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Memoirs of the First Forty Years, by Dan H. Pletta

Tall Tales and Anecdotes

No organization could survive almost half a century of sustained growth in any academic discipline without the generation of a series of anecdotes. Students like to tell the story of Dr. Frederick's exceptional strength, as witnessed by one of their classmates whose attention had wandered in a materials testing experiment. Dr. Frederick, then just a young instructor, had reassembled a necked-down tensile specimen to measure its non-uniform elongation. Just as the cadet's attention was refocused on this demonstration he noticed that Frederick had literally pulled the a bar in two. Frederick never did have any trouble with discipline thereafter.

Students also tell a tale about one of Professor Sword's assistants who happened to be a Chinese graduate student. One of his classmates asked him who his mathematics professor was. He replied, "Professor Sword." Actually it was Professor Campbell. The question was repeated, but the student's answer remained the same. Then, one of his Chinese classmates explained the dilemma by saying, "All Americans look alike to him."

Some tales become embellished as they are repeated over the years. One describes how intent I was when, during a 5 o'clock graduate winter quarter class, the lights went out. 'Tis said I went right on lecturing and writing equations on the board, for all students continued to hear the chalk pecking on the blackboard.

A tale that is not embellished is one that happened to Rufus Witt (M.S. 1949), and his classmates who were enrolled in my class in Theory of Plasticity at 9 a.m. TThS (Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays). I believed in elegance, as well as in the pursuit of excellence, and used to insist that all graduate students attend the magnificent formal student dances so as to learn how to wear tuxedos comfortably, and how professionals were expected to behave in a civilized society. At one dance during the Friday midnight intermission Witt's classmates asked me if I intended to hold the 8 a.m. class next morning as usual. I was surprised and said, "of course." When they wanted to know why, I told them that they would soon forget what they learned in any one lecture, but one thing they had to learn was to get to work on time and sober after any night of frolicking and to learn to dance so that they could impress their future boss' wife, achieve early promotions, accumulate wealth and endow their alma mater. "May we come dressed as we are in our Tuxedos?" they asked. "Of course" I replied. "And may we bring our dates, too?" "Of course." And they did, that is all but Rufus' date. She didn't come, but he did! And he never married her. That was the only time I ever lectured to a class all attired in formal clothes and accompanied by their ladies in their evening gowns. I obliged all with a fifty minute lecture at 9 a.m. that wintry Saturday morning.

Perhaps that was why, at a dinner honoring Mrs. Pletta and me for our seventy years of service to VPI when I passed the gavel to Dr. Frederick, my daughter, Ann, described me as "a tough old bird with class -- but with a gentle and generous disposition." After all, hadn't I always given an A to every student who deserved it?

There were other incidents of "the good old days" that will long be remembered. One concerned Professor Szebehely, that young brilliant Hungarian scholar whose English, at the time he was on the VPI faculty, was not yet perfect. He had trouble pronouncing parallelepiped, but solved the problem whenever he had to use the word by pointing a finger at either of two native American graduate students* and having them say it for him. He also wondered what these knots where that everyone talked about during his visit to the David Taylor Model Basin.

Graduate students of that era also remember the enthusiasm they exhibited for softball games played during the summer when the 1950 "Relaxation" Conference was held. Sir Richard's young female assistant always played too.

Perhaps, though, the anecdote with the most scholarly implications involved Dr. O'Shaughnessy. Early graduates well remember the philosophical and political arguments he had with Professor William H. (Bosco) Rasche, head of the Department of Graphics and Mechanism. These encounters took place in the Post Office next to the Lyric Theater as they waited for the evening mail to be distributed to their boxes, or in the theater lobby next door. Rasche went to the movie every evening even though the picture might have a three day run; O'Shaughnessy frequented the movie only intermittently but the Post Office regularly. They frequently argued about whether a ball thrown straight up actually "stopped" before coming down. On another occasion O'Shaugnessy was discussing Einstein's THEORY OF RELATIVITY with an eminent Jesuit scholar of astronomy at his VPI Seminar. He said that Einstein had found space to be curved. "It is?" O'Shaughnessy asked, "Which way?"


* J. B. Fades (M.S. 1949, Ph.D. 1959) and the late Robert Truitt (Ph.D. 1954).


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