Reunion 2011: Two Views
Two Antiochian women returned to the College for Reunion 2011. Each returned for different reasons. Sociologist Helen J. Breslauer ’65 wanted to see, for the first time in decades, the man who helped her through General Chemistry I in the fall of 1960. Fiber artist and write Jeanne-Michele Salander ’72 had been yearning for Yellow Springs, the College, and the Glen. Both, however, were curious to experience for themselves whether the Antioch College that is re-emerging resembles the college they attended.
Encountering Mario Capecchi
I began writing this piece in the Cleveland, Ohio, airport, where I was for longer than planned. My ongoing flight to Toronto had been delayed more than two hours, which eventually became three and a half. I was on my way home from a Reunion at Antioch College, the institution from which I graduated with an undergraduate degree some forty-six years ago. In all these years, this is only the second Reunion I have attended—the first was my 25th, when I showed my husband Antioch College. Much has happened since then, both to me and to the College.
I came to this Reunion for two reasons:
- To see for myself what the College was doing to restart itself -after being shut down by Antioch University, and then being “bought back” by the alumni in order to get a fresh start; and
- Because the keynote speaker at this Reunion was to be Mario Capecchi.
This second reason dwarfed the first in importance. I really wanted to see Mario Capecchi again. And this is the story of why.
I entered Antioch College as a freshman in September 1960 after graduating from Hunter College High School, which I had attended since seventh grade, a high school at 68th Street and Lexington Avenue in Manhattan (I lived in Jackson Heights, Queens) which was under the Board of Higher Education in New York City. It was, to quote its vice principal, a school for “intellectually gifted young ladies.”
Antioch was my first-choice college; in a sense, it was my only choice. I had wanted to go to Antioch ever since I had first heard about it while a camper at Camp Winooski, a teenage work camp on the campus of Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont. The camp’s director was Danny Hotaling ’51 and some of its counselors were or had been Antioch students.
The Cooperative Education program, the Antioch Education Abroad program, Antioch’s excellent academic reputation, its reputation as a politically progressive place, and, coming from a girl’s school, its “co-edness,” were each and all compelling reasons to go to Antioch!
To my delight, I was admitted to Antioch, arrived on campus, got involved in planning my timetable for the first quarter and, if memory serves me correctly, perhaps even began outlining a “Five-Year Plan.” Unfortunately, the faculty member who served as my advisor was not aware of the very important difference between two first-year chemistry courses—General Chemistry I, a course for those who had taken high school chemistry, the prerequisite for all further chemistry study, and thus the first course for chemistry majors; and Liberal Arts Chemistry (fondly known as “Chemistry for Poets”), which was for those who were new to chemistry as a discipline and thus had no lab experience.
Antiochians from the 1950s
I belonged to the second group of students, but found myself in General Chemistry I. By the time I had been there long enough to realize what had gone wrong, it was too late to change—my timetable would not permit it. And I was increasingly more panicked by the expectation that I would have to handle chemicals. I was sure that I would blow myself up and take along my fellow students, the lab, and perhaps the building as a whole. Each day I was more and more terrified of what I was supposed to do, and how afraid I was to do it. The choices seemed to be between the horrific results of mishandling chemicals and the ignominy of flunking out of college in my very first quarter!
The professor, James Corwin, was a very good teacher and a very nice man, understood the problem, but did not come up with a solution. The teaching assistant, one Mario Capecchi, on the other hand, was very sympathetic and crafted an ingenious solution that saved both the lab and me. He paired me with another student in the lab who was more experienced than I and enjoyed doing chemical experiments. She poured the acid, and I took notes and wrote up the experiment. Thus we all survived my first quarter.
Mario graduated at the end of that year, and I did not see him or hear about him until forty-seven years later—in 2007. I was in my home office on the third floor of my home in Toronto, Ontario, and I had turned on the radio to listen to the news. The Nobel Prizes for Medicine and Physiology were being announced, and they had been won by two Europeans, Sir Martin J. Evans and Oliver Smithies, and one American—Mario Capecchi!
It had to be the same man! I let out a shriek and ran down the stairs, told the story to my husband, and then went online to find out more. There was a picture of Mario—whom I would have recognized anywhere—a bit older, but looking very much like he had looked in 1960 as my T.A. in General Chemistry I.
I e-mailed him my congratulations and told him the story I am relating here. I received a very gracious response thanking me for the e-mail, indicating our mutual concern about what was happening at Antioch College at that time, and expressing his pleasure that I had managed to achieve success in another field, even if it was not chemistry!
So that is why I had to travel to Yellow Springs, Ohio, for Reunion 2011. And it was wonderful to see Mario again. He was just as gracious, kind, creative, friendly, and smart as I had remembered him. He charmed us all, and he taught us all much about the fascinating work he is doing with genes. His keynote address dealt with his work, his amazing life story, and the excitement and grandeur of traveling to Stockholm to accept his Nobel Prize. This was a weekend I shall never forget, and I am sure I am not alone among those who attended.
Perhaps, however, I should not end my story without saying a few words about the other reason I came to the Reunion—to see for myself how the College planned to “restart” itself. The detail of this I leave to others who are more familiar with the nuts and bolts of the operation. What I saw was the energy, the dedication, and the determinedness of everyone involved—the remarkable new President Roosevelt, the incredibly dedicated (and very small) staff of the College, the Alumni Board, and the governing Board Pro Tempore, which became the Board of Trustees. I also heard about the caliber of the new faculty and students who will begin this adventure in the fall.
The energy was palpable, and the excitement genuine. The goal is admirable, and the bill for it formidable. But something about the synergy I observed and was a part of makes me think and hope that it can be achieved. Mario, as well as other invited guests who shared their wisdom with us, played a role in creating that exciting optimism to which I was a party. Thanks to you all, and I wish us all well!
A Homecoming, A Reflection
About a year ago, I began to yearn for Yellow Springs, the College, and the Glen. When I heard that the College would reopen in the fall of 2011, I decided to come back for Reunion. I had not been in Ohio for thirty-eight years.
When I first wandered onto the campus, I could barely hold back my tears of joy and recognition. A welcoming hug from Anna Hogarty, now the College receptionist, got me breathing again. I came to town for a full week so I could volunteer with the work crew, take long walks in the Glen, join a few yoga classes, and have wonderful visits with two of my history department professors, Bob Fogarty and Mike Kraus.
As I experienced Reunion, I made many new friends and deep connections. I reflected on what my liberal arts education has meant in my life.
Although I had majored in history, I knew that my diverse interests were not going to lead me to an academic career. My then husband and I had left Yellow Springs in 1973, took a two-week backpacking trip in the Sierra Nevada, and arrived in California with $17 in our pockets, ready for whatever the West Coast had to offer. I have lived in the Bay Area ever since.
The studio art courses I took at Antioch were creatively nourishing and gave me a foundation that served me well later in life. I’ve worked at Exotic Silks in Mountain View for most of my adult life. Surrounded by silk, I taught myself how to paint on silk and began to manifest a body of work. Teaching silk painting classes out of my home, I sold my work at local galleries and fairs. Now I enter shows and continue developing my fiber artist Web site.
I first took Russian with Bob Lewis on a whim. Bob was a brilliant teacher, and I soon fell in love with the language. Bob encouraged us go to Russia, but the opportunity to do so didn’t come until 2002, when I was working on a book project, co-writing the life story of Moscow-born silk painter Natasha Foucault. To make my writing more authentic, I traveled to Russia with Natasha. We became a self-publisher, Winter Palace Press, and gave birth to Silk Diary: An Artist’s Journey from Moscow to Mendocino, in 2006.
My walks in the Glen as a student had kindled my interest in the local flora, so I took Ken Hunt’s Field Botany class. We learned 200 plants in 10 weeks, and I surprised Ken by acing the final, although I had to beg to get into a class usually reserved for Biology majors.
From 1989 to 1996 I studied Native American medicine wheel teachings, learning about caring for Mother Earth. To put these teachings to work, I joined the Audubon Society and became involved in local open space issues.
A cohort of twenty devoted activists created a grass roots organization, People for Open Space in Santa Clara, to save the last forty acres of natural open space in that city. We made the open space a campaign issue in two city council elections and gave this pro-development city its Ulistac Natural Area.
With an initial $35,000 grant, we began a program of native plant restoration in 2000, working with local high school students and volunteers from the community. I met my husband, Chris, at the outset of this project, and we have been working on the Ulistac Natural Area Restoration and Education Project (UNAREP) together for fourteen years. We’ve created a one-acre California native plant habitat garden and six acres of mixed oaks. A $106,000 grant from the water district will keep us busy for the next few years.
The revived Antioch College is devoted to the notion that a small, vibrant liberal arts college is still a vital educational experience. I feel that I am a living testimony to that notion.
I am inspired and deeply moved by the talented and devoted folks who are pulling Antioch together again, class by class, building by building.
Next time I won’t stay away for so long!
Helen Breslauer ’65 owns a research and consulting business and is a former senior research officer at the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations. Jeanne-Michele Salander ’72 is a fiber artist, writer, and community leader in Santa Clara, California.