the Club. I agreed with “Comedy from 50 years ago would probably not play well today” … until I realized that I was 50 years ago!
I think a few of our songs and skits from the late ’60s would still amuse, but times have changed. I hope/trust the integration of all genders will lead to better shows and a long future for dear old M&W. “Justice to the stage; credit to the University” indeed.
Barry R. Zitin C’69, Jersey City, NJ
A Toast to All-Gender Mask and Wig … But Skip It on Franklin Field
It was a pleasure to read positive news in the Jan|Feb 2022 Gazette, including the opening of Mask and Wig to all genders. Even when I was a student, men playing all the parts in their productions seemed, in a word, quaint. One only needs to look to Saturday Night Live’s recent expansion of their cast to include Asian and LGBTQ cast members, as well as other recent hit TV shows and movies, to see the expanded comedic possibilities.
It’s also nice to see the Gazette celebrating the return of students to campus, but I’m appalled that so did the tradition of throwing toast at Franklin Field football games. I was appalled at this as a student, when enterprising Wharton students would toast bread, spray paint them school colors, and sell them. These days, I volunteer at a SF Bay Area food drive-through that has been in place since the March 2020 start of the COVID pandemic. I load cars with fresh produce, eggs, dry goods, and also, yes, bread. Stop throwing food on the field that someone in need could eat instead. Talk about another quaint tradition that needs revisiting.
Andrew Kluter EAS’95, Alameda, CA
A Matter of Perspective
I have read a lot of Pennsylvania Gazettes over the years. While I’ve always been impressed by the quality of the publication, the Jan|Feb 2022 issue was particularly impressive. As I have noted in prior letters to the editor, I’m especially struck by the complementarity of articles in each issue. And this was the case in this most recent issue.
In Margit Novack’s essay “Call Me Anya” [“Alumni Voices”], I took exception to a conclusion Novack reached that she was proud of being like her grandmother Anya because of her “stubbornness and domineering personality” and being “a determined force to be reckoned with.” In my life’s experience, I’ve seen these characteristics resulting in pretty negative results for those dominated. Determination, yes. Domination, not so much.
Then a few pages later came Susan B. Sorenson’s article “How to Help” [“Expert Opinion”], dealing with families coping with the result of sexual assault. Sorenson sums up her point in “three or four words”: “‘Listen and love’ or maybe ‘Take the long view.’” Step back and consider the current situation and its longer term implications for the assault victim and the family as a whole. Be receptive and empathetic to each person’s situation as you chart your future together.
While the context for each article is quite different, I like the difference in the perspective presented by each. Such a difference challenges me to be flexible in my own perspectives.
Jim Waters WG’71, Pearl River, NY
Broader Supports Needed on Sexual Assault
I applaud the inclusion of an article concerning sexual assault on campus but do hope the book also includes information about improved campus resources for these students (which did not exist when I was a student).
I had hoped the “How to Help” article would address the effects of sexual assault on all students. Personally I was not sexually assaulted while at Penn, but several students I know were. They lived on and off campus, they were assaulted by strangers or date rapists, by professors, or peers, at knife point, or as an “exciting opportunity” to advance their career.
I was part of two bogus investigations into the Wharton School addressing improper sexual harassment, which did result in the withdrawal of tenure from a Wharton professor once the EEOC did an appropriate investigation. But I was never offered any support from the University despite having to deal with these traumatic experiences as a young student.
Has anything improved over the years?
Colleen Kirby C’84, Arlington, MA
Is it really appropriate to be boasting about how wealthy the University of Pennsylvania has become [“From College Hall,” Jan|Feb 2022]? I say this in light of the fact that Philadelphia has the highest poverty rate of any large American city, our streets are full of potholes, our public schools are underfunded, and a drive from the airport looks like you are in a developing country, while our University feels no compunction to pay for services that the city provides us, we use, and Penn can well afford to pay for.
Penn is exempted from over $500 million in local state and federal taxes every year. We pay no excise taxes that pay for communications infrastructure and for our roads. Penn also accepts a subsidy from Philadelphia on its large water bill.
Medical expenses in the United States are higher than in other developed countries and are close to 20 percent of GDP, which I think helps explain how our hospital is able to pay for our new $1.5 billion hospital building with retained earnings. I’ve never heard anyone from College Hall talk about cutting medical costs, instead we hear boasting of our wealth. As a Penn alumnus and Philadelphia resident, this is embarrassing.
Hanley Bodek C’77, Philadelphia
How Far Penn Has Come!
Kudos to President Amy Gutmann for the extraordinary job she has done at Penn [“Compact Fulfilled,” Nov|Dec 2021]. The milestones she completed and the funds she raised are a real tribute to her terrific talent. How far Penn has come! I graduated in 1962 when part of the University was not yet co-ed. There were separate student unions for men and women, and parts of Houston Hall were off-limits to women. That Penn has continued to select highly qualified women for its highest position shows how far we’ve come in seeking equality for all!
Beverly Rubin Samson SAMP’62, Bucks County, PA
Sad and Shameful
I was disheartened by the cover photograph on the Nov|Dec 2021 issue. The student to Amy Gutmann’s right, eerily gesticulating with his tongue hanging out, has no business being on our cover next to our president. If he chooses to behave like a third grader, that is his business. But what is most troubling is that Penn has decided to normalize this behavior. Publishing that photo is Penn’s tacit approval of the decline in conduct, morals, manners, and etiquette, a disingenuous attempt to seize the emotional validation of being the good guy. That student should have been set straight and the photo retaken. Will the powers at Penn come to their senses and say, “my bad”? Unlikely. Sad and shameful.
Arnold J. Mars D’74, Pompano Beach, FL
Credit Where Due, Please!
I have received the Nov|Dec 2021 issue of the Pennsylvania Gazette along with an Impact Summary titled The Power of Penn. Both of these publications list the staff, authors, department chairs, donors, etc., and show how Penn has expanded its campus with numerous fields, buildings, and laboratories.
As a retired architect with many years’ experience, I find it troubling that nowhere in these publications are the names of the architects to be found.
Pride of authorship is the realm not only of writers, publishers, and poets but architects as well. Each and every building should bear, at the very least, the name of the principal architect and/or landscape architect, the name and location of the firm, and when the work was completed. These works did not appear ex nihilis, and I know that the people responsible for their design would welcome their recognition.
Howard E. Alpert GAr’74, Bethesda, MD