Search for Meaning
Home Up Fate

   

Book One:
A SIMPLE ACT OF KINDNESS


PART THREE: COLLEGE

CHAPTER TWENTY:
SEARCH FOR MEANING

Written by Rick Archer

 

  2015, Richard Archer

 


SUBCHAPTER 107
- WHO IS RALPH O'CONNOR?

 

Mr. Salls, Mrs. Ballantyne, Mr. O'Connor.

Oddly enough, throughout my college years, I thought about my three Houston benefactors practically on a daily basis. 

I remembered Mr. Salls because I had begun to like this school despite its lack of female presence.  I appreciated the education I was receiving here.

That said, I still wished the school was coed.  Since Hopkins was a men's school, I had no way to meet women on the Hopkins campus and no built-in opportunities to develop the kind of casual friendships that can lead to dating. 

I had made a real stab at finding a girlfriend at Goucher, the elite women's college north of the city.  However, after being compared to the furniture on top of Emily's betrayal, my pride was far too damaged to return to this school for the time being. 

Considering I had spent four long years in high school dreaming about the day I could begin dating in college, it was embarrassing to admit I flunked 'girls' in college.  So far the only thing I had learned about girls in college is that there was a lot more I needed to learn about girls.

Once dating was out of the picture, that left me with a considerable amount of extra time. 

So I resumed my high school lifestyle... strong attention to academics plus the pursuit of every possible work-study job I could get my hands on.  I was determined to graduate debt-free.

Once I gave up on women, my grade point average improved considerably.  I would have exchanged my good grades for a girlfriend in a heartbeat, but maybe that wasn't in the stars.

Another high school habit I transferred to college was trading women for pick-up basketball.

I played an hour of basketball five days out of seven.  Without basketball, I can't imagine how I would have retained my sanity in college what with all the loneliness, pressure and frustration.

I remembered Mrs. Ballantyne for something odd she had said to me during our parking lot conversation. 

Each afternoon as I laced up my basketball shoes, I would remember that Mrs. Ballantyne had said she didn't date in college.  Instead, she played a lot of tennis.  With a grimace, I realized her words were starting to make a lot of sense. 

Due to my intense loneliness, I played pickup basketball virtually every day.  It was either that or go mad.  I was darkly amused that my unusual "double" and I shared this strange bond. 

I remembered Mr. O'Connor every time I came to the gym.  Mr. O'Connor, of course, was the man who had steered me to Johns Hopkins.  I was fascinated to note the basketball gym was named for him. 

Every time I passed his name, I asked myself again who this Ralph O'Connor person could possibly be. 

I speculated he had to be pretty important to get Johns Hopkins to give me a full college scholarship based on his word alone. 

The Ralph S. O'Connor Recreation Center at Johns Hopkins
 

There was another reason to think about Mr. Salls and Mr. O'Connor.

During my first year at Johns Hopkins, I ran into a boy named Doug.  I thought I recognized him and I was right.  Doug was a member of the 1966 SJS graduating class.  He had finished two years before me. 

Hopkins was not a large school, so our meeting could hardly be described as a coincidence.  At the time, I wondered if Doug had been persuaded to attend this school in the same way I had...
"In my opinion, this school is a perfect match for your talents."

Not long after that, I met a boy named Charles who was a member of 1967 SJS graduating class.  I recognized him one day on the Hopkins campus as our paths crossed.  Although Charles had been only one year ahead of me, I didn't know him very well.  We exchanged polite small talk, then moved on.

In my Sophomore year at Hopkins, a young man from the most recent SJS graduating class showed up (I do not remember his name.)  Adding my 1968 name to the list, I concluded there were now four boys from St. John's up here at Hopkins... one boy per year... 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969. 

Based on the string of young men up at Hopkins, I deduced that the Salls-O'Connor connection had formed an annual conduit between St. John's and Johns Hopkins. 

Recalling how Mr. Salls had referred to Mr. O'Connor as "an old friend of mine", I assumed that over the years Mr. O'Connor and Mr. Salls had developed a close connection that went way back.

The "Old Boy Network" is a tradition that started long ago in English private schools such as Eton and Harrow.  Young men who met back in their school days would maintain close social and business ties throughout their career and help each other whenever possible. 

"It's not what you know, but rather whom you know"

I suspect Mr. Salls and Mr. O'Connor had a firm "Old Boy" connection.

I was in for a big surprise in my Junior year at Hopkins.  One day in 1970, the Hopkins newspaper reported a Texas businessman named Ralph O'Connor had arranged a lacrosse game between Hopkins and Navy in the Houston Astrodome.  The article said Mr. O'Connor was an influential Hopkins alumnus who used his Hopkins connections and his Houston business connections to make this happen.

At the time, Johns Hopkins was the national lacrosse champion and Navy was their biggest rival.  Mr. O'Connor was quoted as saying he had arranged this game because he wished to popularize the sport in the state of Texas.  Up till now, only the Eastern colleges played lacrosse.  Why bring bring lacrosse to the West?

The article said that Ralph O'Connor (Johns Hopkins '51) had enlisted his friend Dr. Denton Cooley (Johns Hopkins '50) to help him promote the game.  In turn, Dr. Cooley, the eminent Houston heart surgeon, had persuaded some of his fellow heart surgeons to help sponsor the game.  Once Dr. Michael DeBakey, Cooley's famous rival, came on board, the success of the game was assured.

I could not help but notice Ralph O'Connor had impressive friends.  Due to their ground-breaking work with heart transplants, Dr. Cooley and Dr. DeBakey were America's two most famous doctors. 

The game turned out to be a dynamic success. 

Hopkins did not become co-ed until I graduated, a factor that played a major role in further postponing my Day of Reckoning with women. 


Although I was disappointed when the Navy Midshipmen downed the Hopkins Blue Jays 9-6 in the Big Game, the Hopkins-Navy game attracted over 18,000 fans.  This was a record that stood for nearly 20 years.

Ralph O'Connor had accomplished his goal.  The famous 1971 game in the Astrodome has been credited with bringing lacrosse to Texas. 

I asked myself again what kind of person has the connections to organize a game like this.  Who is Ralph O'Connor? 

 


SUBCHAPTER 76
- NIGHT SCHOOL

 

I had come to college far more interested in dating than actually learning anything.  So far I had made only a half-hearted stab at studying.  However, now that I had a broken heart courtesy of Emily, I was done with women for a while.

Now I turned my attention to my studies for lack of anything better to do. 

Other than my problems with dating, I enjoyed the fact that I was finally completely on my own.  This situation suited me just fine. I discovered I was far better at taking care of myself than the legion of mommas boys in my dorm who called home every night for encouragement.  

I certainly didn't need my mother to tell me what to do.  I was independent, hard-working, and responsible.  However, I also possessed serious character flaws.  When seen in a harsh light, I was a rebellious, insensitive, self-centered young man with serious authority issues.  I was a loner who had trouble making friends.  I stuck to myself much of the time.

Fortunately, despite my immaturity, I never got into a lick of trouble in college.  That is because no one ever challenged me.  My Hopkins experience was odd in that there were practically no rules.  In four years, not once did anyone tell me what to do or what not to do.  My sense of rebellion was still there, but with nothing to rebel against, my defiant streak went into dormancy.

I remained just as self-centered as I had been in high school.  But guess what?  Practically every young man on campus was just as self-centered as me.  We all wandered around in our own little worlds. I was still a moody kid prone to depression.  Fortunately, for the first time in my life, I had a support system to fall back on.

 

I was finally reunited with Uncle Dick and Aunt Lynn, two people I admired greatly.  As I had hoped, Uncle Dick and Aunt Lynn welcomed me into their family with open arms.  For the first time in my life, I had the chance to feel part of a close-knit family with two parents, three brothers and one sister.  

Aunt Lynn was a born mother in same mold as my idol Mrs. Ballantyne.  Lynn went a million miles out her way to make me feel like a part of her family.  I loved her dearly. 

Lynn had been the lady who stayed with me in the hospital reading Lassie Come Home back when I cut my eye out.   Now here in college, Lynn came to my rescue again many times.  For example, she single-handedly put me back together the weekend I saw Emily getting on the train with Eric.  When I got back to the dorm, I was devastated and crying. 

On an impulse, I called to Aunt Lynn and told her what had happened.  She asked if I wanted to drive down and talk about it.  One hour later, I was sitting in her kitchen crying my eyes out.  Lynn let me get the tears out of my system, then helped me calm down.  Her reassurance was wonderful. 

Lynn became the mother I never had before. 

Aunt Lynn, grandmother Lenore, and me at age 5 in Pittsburgh.
The day after this picture was taken, I cut my eye out.
 

 

After my car was stolen, within a couple weeks I bought another used Volkswagen using my grocery store savings.  I bought the car not to resume my dating project, but rather so I could continue driving down to Northern Virginia whenever I was going nuts again.  I simply could not bear being cut off from this family.

Visiting the Griffiths family became my sanctuary.  Whenever I was going crazy at school, I would simply drive down to Northern Virginia for the weekend and talk to Lynn.  After a long talk and her abundant sympathy, I would cheer up.  Then I would spend the remainder of my two days hanging out with Lynn's four children Rick, Dale, Todd, and Tammi. 

These kids were great!  I fell effortlessly into a big brother role.  One winter's day during my first Christmas at their house, I helped my cousins construct a long toboggan run on a snowy hill.  Dick and Lynn's house was built along a steep hill.  There were seven houses side by side at different elevations.  Our first effort used just my cousin's front yard and their neighbor's yard which was 20 feet lower. 

After we finished, we had so much fun that I suggested we make our toboggan run longer.  My cousins looked at each other and nodded. Good idea!  So we asked five neighbors whose houses occupied the same slope if we could use their front yard as well.  They all said sure.  One lady really cracked me up.  "I fully expect to be given the opportunity to take a ride when you finish!"

By the time we were done, our run started at the peak of the hill.  Using the front lawns of seven consecutive homes to build our masterpiece, the run spanned three hundred yards.  We had an indescribable amount of fun and laughter with our project.  The long ride was a huge thrill.  Even Aunt Lynn tried it and she laughed her head off with delight.  "This is the best toboggan run I have ever seen!" 

We all grinned with pride at the compliment.  This became one of the happiest days of my life.  For the first time in my life, I felt part of a family.  Thanks to Aunt Lynn, Uncle Dick, and my cousins, after each weekend visit to my sanctuary, I was ready to go back into the arena and try again.

Uncle Dick was an amazing man.  Dick contracted polio in the Navy.  For a while, he wasn't sure he would ever walk again.   Dick said the biggest break of his life came when IBM took a chance on him despite his crutches. His body may have been withered, but his genius and work ethic were intact.  Uncle Dick not only thrived at IBM, he gained enough experience to open his own data processing center in Northern Virginia.  Dick proved to be a very successful businessman. 

While I was in college, Uncle Dick became both a friend and a father to me.  Lynn and the children went to bed around 10 pm.  At this point, Dick and I stayed up to watch Johnny Carson together.  Those were very special moments for me.

During college, I spent every Christmas at Dick and Lynn's house.  During our first Christmas, Uncle Dick offered me some very good advice.  One of his suggestions was to learn more about computers.  He said computers would be the wave of the future.  I smiled.  That sounded exactly like "plastics", the famous one-liner from my favorite hit movie The Graduate.

Hmm, computers, eh?  I took Dick's advice.  Still suffering from my broken heart, on the way back to Hopkins I decided to turn my attention to computers. 

It was now January 1969.  As we know, Uncle Dick was prescient in his prediction.  Unfortunately, he was so far ahead of the curve, my college had not quite caught on yet.  When I went to enroll in a computer class in the second semester of my Freshman year, to my surprise, there were no computer courses listed.

I went to the Registrar's office and showed a nice lady the catalogue.  I asked her where I could find the listings for computer classes.

She smiled, "Next year we are going to open up a new computer department for undergraduates, but right now we don't have anything."

Seeing how disappointed I looked, she had a suggestion.  "You know, we do have a couple of night school computer classes."

My ears perked up.  "I don't mind taking a night school class if it is here on campus."

The lady smiled. "Yes, it is here on campus.  I will tell you what.  Pick the class you want and I will ask the Dean to grant permission."

I nodded.  The night school catalogue contained a course called 'Basic Computer Programming Skills'.  I told the lady that was what I wanted.  The lady knocked on the Dean's door and soon returned wearing a smile. 

"Dean Masterson said no problem.  When the new semester starts next week, your course will be on Wednesday evening at 7:00 pm, Room 201, in the Math building."

One week later, it was pitch dark as I walked across campus to my first class.  Night school indeed.  I was 10 minutes late, but I didn't care.  I was late to class all the time because no one seemed to mind if I was late.  After all, most of my classes were lectures with 200 anonymous boys spread across an auditorium.  The professor was so far away he didn't know what half of us looked like. 

Nobody knew my name, nobody took attendance, nobody spoke to me and no one told me what to do.  No one cared if I was late to class and no one cared how long my hair was.  This was college.  We were on our own. 

You want to wear your hair long?   Go ahead, kid, wear your hair long.  No one cared, no one minded.  At this point, my hair came down past my shoulders.  Not that I stood out... half the boys at school wore their hair long.   Thanks to rock groups like the Doors and the Rolling Stones, long hair was a fixture on campuses across the country.  No one gave my long hair a second thought. 

I paid no attention to my appearance.  Since there weren't any girls around, I had little incentive to be beautiful.  Half the time I didn't even comb my thick brown hair.  Hey, this was a men's school.  Why bother?  Besides, I was convinced I was ugly.  Every time I looked in a mirror, all I could see was a face covered with acne scars.  The less time spent looking at mirrors, the better.  Consequently I only shaved every now and then.  And what is my point?  Well, think 'Charles Manson' and you wouldn't be far off. 

As I opened the door to my night school class, everyone was already seated.  That was my first surprise.  Apparently in night school, people were punctual.  I gasped... the entire room was full of men in business suits and women in dresses.  Every person was perfectly groomed.  Every single person in the room had a briefcase.  Every man in the room had short hair and was clean-shaven.  Every woman wore a dress complete with nylon hose and high heels.  Every woman had their hair tied up in some way.  Good grief, I had the longest hair in the room!  I was shocked.  I had not even remotely anticipated this.  What the heck have I gotten myself into? 

Hearing the door open, the entire room turned around to see who the intruder was. 

Instantly a huge collective gasp of horror filled the room. 

   

Standing before these disciplined, manicured people was none other than the Creature from the Black Lagoon.  Seeing the sheer disgust on their faces, I stopped dead in my tracks.  Whoa, Nelly!  I was definitely on the wrong side of the Generation Gap.

The contempt and angry expressions on their faces said it all.  Only one other time had I seen so much hostility directed at me.  I was painfully reminded of that horrible day when I showed up at high school with the acne explosion covering my face. 

Tonight's cold reception was a close second.  The business world of the late Sixties had just met a representative of the Counterculture.   Welcome to the Age of Aquarius. 

I was discouraged to note I got a dirty look from the instructor as well.  He challenged me in a sharp voice, "Young man, can I help you?"  

I picked up on his tone.  Evidently he hoped that if he barked at me rudely enough, I might panic and leave.   No one enjoys being in a place where they are not wanted. 

The professor picked on the wrong guy.  I felt my defiant streak kick in.  I was going to take this class whether this crowd liked it or not.  Very slowly, I walked the gauntlet up the aisle to his desk in front.  There were twenty people seated on one side and twenty people on the other.  Every single face was intolerant and frowning.

   

Ordinarily I never kowtowed to authority, but I have to admit being outnumbered forty to one had a chilling effect on me.  I decided not to challenge anyone by staring back.  Helter Skelter, Easy Rider and Woodstock had not quite taken place yet, but they were on the near horizon.  Unfortunately, thanks to Vietnam, there was already considerable tension between the Establishment and the Counter Culture.  Given these ugly stares, I was not welcome.  One wrong move and I could be facing a barrage of ugly comments. 

Indeed, as I passed, one man whispered, "Get a haircut, freak!"  Two others nodded their approval.

For once in my life, I didn't snap back.  Instead I adopted a look of submission.  I made sure my shoulders were slumped and I looked down as I handed the instructor my admission form.  I didn't want any trouble.

Frowning, the instructor studied the form.  To his obvious disgust, everything was in order.  With a dismissive wave of his hand, he gestured for me to take a seat.  Everyone in the room was stunned.  They couldn't believe the instructor had given me permission to stay.  What in the hell was this hippie doing in their class?  And why did the teacher let him stay?

The ladies in particular had horrified expressions.  I could see they were terrified the Creature might choose to sit next to them.   One lady quickly filled the empty seat next to her with her briefcase as I came near.

They need not have worried.  I knew my place.  Saying nothing and looking at no one, I slowly returned to the very back of the room and took a seat.  Ten rows of empty chairs separated me from the pack up at the front.   Since several of the men looked ex-military, I preferred to avoid confrontation.  In addition, I wanted to be near my escape route at all times.

Now the professor did his best to regain control of the class.  Slowly but surely, once they were certain I wasn't going to cause trouble, everyone turned back around.  Just in case, every now and then someone would turn around to have another look at me.  They wanted to make sure the Creature wasn't sneaking up on them.  I was darkly amused at their discomfort.  They were not at all happy to have their backs turned to me.

Based on the way they were dressed, I assumed these people had come straight from work.  I tried to make sense of the situation.  This scenario was just as much a surprise to me as it was to them.  These people were in their mid-twenties and early thirties.  I was 19, ten years younger than the average age.  These people looked sharp in their business clothes.  Obviously these were businessmen and women who were established in their careers.  I noticed the IBM logo on several of their briefcases.  I gathered that these people either worked for IBM or perhaps they were taking this class hoping to get hired by IBM. 

Judging by their concentration and their focused expressions, this was a serious, highly-motivated group.  This class was an important stepping stone in their careers.  It was obvious these people were intent on climbing the ladder of success.

As for me, I had inadvertently found myself placed on the front lines of culture shock and social change.  I stuck out like a sore thumb. These people were groomed to zoom while I was dressed no better than a dope-smoking hippie panhandler.  I was wearing a white tee-shirt, cut-off jeans, and sandals.  My hair was uncombed.  I comforted myself with the thought that I had showered after playing afternoon basketball.  What about my face?  I gave my face a quick touch.  Nope, I had not bothered to shave that day.  I was about as grubby as I could possibly be.  No wonder they were so suspicious. 

Whenever someone would turn to check on me, they made sure to cast a withering stare in my direction.  They seemed to be sending some kind of message.  And what could that be?

I didn't speak IBM, but if forced to guess, they wanted me to leave.  I certainly understood why they were uncomfortable with me.  They clearly did not like having a long-haired hippie in their midst.  Long hair was popular with Hopkins undergraduates, but these buttoned-down IBM people were disgusted by any hint of my 'make love, not war' generation.  To them, I was no better than a drug-crazed, promiscuous draft dodger who burned flags and protested against their hero Richard Nixon.  

Although I definitely felt out of place, I wasn't intimidated.  They may have hated me, but so what?   I had a right to be here.  In this case, my years of standing my ground back in high school served me well.  I did not like being pushed around.  Dirty looks and all, I was here to stay.

One month came and went.  No one ever said a word to me, including the instructor.  How could they?  I never gave them a chance.  I came in late on purpose.  I took notes, never asked a question, never answered a question, and left the moment the instructor signaled class was over.  No lingering for me.  I attempted to remain as innocuous as possible.

In the fifth week, the instructor handed out a test.  He made me come up and get it, so this gave everyone another chance to practice their withering stares.  I was disappointed; I had put on my best pair of jeans, shaved and combed my hair in an attempt to curry favor.  No such luck. 

Once I got back to my chair, I realized this test was unlike anything I had ever encountered before.  The instructor called it a "take-home exam". 

First we were supposed to solve a mathematics riddle.  Then we were supposed to write a flowchart of computer commands designed to help a computer solve the riddle.  After leaving class, I stopped off at the Hopkins library and took another look.  The instructor had given us a classic math puzzle known as the "Twelve Billiard Balls". 

I had never seen this puzzle before, but it immediately caught my interest.  In this puzzle, there were 12 balls identical in size and appearance.  Eleven balls weighed the same, but one ball had an odd weight that made it lighter or heavier than the other 11 balls.  Using a balance scale, I had only three chances to weigh the balls to determine which ball was the odd one and decide it was heavier or lighter than the rest. 

I couldn't imagine how anyone could figure this out in three tries, so I was very intrigued.  I smiled.  My father had given up on me too fast.  Okay, so I was useless with mechanical things.  Obviously I would never be a brilliant engineer like him.  On the other hand, I was excellent with games like chess and logic puzzles. 

Since I loved solving puzzles, this logic test was right up my alley.  This wasn't work, this was fun!  I took to the challenge like a duck to water.  The riddle proved to be very tricky, but I loved it.  The answer was so ingenious that I admired whoever had designed the puzzle.  After that, the programming was easy.  All I had to do was use computer language to write out the same logical steps I had used to identify the wrong-weight billiard ball. 

When I was done, I smiled with contentment.  Although the problem took me about two hours, I enjoyed every minute of the challenge. 

To my surprise, when we handed in our assignment the following week, there was an unusual amount of grumbling.  The consensus with the business people was that this assignment was far too difficult.  The instructor seemed very surprised at the amount of negativity.  I didn't say anything, but I knew this project had required some serious thought plus a two hour investment of time.  I imagined these busy people with their jobs and families probably didn't have the luxury to find two hours of complete silence to concentrate on a project like this.   

As for me, I had just as much time as I wanted to invest.  Time was definitely on my side, but I didn't feel the least bit sorry for them.  After all, I had spent nine years competing against St. John's kids who had far more advantages than me.  It was nice to have the advantage arrow pointing at me for a change.  Why feel guilty?

The following week, the instructor was in a bad mood.  He had finished grading the exams and apparently he was not happy about the class performance.  Before he handed out the graded tests, he told the class how disappointed he was in the overall performance.  However, rather than challenge the group to step up their efforts, the teacher tried to appease them.  Apparently this challenge was tougher than he expected and he wanted to apologize. 

I was surprised at his tactic.  To me, he was showing weakness.  Why apologize?  That was like a lion tamer backing down to a few snarls.  Sure enough, the grumbling increased immediately.  Now the professor compounded his error.  He added that the test had been so hard that only one person in the entire class had solved both the puzzle and the programming element.

Mentioning that one person had done well turned out to be a mistake.  He should have said nothing.  This odd tidbit brought a hush to the grumbling.  Now the anger was replaced by the need to indentify the rat.  Heads turned searching for an embarrassed face.  Who was the traitor among them who had made everyone else look bad? 

No one responded, so one lady spoke up.  "Dr. Burnett, who was the person who solved the puzzle?"

To my dismay, that stupid instructor decided to name the perpetrator.  The instructor asked 'Richard Archer' to raise his hand. 

I rolled my eyes, but I didn't say a word.  Since I had solved the problem handily and he stated only one person had succeeded, I assumed he must be referring to me.  However, I had no intention of responding.  I was already the most unpopular person in the room.  Why direct further wrath my way?

What I did not anticipate was the furious wave of curiosity that ensued.  Too late now.  Once the instructor had let the cat out of the bag, everyone was looking around for someone to turn on.  The reaction of the class was interesting.  Heads turned every which way trying to guess the identity.  Oddly enough, not one person turned to look at me.  That spoke volumes as to their opinion of me.

Which jerk had raised the almighty curve?  When no one confessed, they looked back at the instructor who in turn shrugged.  He didn't know who 'Richard Archer' was.  Once he realized no one was going to take credit, his eyes went down to his roster.  And then something in his brain clicked.  A flash of recognition crossed his face.   'Oh shit', I thought, 'he just figured it out.' 

Sure enough, with a look of utter incredulity, he lifted his head to stare directly at me. 

Busted.

Everyone picked up on the instructor's strange expression.  They turned their heads to see who he was looking at.  Immediately every person in the room turned around to look at me.  When they realized it was me who had solved the puzzle, a look of total shock crossed their faces.  They gave me the weirdest looks... anger, disbelief, disgust.  This entire group had written me off because I didn't look like them or dress like them.  To them, I was a worthless bum.  Make that a stupid worthless bum. 

It absolutely blew their minds to realize one should not judge a book by its cover.

Now that I was exposed, I crossed my arms and stared back at them grim-faced with defiance.  I met every one of their eyes without blinking.  I knew a secret that none of these people would have guessed in a million years.

Although I certainly looked like a long-haired, brain-fried, doped up hippie, it was all just a disguise.  When it came to academics, I was more dangerous than they could have ever imagined.

I was probably more driven to succeed than any person in this room.

This experience was an affirmation of the elite education I had received at St. John's.  These people had no idea I had spent nine long years as a scholastic gladiator at the toughest, most competitive private school in Houston, Texas.  Underneath my ghastly appearance was a mind accustomed to tackling academic challenges with confidence. 

What a bunch of sissies.  Boo hoo hoo.  I would never have given up on a problem like this.

Mr. Salls had promised me that Hopkins was a perfect fit.   At the thought of him, I smiled.  My Headmaster was right all along.  Thank you, Mr. Salls.  Forgive me for doubting you.

I did not win a full four year scholarship to Johns Hopkins University by accident.  I earned my scholarship.

 


SUBCHAPTER 77
- DR LIEBERMAN

 

In my Sophomore year, I signed up for my second computer course.  The course being offered was an "Intro to Computer Science" course taught by Dr. Alan Lieberman.  This course was part of the new computer department at Johns Hopkins.  Blending in with 200 other unkempt, long-haired Hopkins undergrads, I was relieved to find I was no longer an outcast like I had been in Night School.

Dr. Lieberman was a truly gifted professor.  He made computer science absolutely fascinating for me.  I wasn't alone in this opinion.  His class was very popular.  In fact, no one dared come late to his class for fear of not getting a seat.  The attendance in his class said it all... not an empty chair.  One day I complained to a friend after class that I had to sit on the floor because there were no seats. 

My friend explained what the problem was.  After the class had been closed to further enrollment, several students decided to audit the class just to hear what Dr. Lieberman had to say.  

I was impressed.  I had never heard of auditing a class.  Obviously this professor commanded a lot of respect.  I quickly found out why. Dr. Lieberman's class was far and away the most interesting, best-taught class I would ever take during my four years at Hopkins.

The biggest adjustment between St. John's and Johns Hopkins was the lack of relationship between professors and students.  It was now the second semester of my second year and not once had I spoken to a professor other than to ask a brief question.  One thing I liked about Dr. Lieberman is that he actually asked questions in his class and there was a lively dialogue.  I tried to answer his questions several times, but the class was so large that he never picked me.

One day Dr. Lieberman gave us a programming assignment using BASIC, a sort of training-wheels, entry-level computer language that was popular at the time.  The assignment was extremely difficult.

I put a tremendous amount of effort into the project, but there was something wrong.  There was a bug of some sort in my command structure.  This flaw caused the program to fail somewhere along the line.  I could not for the life of me find the error, but I believed my programming was solid otherwise.  If I could just find this one glitch!  However, I kept drawing a blank. 

My biggest problem was getting enough computer time to run more tests.  Computers were very slow in those days plus the interest in computers was over the top at school.  The demand for computer time far outstripped the limited availability.  Not only were the lines of undergraduates waiting to use the campus computer endless, we were given only ten minutes apiece to run our program.  If our program didn't work in the allotted time, tough, we would have to come back tomorrow. 

My entire class was in the same boat as me.  Unfortunately, everyone in the class was struggling with this assignment, so the lines at the school's single terminal remained long.  I hated those lines.  Like everyone else, I would do whatever homework I could while waiting my turn.  And then after an hour or two hour wait, I would get the bad news when my program failed again.  My frustration was mounting.

Each time the computer generated a print-out of my command structure.  I would go back to the dorm and pore over that print-out trying to find the bug.  Hours passed without any luck.  This needle in the haystack approach was driving me nuts.  I had never felt so helpless before. 

Then I had an idea.  Why not put messages in the program to identify the exact section where the error took place?   So that's what I did.  I began to add messages throughout the program that read like this: "Program correct through line 350".  I inserted two dozen of these markers.  In other words, if my print-out said "Program correct through line 350", then I could start looking for the problem at line 351 and beyond. 

I had no idea if this solution would work, but I rushed over to the computer center.  No luck.  The line was out the door at the computer center.  Every student in my class was just as desperate for computer time as I was.  Realizing that my next computer class with Dr. Lieberman would start before my turn would come, I went to the classroom early and spent the next hour looking at the printout for the error again.  No luck.

I was getting worried, so I stayed after Dr. Lieberman's class to talk to him.  I showed him my print-out and asked if he could spot my problem. 

Dr. Lieberman smiled and said, "Let's have a look."  He patiently scanned line after line for about three minutes. 

Then he turned to me and said, "The good news is that this appears to be very solid work.  I agree with you, the error is probably very small and the project will be completed the moment we find it.  The bad news is that I can't find it and I have an appointment right now.  Are you free this evening?"

I nodded and said I was free.  To myself, even if I wasn't free, I would cancel anything to get some help.  I was getting desperate.

"Good.  Can you come to my evening class?  I hold my night school class in this same room.  After class, I will have enough time to take a closer look."

I was both elated and dejected at the offer.  I appreciated the offer, but I hated admitting to my professor I could not find that mistake on my own.  I dropped by the computer center again, but the line was still out the door.  No way. 

So I spent that entire afternoon scanning the print-out again to find my mistake, but to no avail.  At dinnertime, I went to the computer center again.  I hoped to test my new error markers to see if they worked before seeing Dr. Lieberman, but the line was still there.  A lot of students had chosen to skip dinner just like me.  So I spent the next hour looking at my print-out.  Again, no luck.   At this point, I had spent somewhere close to six hours looking for the mistake without any end in sight.  I was so frustrated.  I had never put this much time into any project before in my life.  I was really discouraged.

With the error still a mystery, I showed up in Dr. Lieberman's night class as promised.  As I entered the classroom, I realized Dr. Lieberman was teaching a night school class similar to the one I took the previous year.  Sure enough, I saw the same IBM business types as they busily wrote down everything Dr. Lieberman had to say.  I sat down in a remote spot and listened to his lecture.  He was such an entertaining man.  Through humor, questions, and anecdotes, he kept his class in the palm of his hand.  I was so impressed.  I idly wished I could be a teacher just like him.

After class, I walked up to my professor.  Dr. Lieberman greeted me with a smile.  "Ah, good, you're here.  Let's have another look."

Now he studied my print-out some more.  He frowned and shook his head.  Uh oh.  When I saw him do that, my heart sunk.  Dr. Lieberman could not find the mistake either.  I figured I was doomed.

To my surprise, Dr. Lieberman offered a ray of hope.  "Do you have time to come to my office?  We can run your program on my terminal and maybe I can spot something that way."

Yes, I had the time.  Most definitely. 

So the two of us walked to his office.  I felt very fortunate that this eminent professor would offer his valuable time to an anonymous student like me.  This man reminded me of Mr. Curran and my other fine instructors back at St. John's.  Dr. Lieberman was popular for a reason... he definitely cared about his students. 

During the ten-minute walk across campus, Dr. Lieberman asked my name and asked me where I was from.  When I told him I was from Texas, he grinned.  "I had no idea Hopkins had any Texas students.  You had me fooled... you talk like you are from the east."

I explained I was born in Philadelphia and my mother spoke with an East Coast accent.  He laughed and nodded.  That explained my lack of a Texas drawl.

I appreciated his interest.  This was not a good time for me.  This was one of those times when my loneliness had me very depressed. 

When we got to his office, I was surprised to see Dr. Lieberman had a private terminal.  Good!  I was relieved there would be no standing in line for two hours.  Dr. Lieberman took my command tape and ran it through his terminal.  He watched the printout intently. 

His eyes grew wide when my intermittent messages appeared every 50 lines.  "Program correct through Line 200", "Program correct through Line 350".

Dr. Lieberman turned to me.  "Where did you get the idea to put those messages in there?"

"I thought of it myself."

"Good for you, Rick.  That was a very clever idea."

Just then the program failed.  Dr. Lieberman looked at the print-out.  "Program correct through Line 400."

Dr. Lieberman smiled hopefully. "Okay, I think we can trust your work.  If so, apparently the program is solid through Line 400.  That is very close to the end of the program.  Let's take a look at what we have after Line 400."

He scanned my list of commands for a second, then paused. "Aha, there it is.  In Line 422 you forgot to add a period at the end of the command.  That's all it was.  It is ridiculous how something that small can sabotage everything.  This is the curse of computer programming.  One must have an unusual amount of patience and stick-to-itiveness.  It looks like you have both qualities."

I wasn't so sure about my patience, but I was definitely relieved.  I couldn't believe something that obscure was causing me the biggest headache of my life.

Dr. Lieberman quickly inserted the missing period, then ran the program again.  I held my breath.  This time the program worked like a charm.  Thank goodness.  The ordeal was over.

Dr. Lieberman turned to me and shook my hand.  He smiled and said, "Rick, you should be proud of yourself.  I saw some very solid work here and that idea to put in messages to help with the trouble-shooting was brilliant.  The fact that you came up with that idea on your own shows you have a real knack for this work.  I am very impressed."

I blushed at this extraordinary compliment.  It meant a lot to hear high praise from this man I admired so much.  I explained how grateful I was for his help.  I said that without his help, I couldn't imagine how long it would have taken me to find that mistake on my own.  I thanked him for helping me out of the worst jam I had ever encountered.

Seeing how much I appreciated his help, a huge smile came over my professor's face.  He appreciated my sincerity.  Dr. Lieberman replied with modesty.  "Don't be silly.  Your groundwork was already in place.  You would have found it yourself the next time you got on the terminal."

Nonetheless, I could see that Dr. Lieberman had clearly enjoyed coming to my aid.  He was tickled that his good deed had worked out so well.  As he turned off the computer and prepared to leave his office, Dr. Lieberman commented wistfully, "There are times when I wish I could have more interaction like this with my students.  But there are just so many hours in the day.  I want to thank you for reminding me why I always wanted to be a teacher when I grew up.  It has been a real pleasure helping you, Rick."

And with that, we shook hands and said goodnight. 

What a great guy.  It was no accident that Dr. Lieberman was given the student's choice award for top instructor at the end of the school year.  He definitely got my vote.  I never met a finer professor.

As I walked back to the dorm, an interesting thought crossed my mind.  Tonight's experience had made quite an impression on me.

I would very much like to be a teacher someday.  What a shame it was I had no idea what I wanted to teach.

 


SUBCHAPTER 78
- WORK WORK WORK

 

Money was always a problem during college.  Seeing as how neither parent contributed a cent, I was always scrounging for ways to pay for books, room and board.  Plus I had wasted valuable savings buying a new car to replace the stolen one.

I did not want to take out loans so I turned to work-study jobs to make ends meet.   Since I was no stranger to work, every time there was a job opening at the Hopkins financial aid office, I would apply for it.  Sometimes I would hold down as many as three part-time jobs at the same time.  I worked just as many hours in college as I had back at the grocery store. 

The financial aid office was a bright spot in college.  There were some very kind people there.  I would graduate debt-free thanks to the terrific work-study program at the financial aid office.  Many jobs were temporary, so when one job ended, I had to be on the lookout for new openings.  Due to my frequent visits looking for more work, I made sure to tell whoever would listen how much I appreciated these small jobs.  It was those good manners I had learned at SJS coming in handy again.

I guess they weren't used to students expressing gratitude.  Whatever the reason, I became a real favorite at the financial aid office.  A lady named Lorraine said in her opinion I was the hardest working kid she had ever seen at this school.  Bless her heart.  I made a point to visit Lorraine any time I needed some encouragement... and then on my way out I would scan the bulletin board for any new job listings.

One of my jobs was reading academic papers to a blind philosophy professor named Dr. Whitman.  Due to my recent interest in the "meaning of life", I was currently taking several Philosophy of Religion courses.  I was strongly considering 'Philosophy' as my major.  So when I saw that I would be reading philosophy papers to him, I naturally assumed I might learn something.

I learned something all right, but I wasn't happy about what I learned.  I was in for an unpleasant surprise.  As I began to read, many of these scholarly terms were obscure words I had never encountered before. 

Dr. Whitman was not the nicest of men.  He was a cold, critical man who constantly demanded that I try harder.  If anything, his pressure made me more tense.  I did everything in my power to read more accurately, but I found myself stumbling over all these foreign words.  Half the time I could not even comprehend what I was reading aloud to Professor Whitman. 

These papers were supposed to be written in English, but you could have fooled me.  There seemed to be a special vocabulary for the realm of Philosophy.  Epistemology, metaphysics, noesis, ontology, solipsism, teleological... words like these meant nothing to me.

The material was completely over my head.  That was the first time in my life when I realized that there were degrees of 'bright'.  That was a sobering realization.  There is 'bright', and then there is 'super-bright'. 

I had been highly amused to vanquish those nasty people in my computer night school class, but now I had met my match.  There was no way I could comprehend this advanced philosophy material.  This was my gunslinger moment.  No matter how fast I was on the draw, I had just discovered that there were people with intellectual ability far beyond what I possessed. 

I began to dread each visit because I hated Dr. Whitman's disapproval and these constant reminders of how limited my IQ was.  Try as I might, I continued to stumble over the difficult vocabulary.  For a lonely kid like me, I wrapped my self-esteem around my intelligence.  Now it stung to see I wasn't anywhere near as smart as I thought I was. 

This discovery brought me to the conclusion that my success at St. John's was due far more to hard work and discipline than any overwhelming brainpower.  That was a very humbling realization that dropped my intellectual self-esteem down several notches. 

I was smart enough to attend Hopkins, but there was clearly a level of "smart" well above mine that I could never aspire to.  People like Dr. Whitman belonged in a league of their own. 

Eventually I got over myself.  During my visits, I tried to help any way I could.  The professor would ask me to do small favors like address envelopes or look for a missing comb he had misplaced.  I was astonished at how organized a blind person has to be if they live alone.  One variation from routine and a simple item like a lost comb or lost key becomes a time-consuming search.  I got in touch with what an enormous handicap blindness was.  Since I was blind in my left eye, I felt great empathy for this man's plight.  

This story had an odd ending.  This was the only job I would ever be fired from.  At the end of one of my reading sessions, Dr. Whitman said he regretted to tell me this, but this would be my final visit.  Dr. Whitman explained that while he appreciated my reliability and earnest effort, I didn't read fast enough for him.  He found himself constantly impatient with me. 

Although my prickly side resented the criticism, I didn't argue with him.  In my heart, I knew he was right.  Dr. Whitman was simply confirming what I had previously concluded on my own - I was not smart enough for this job.  Who would have ever guessed that a $1.65 an hour part-time reading job would entail my defining Peter Principle moment? 

I had reached my level of incompetence.  I was too stupid for this job.

Fortunately, I was able to find other jobs more suited to my limited IQ... bartending, for example.  I was pleased to see I still had enough intelligence to pour a glass of wine at an alumni party or mix orange juice with vodka.  That eased my shattered self-esteem somewhat.

Actually I worked all kinds of jobs.  I restocked books in the library.  I supervised the all-night reading room.  I prepared phone numbers for alumni phonathons to raise money for the school.  And yes, I bartended alumni get-togethers.  I would work any job I could get.

One work study job involved manning the desk at the Graduate Reading Room inside the school library.  The professors wanted their graduate students to read scholarly papers culled from various journals.  These were more or less the same type of papers I had struggled to read to Dr. Whitman.  So, for example, let's say Dr. Whitman would spot an article in a professional journal he liked.  Now he wanted to find a way to include the article in his course curriculum. 

Dr. Whitman would have the office secretary make several copies for his students to read at their convenience in the library.  Many of these scholarly papers were unusually long.  Since they varied from ten to thirty pages, they were very time-consuming to copy and collate.

Unfortunately, the copies kept disappearing at an alarming rate.  The graduate students were stealing them.  So much for the Hopkins honor system.  The professors became very angry at having to replace these long copies so often, so they devised a plan.  They would put all the copies in one enclosed room and hire an undergraduate like me to keep an eye on them.  This area was known as the Graduate Reading Room. 

Good idea.  Now that the graduate students had to sign the papers out with someone like me watching and read them in an area where I could see what they were doing, the rate of paper disappearance diminished.  However, there was still theft.  I imagine when I wasn't looking, the students would sneak one copy into their briefcase and check out another copy to avoid suspicion.  Then they would return one copy and take the second copy home with them.

I watched, but there was one of me and always at least a dozen people to watch.  All they had to do was wait till I was distracted.  If someone is determined enough to steal, a library offers too many opportunities.

One day I told my blind philosophy professor that I had noticed the philosophy papers were being stolen at a much greater rate than the psychology papers or political science papers or economics papers and so on.  Then I told him that at my job in the all-night reading room, the entire $300 set of the Encyclopedia of Philosophy (worth $2,000 in modern money) had just turned up missing.  Considering there were twenty heavy volumes in the collection, this must have been a very determined thief. 

This was an especially callous act since different students used that material all the time.  Now no one had access because it was gone.  

I asked Dr. Whitman what he thought about the black eye someone was giving Philosophy graduate students.  

"I imagine one of our philosophy graduate students ripped off the Encyclopedia to study for comprehensives."

"That's strange, Dr. Whitman.  You would think philosophy students would be the most ethical people of all.  What about Kant and the Metaphysics of Morals?"

"On the contrary.  Year in and year out, it is a known fact throughout the different departments that philosophy students steal more and violate more rules than any other group at the University."

"Why do you suppose that is?"

"Philosophy students are a rare breed.  They study something that most people in society consider a complete waste of time and yet they feel superior to the whole world.  Because they are brilliant, they feel intellectually privileged to do anything they want. 

I imagine they've thought out their positions a different way so many times that they have reached a point where they can rationalize anything.  They have learned to argue any position with equal justification.  So rather than become increasingly moral, they become curiously amoral.  Besides, since philosophy students believe they are special, they feel entitled to do anything they want."

"What can they do with a philosophy degree?"

"Well, the ethical ones with talent become professors like me.  The rest become lawyers and politicians and the ones with no talent become salesmen.  There they find ways to rationalize whatever immoral thing they choose to do without any major qualms."

I believe that was the day I quietly changed my major from philosophy to psychology. 

Good move.  Psychology now became my favorite subject.  Despite the handicap of my limited intelligence, I somehow made A's in every course.  The sad thing is that I knew full well why I was so intrigued with Psychology.  I hoped the more I understood about human nature, I might find a solution to the suitcase full of emotional problems I had acquired in childhood.

Maybe I might even figure out how to get a girlfriend. 

 


SUBCHAPTER 78
- MY SEARCH FOR MEANING BEGINS

 

Loneliness is an acid on the soul.  It makes people become twisted and mean.

I moved out of the dorm after my Freshman year.  I saw a notice of a room for rent in a row house.  Baltimore has many row houses.  They are tall, thin three-story buildings built side by side in a long row... hence the name.  Two little old ladies lived together.  They watched TV day and night downstairs.  They slept in separate bedrooms on the second floor.  I had a room on the third floor all to myself.

Lacking a roommate, I was on my own.  I had some guys I played basketball with, but I wasn't a very social being.  No drinking with the guys, no partying, and certainly no girlfriends. 

My life was a daily blur of classes, work-study jobs, afternoon basketball, and studying.  Each day, same thing.  I was around people all the time, but mostly I was alone.  I was starting to retreat back into the same shell I had once inhabited back in high school.  However this time I wasn't bitter towards anyone.  Just lonely.  Every day I went through the motions.  

In the second half of my Sophomore year, I was immersed in a serious depression... but I didn't know it.  I was so depressed that I didn't even realize I was depressed.  I was blind to my problems because I was numb inside.  I was no longer in touch with my feelings.

It was now March 1970.  One Saturday morning, I was working at the Graduate Reading Room.  I noticed how grouchy the first graduate student was.  Then I saw another student enter the room with a huge frown on his face.  Then I saw another one with a frown on his face as well.  And another one. 

As I sat there leaning back in my chair with my arms crossed, I could not help but notice how depressed all these young men looked as they passed by.  This went on all morning.  Is the whole world miserable?  Isn't anybody happy around here? 

Then I had a sudden flash... it wasn't these young men who were depressed, it was me.  I was the one who was depressed.  I was seeing my own depression in their faces.

I was using a psychological defense known as 'projection'.  My loneliness had taken its toll on me.   I had become so cold and so remote that I was now out of touch with my own feelings.  Instead of revealing the disturbing fact that I was absolutely miserable, my mind would only let me see that feeling in the faces of the other students. 

The first thing I did was wonder where that curious insight had come from.  The mind is a strange thing indeed.

The second thing I did was panic.

I was stunned.  How was it possible to be so deeply depressed and not even know it?  I could not believe how blind I was to my own state of mind.  Now that I thought about it, I had been going around feeling numb for weeks. 

I was shocked to realize just how unhappy I was.  This was exactly how I felt during the toughest part of my senior year in high school.  Unfortunately there was no Mrs. Ballantyne around to save me this time.  What was I going to do?  I had to work the entire weekend, so there was no chance to drive down to Northern Virginia for sanctuary with Aunt Lynn.

Well, thank goodness for the insight.  At least now that I was aware that I was miserable, perhaps I could do something about it.  I thought back.  Who were the happiest people I knew?   Who did I know who was really happy?

My mind drifted to Allen and Polly Clark back in Houston.  They were members of the Quaker Meeting which my mother and I had attended fairly regularly during my childhood.  Polly was very protective of me.  After my parents' divorce in 1959, Polly could tell how much I was struggling since the break-up.  Seeing how lonely I was, there were times when Polly wondered how she could persuade my mother to let me come live with her family.  Finally she had an idea.  One day when I was 11, she approached my mother with an idea.  Could her son join the Clark family for their upcoming summer trip to Colorado?

Mom had no reason to object, so that was that.  I took one trip each summer for the next four years with the Clarks.  They had three children of their own - Shari, Jim, and Margaret. 

When Margaret was about three, I nearly broke her hand on our first trip.  Thanks to my blind eye, I closed a car door without realizing Margaret had just outstretched her hand. 

The poor girl cried and cried.

I felt so guilty.   I could not believe the pain I had caused the poor child.   However, despite the Margaret's considerable pain, not once did Allen or Polly chew me out. 

Their words were, "Don't worry about it, Dick; accidents will happen.  We know you didn't do it deliberately." 

I admired them so much for being so understanding.  Fortunately Margaret's wrist was not broken.  Periodic aspirin did the trick and the rest of the trip went well.  By the end of the trip, I was part of the family.  Over the years, I would become a fourth child in their family.  They adopted me in much the same way that Aunt Lynn and Uncle Dick in Northern Virginia would later take me under their wing.

So now in my darkest hour here at Hopkins, I recalled that not just Polly and Allen, but many of the members of the Quaker Meeting had been kind to me.  I concluded that possibly the Quaker religion was one of the keys to the unbelievable kindness of these people.  There is a thread of inherent decency in many Quaker people. 

Well, I could use a heavy dose of kindness right now, so the following day I decided to attend the Sunday service of the Homewood Friends Meeting ('Friend' is another name for 'Quaker').  I looked up the address and realized this Quaker meeting was conveniently located right across Charles Street from the Hopkins library.

For those who don't know much about the Quakers, they are a gentle people.  I would describe the Quaker faith as a "do it yourself" religion.  There are no ministers or preachers.  No one tells you what to think or believe.  The Quaker religion is based on introspection and meditation.  The idea is that God will speak to a person if they can quiet their mind.  So the entire meeting consists of people sitting in silence for an hour hoping for a divine suggestion. 

That isn't to say that the entire hour is spent in complete silence.  If someone wishes to stand up and share a thought, whatever they have to say would be listened to with respect.  This was definitely "a thinking man's religion" which appealed to me just fine.  Let's face it, I was always thinking.  It was my nature to be curious about everything and that included religion.  

One of the main tenets of Quaker philosophy is that there is a ray of light in every man.  If one looks closely enough, that light can be seen.  In other words, everyone has good in them if given a chance.  I have always been fond of that thought. 

As I hoped, several people came to greet me after the Meeting was over.  I needed warmth in the worst way, so their attention was much appreciated.  They all encouraged me to come again, so I said I would.

As I left, I felt better already.  This had been a good idea.  I was glad to escape my gloomy campus for a while.  It was reassuring to be reminded there really were happy people in this world.

Maybe someday I could be happy too.

 


CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE: FATE

 

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